Over the past couple of weeks, Mark Friedman slotted into the Pittsburgh Penguins lineup, not because of injury or another plague but because he was the better option. Marcus Pettersson was not given a sweater for the opposite reason.
Head coach Mike Sullivan inserted Friedman into the lineup on Feb. 26 after nearly six weeks of press box nachos. Friedman has been the Penguins’ depth defenseman, but the blue line remained surprisingly healthy this season, even as the forwards dropped like flies.
So, Friedman sat.
However, needing a bit of a spark, Sullivan popped his “wildman” into the lineup in place of Pettersson against Carolina on March 13. The move was a bit of a surprise, but Friedman had played very well in the previous two weeks filling in for Brian Dumoulin or Mike Matheson.
Sullivan followed through on his long-held axiom to ice the lineup that gives them the best chance to win. Since then, Sullivan has rotated Friedman and Pettersson after a few games. PHN asked Sullivan to clarify the arrangement, but perhaps there was the truth in the stock answer.
“No, it’s just a day-to-day thing. It’s not unlike any other lineup decision that we make. We’re trying to put the best lineup on the ice that gives us the best chance to win, and we take all things into consideration and try to make the right decision for the team,” Sullivan said.
So, let’s note what he didn’t say. He didn’t say they were merely trying to get Friedman some game action in case he’s needed. Sullivan has used that answer in the past regarding Chad Ruhwedel in the lineup. He didn’t say they wanted Pettersson to rest up, that he is dealing with a few bumps and bruises, or any other reason.
It’s an everyday thing, elevating Mark Friedman into the daily conversation. That’s a step up for Friedman.
Sullivan also didn’t say it was a competition–another tact he’s used in the past.
Instead, he admitted Pettersson’s critical self-assessment from Tuesday was probably accurate. Pettersson said he has to get back to his first-half form.
“I would probably agree with Marcus’s assessment. You know one thing about Marcus, he’s a terrific person, and he always takes ownership for his own game, and we certainly have so much respect for him for his maturity and approach to his own game,” Sullivan conceded. “For me in the second half, it’s just consistency of play. It’s just bringing the game every night that’s going to help us win. Being a good defender, using a stick control in his gaps, helping us get out of our end, making good decisions with the puck, and taking what the game gives him.”
Marcus Pettersson, 25, both had an assist on Tuesday and was a pylon on a go-ahead Colorado Avalanche goal.
Pettersson is in the second year of a five-year pact the former GM Jim Rutherford awarded him after cap economics squeezed Pettersson into signing his merely $900,000 qualifying offer in 2018-19 instead of the contract former GM Jim Rutherford promised.
He’s a tad expensive ($4.025 million AAV) to be in a lineup platoon, so the inside track to a playoff sweater would appear to be his, but Friedman has held his own against stiff competition. Friedman has played against both the Carolina Hurricanes and New York Rangers. Both Metro Division rivals are fast. Maybe faster than the Penguins and have forechecks that keep defensemen awake at night.
Friedman didn’t make any errors (beyond the typical errant pass or two that every player is charged within every game), and there is the matter of sandpaper.
No one stirs opponents’ hatred quite like Friedman. He has drawn seven penalties. Given his limited ice time and games, he ranks among the Pittsburgh Penguins’ leaders in drawing power plays.
“He does bring that dimension. There’s no question, that’s part of his DNA, and he could be a very effective defenseman in that capacity. And it’s important for Freeds–he and I have had this conversation–on when and how, and he utilizes that attribute,” Sullivan said last month. “And as far as ‘can he stay in the lineup,’ the answer is yes. I think we have internal competition throughout our roster. We’re always having conversations on which group of players at all the respective positions gives us the best chance to win. And, you know, performance matters.”
Bryan Rust called his teammate “a wild man.”
Jeff Carter said, “He’s always into something.”
“I think that’s probably a good word to use (spark). His personality is just kind of go, go, go. And I think you see that on the ice. He always seems to be involved in something,” Carter said two weeks ago. “He’s aggressive. He’s not shying away from anybody. He’ll go with anybody.”
The players couldn’t be more different. The “spark” that Mark Friedman brings against the steady calmness of Pettersson. Against the speed teams, perhaps Friedman is the better choice because he is better at getting back on pucks.
But Friedman is also 25-years-old and has not yet established himself as an NHL regular. With too much ice time, what will opponents expose? Perhaps that question factors into Sullivan’s decision.
Whether Pettersson or Friedman draws into the Pittsburgh Penguins lineup against the New York Rangers in a battle for second place in the Metro Division, the other will likely get back into the lineup for more games down the stretch.
While Sullivan didn’t call it a competition, it’s game one to see who gets the spot for Game One.