In the debates and discussions about keeping Kris Letang on the Pittsburgh Penguins blue line, another critical decision is pending with top Penguins prospect P.O Joseph that could cost the team a prospect without compensation.
Joseph, who will turn 23 on July 1, is no longer waiver exempt. According to CapFriendly.com, even though he has not yet played 150 games, the 6-foot-2 and 185-pound defenseman cannot pass through waivers because it has been five years since his draft.
That means he either makes the Pittsburgh Penguins in training camp, or… they likely lose him for nothing. Can you see him passing through waivers back to the WBS Penguins? I cannot.
As Penguins GM Ron Hextall assembles his team, partially through his decisions and partly through the decisions of others, Joseph’s future teeters in the balance.
Should Hextall make room for Joseph?
Unfortunately, the answer is not as clear-cut and straightforward as many say. And therein lies the problem. Joseph possesses the skills to be an NHL defenseman. His skating and vision are NHL level. His offensive ability is there, but perhaps his offensive instincts are not. And that’s where the puzzle gets complicated.
His first NHL games were electric, including a couple of games in which he played more than 25 minutes. But like his performance in the minors, talent hasn’t translated to points in the NHL, either. He has five points (1-4-5) in 20 NHL games over two seasons.
As one source PHN spoke with about P.O Joseph said, he can be “timid” on the offensive side.
“He ends plays and then distributes the puck up ice. I’ve seen him neutralize 3-on-1s without the other team even sniffing a chance,” said a professional source who has watched Joseph. “He’s shown flashes of offensive upside but for whatever reason seems very timid about asserting himself.”
And that assessment fit with PHN’s grades of the defenseman, too.
When Joseph is on his game–and you saw it during the first games of his NHL career–he can be electric. His speed and mobility allow him to cover a lot of ice and play big minutes.
Unfortunately, he is also prone to some head-scratching mistakes. He can shut down the opposing rush but doesn’t necessarily create enough rushes on his own.
But he could.
After a few professional seasons, Joseph has been trying to transform his game from the somewhat chaotic juniors game. I’m reminded that one Penguins coach told us that Joseph received some conflicting coaching in juniors. He was a polarizing prospect; some scouts raved about him, and others said to avoid him.
It seems like Joseph has been trying to fit his perception of an NHL defenseman. Or, rather, he’s trying to fit others’ perceptions of himself, and in the process of self-discovery, there is a disparity between his skills and his game.
And, don’t forget Mark Friedman is lurking, too. He could be third, fourth, or fifth LHD, just like Joseph.
All of that is necessary to lay out before answering the primary question–should Hextall clear space for Joseph?
Since Joseph has not forced the Penguins’ decision in either direction, the answer is a definite maybe.
Pittsburgh Penguins Scenarios
Kris Letang and his Pittsburgh Penguins’ future is the most significant variable. Brian Dumoulin and his health are the second variables.
If Letang sticks around, his best partner is Dumoulin–a healthy Dumoulin.
Neither Marcus Pettersson nor Joseph have shown an ability to play with Letang, which creates a problem for Joseph because he won’t supplant Pettersson, at least not yet.
In that scenario, Joseph is the fifth LHD, and he doesn’t make the team.
Dumoulin is no longer vital without Kris Letang. A solid defenseman–again, when healthy–Dumoulin would be a fine anchor to the new top-pair RHD. However, perhaps Pettersson has better chemistry with the mystery d-man.
Without Letang, perhaps Joseph leapfrogs into the top six, or at least is worth carrying as a seventh. He has more offensive pop than Pettersson and Dumoulin, and he becomes an attractive option in several configurations without Letang.
A Joseph-Chad Ruhwedel third pairing suddenly seems attractive.
This is the best-case scenario for Joseph. When Dumoulin returned from injury in January, he was a shell of himself. Head coach Mike Sullivan praised Dumoulin’s fight and perseverance, but it was apparent Dumoulin was not the same defenseman we’re accustomed to seeing.
Dumoulin has some hard miles, and he was not the fastest skater before injuries. Age may be a factor soon, too.
This is the scenario in which Joseph is a great insurance policy and allows the Penguins to keep him through the summer and use training camp to judge the situation.
Can they get value for Pettersson? Maybe value for Dumoulin? And can that value improve the team enough to give P.O Joseph his big chance? Could re-signing Letang crimp the Penguins’ salary cap so that Pettersson or another defenseman is moved in a return-less salary dump, thus necessitating another cheap option to join Friedman and Ruhwedel?
A Penguins trade is as likely to create a spot for Joseph as it would be to involve him.
If Hextall judges that there isn’t going to be a spot, Joseph could be the right piece to move in exchange for…a backup goalie? A penalty-killing forward?
Or could Joseph be the piece attached to a salary the Penguins want to move to complete a trade?
Joseph could be a solid NHL defenseman. The toolbox is full, but the craftsman hasn’t yet learned to use them all consistently. A team with space and patience could get a steal.
(Added shortly after publish: Joseph is an RFA, but does not have arbitration rights. I don’t believe that affects the situation).
Count me in favor of finding space. Dumoulin-Matheson-Pettersson isn’t much better than Dumoulin-Matheson-Joseph. In fact, on the third pair, Joseph could be the offensive kick the team needs. “Could be” are the keywords. He has to gain the confidence to assert himself.
Make no mistake, the kid has heard a ton of criticism despite not earning much of it. He became polarizing and told he needed to play more defense. He’s done that, but much like Zach Aston-Reese, perhaps he’s sacrificed other parts of his game so that he can be what he believes others want from him.
A year with Todd Rierden could do wonders? Being given his NHL shot and told to play some offense?
If the Penguins aren’t going to put him in the top-six next season, then deal him now. Get something helpful while it’s still possible. Otherwise, a team is going to snag him for free.