The Pittsburgh Penguins currently have eight healthy NHL calibre defensemen, and they will have nine when Justin Schultz returns from injury in February or March. However, that doesn’t mean the Penguins have the right mix of defensemen. “Right” perhaps is the keyword. Too often it becomes clear, the Penguins need help on defense.
When teams are able to get a forecheck going against the Penguins, the Penguins are in trouble.
In the 4-3 loss to the lowly, struggling, losers of eight straight Chicago Blackhawks, the Penguins were able to be pinned down. Pressured into turnovers. And chaos ensued.
The Penguins have five defensive defensemen in their top-six and not enough puck skills on the backside.
The Penguins lone offensive threat, Kris Letang will not be great every night, especially when some of the Penguins forwards occasionally treat the defensive zone like steamed broccoli on a toddler’s dessert plate. Wednesday night, Letang was pressured into four turnovers. He made a couple mistakes and a couple of times he didn’t have options.
In fact, all of the Penguins defensemen are good defenders but that doesn’t mean the team has a good defense. As a group, their puck movement is at best average. Marcus Pettersson has been an absolute upgrade in this area, however, even he was pressured into mistakes Wednesday night. Compounded with Olli Maatta’s pair of turnovers and E-Z pass defense on Alex DeBrincat, the Penguins were scrambling.
A defenseman able skate the puck out of trouble, rush through center ice or simply be on the forehand to transition to offense would be a gift which would be a boon to the Penguins.
The defensive help could be on the right or left side, actually. Tampa Bay has two left-side defensemen who can defend and push the play: Victor Hedman and Ryan McDonagh. Both play on their natural side and if you haven’t checked the standings, Tampa Bay is running away with the NHL.
As the Penguins struggle to consistently generate 5v5 offense, a defenseman able to provide some push through the neutral zone, a good-one timer from the top of the zone, and be able to credibly jump into the low zone would be a manna from Heaven for the Penguins stay at home corps.
A prime example is Jamie Oleksiak, a valuable heavy defender with good all-around skills capable of punishing opponents. But Oleksiak a left-hander playing on the right side and he was pushed to his backhand on the wall several times, Wednesday. When that happens, options become limited to simple chips out of the zone and the opponents are able to shrink the ice.
Chicago was smart, Wednesday. Their forecheck targeted the Penguins and forced them to make plays off the wall rather than orchestrated breakouts which create a rush and offensive pressure.
And in such games, grinders are even more useful. See also, Bryan Rust and Zach Aston-Reese who had very solid games.
Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman mentioned the Penguins could be sniffing around LA Kings defenseman Jake Muzzin, who moves the puck out of trouble and has a booming shot. But he too is left handed and isn’t necessarily a defender who specializes in driving offense. Muzzin would be an upgrade to the Penguins left side but that wouldn’t solve the right-side issues.
Letang has 24 points in 29 games. The other five defensemen have a total of 35 points, combined. That includes 11 points from second-leading defenseman scorer Jamie Oleksiak, most of which were scored in a four-game span in October. Oleksiak has four points since Nov. 1.
That isn’t a criticism of Oleksiak, who is only 25-years-old, but it is indicative of his gifts which are more prevalent in the defensive zone than the offensive side of the red line.
The Penguins need help, and they need it as soon as possible. They cannot wait until the trade deadline nor can they wait to see how Justin Schultz will rebound from a fractured leg–which seems like it could hamper a player for a longer time than it takes to officially heal. Juuso Riikola presents some promise but it seems a huge leap for him to fulfill that promise this season.
Kris Letang has been Norris worthy this season but the Penguins need additional reinforcements. They are currently one point out of third place in the Metro Division (they’re tied with the New York Islanders with 32 points, but the Islanders have one more win) and three points out of the wild card.
But making the playoffs isn’t the goal of this team.