Well, this is another fine mess the Pittsburgh Penguins find themselves in due to injury. Head coach Mike Sullivan on Thursday confirmed second pairing defenseman Justin Schultz is out week-to-week with the lower body injury he suffered against Calgary on Tuesday night. The Penguins already patchwork defense was already covering for the loss of top-pairing defenseman Brian Dumoulin and the rosters are now frozen until Dec. 27.
Another fine mess, indeed.
Oh, by the way, Zach Trotman who would be the Penguins call-up from the WBS Penguins is also injured. The only healthy defenseman left in the Penguins system with NHL experience is Kevin Czuzman, who played 13 games with New York Islanders…six years ago.
Many fans have asked; left-handed Juuso Riikola is an NHL quality defenseman but is not necessarily a good match for the Penguins mobile, puck-moving right-side players. He will certainly get a snoot full of ice time, now. But who will he pair with? Kris Letang, John Marino or Chad Ruhwedel?
The Penguins have paired Riikola with Marino before. It didn’t last long. Riikola has played only 12 games this season, including a handful at forward. Sullivan neatly sidestepped that issue.
“We try to look at the players in that conversation, and what they bring to the table. For example, when we put Juuso into the lineup initially, we had to put him into the lineup on the right side as a left-handed shot,” Sullivan said, then later continued. “We’ve recently used Chad Ruhwedel. We’ve liked his game. He’s a real mobile guy.”
“It’s not that one guy is better than the other, we’ believe in all of these guys.”
So, for the next seven days, the Penguins are stuck with what they have, and unless Penguins GM Jim Rutherford makes a move on Dec. 27 the Penguins are likely stuck with it for at least two weeks, probably more. They will have three mismatched pairings, at least to start.
At practice on Thursday, the Penguins paired Johnson with Letang as the top pairing, Marcus Pettersson with Marino, and grouped their spare defensemen Riikola and Ruhwedel as the third pair. Pettersson’s lukewarm play this season probably prevents the Penguins from rolling with the previously rock-solid Johnson-Marino set up, though we may well see it if coaches feel they need to make a change.
But that would be the extent of the changes the Penguins can make. Otherwise, that’s what it is.
Pittsburgh Penguins Options
Not even the most optimistic Penguins decision-makers can be comfortable with this setup for several weeks. It seemed the Penguins needed defensive depth or help when Dumoulin went down a few weeks ago but thus far Rutherford has stood his ground.
Perhaps that needs to change. Factoring Dumoulin’s recovery time will be about six more weeks and he will need time to get back into game shape, the Penguins won’t be at full strength until early February, at best.
If the S.O.S wasn’t sent before, that radio signal from ice level to above should be loud and clear by now. Rutherford has done a Jedi work this season with the additions of Brandon Tanev, John Marino and Dominik Kahun. He also deserves credit for hanging onto Bryan Rust and maybe a little bit of luck with keeping Tristan Jarry.
Overall, Rutherford has built a deep, fast, and tough-to-play-against roster. The Penguins have built a remarkable six-point cushion on the very talented Tampa Bay Lightning and Toronto Maple Leafs. The Penguins lead Florida by seven. That’s a big lead but it’s not hard to imagine teams will attack the Penguins defense, especially on the road where the home team sets the matchups.
Speed or puck movement will not be an issue for the Penguins blue line, but defending will be.
Marino has worked best with stay-at-home defensemen which allow him to take chances without consequences and provide some muscle in the defensive zone. Pettersson has also worked best with the stay-home Penguins defensemen. The third pairing will have similar, and more severe challenges. Ruhwedel and Riikola are both spotty in their own zone.
The next seven days will be difficult. The Penguins have Edmonton, Vancouver, and Nashville on the road. Each of those teams is playoff worthy, well-coached and will have the last line change. The Penguins could gamble that Schultz will return quickly and they will squeak out a few points to maintain the healthy lead on very good teams.
Or, beginning Dec. 27, the Pittsburgh Penguins can address their vulnerability. Of course, if Rutherford had a healthy trade chip, or two, that would make life easier, too.