Maybe there is another configuration for the Pittsburgh Penguins defense that we have not seriously considered before. Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan paired NHL-ready prospect P.O. Joseph with Kris Letang in training camp, and at first glance, it may seem like a learning experience for Joseph.
But what if it is a tryout?
And what if it allows the Penguins to create three defensive pairings with six NHL defensemen? It may be a crazy thought, and Joseph may be relegated to the AHL’s WBS Penguins to build a little more hate, but it’s a thought worth considering. Any possible way to get Joseph on NHL ice is worth considering.
Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan didn’t dismiss the possibility, either.
“He’s knocking on the door…I love his attitude, enthusiasm for the game… He loves hockey, and I think that energy is contagious. And I love those types of guys,” Sullivan said. “His footspeed has improved, his strength on the puck, the use of his stick…
“He’s not just a defender. He can make an outward pass. He can join the rush. He’s got some offensive instincts. We’re excited by his development.”
Sullivan hinted the camp pairing could stick. Joseph would stick on his natural side, and perhaps a veteran defenseman would make the switch if necessary.
“It’s hard enough to try to play in this league when you’re in the spots you’re comfortable with,” Sullivan said. “If we have to move some veteran guys around to try to support that, then we’ll do that. P.O. is an intriguing player because he can skate, and he’s got pretty good hands.”
Penguins top pair defenseman Brian Dumoulin springs to mind. He has played on the right side with some success as injuries decimated the Penguins defense corps over the past few years.
P.O. Joseph & Kris Letang
And no, Joseph has never played on the right, his off side–not on purpose, anyway.
“…I don’t think I’ve ever played on the right side. I mean, I play my off side from time to time when Kris goes all over the place,” Joseph laughed as he took one of a few good-natured pokes at his mentor.
Joseph, 21, and Letang have been building a relationship on the ice surfaces in the Montreal area for a few years. It doesn’t sound like Letang takes it easy on the rook or that Joseph would have it any other way.
“Every time he had the chance to push me a little harder, he was doing it, even if it was the first time we were on the ice or the last time,” Joseph said. “So, I’m really lucky he’s pushing me, and I’m pushing him a little bit as well.”
Letang can’t let the young lion take the pride, of course. A little youthful push can’t hurt Letang, either.
Last season, Joseph exploded into the NHL with a handful of games that jumped off the page, including 1 2/3 games as the Pittsburgh Penguins top-pairing defenseman. Both Brian Dumoulin and Kris Letang were injured last January. So, too, was Mike Matheson, which thrust Joseph and Marino into the Penguins top pair. In the two-game span, Joseph played over 50 minutes combined and impressed as he did so.
Eventually, the Penguin’s defense got healthy, and Joseph’s adrenaline rush subsided. The rookie “regressed” the mean but not before making a statement that he would be ready.
“My skating is a little bit better. I think the pace from last year kind of helped me a lot, too. So I’m happy that I was able to learn a lot from last year and carry this into this year…”
Joseph scored five points (1-4-5) in his first 16 NHL games, including his first NHL goal. It was his second pro season, and he scored 13 points (1-12-13) in 23 AHL games, too.
Joseph laughed that Letang plays extra tough on him and leans on him a little harder than he might someone who isn’t Letang’s heir apparent. Joseph even joked Letang helped him be more stylish, too.
“We kind of live kind of close to each other (in the summer), but he works out at a different place. We play some three-on-three games sometimes in the summer, and we try not to be in the same team and kind of compete against each other,” Joseph smiled. “He’s a great friend. I’m really happy that he’s by my side.”
The slick defenseman is no longer the string bean who appeared in 2019 after being the centerpiece of the Penguins’ haul from the Arizona Coyotes for Phil Kessel. After gaining some weight last season, Joseph worked this summer on getting stronger.
“I feel like it’s more than I pounds … I feel like it’s how strong you are. You can be two hundred pounds but not be as strong as the guy is 170 (pounds) but the same thing as you. So, I really don’t care about my weight. I just go out there and be the better version of myself,” the still-rookie defenseman said.
Joseph looks noticeable larger both on the ice and in person. It’s difficult to imagine his skating improving–that’s been his calling card–but if he says so, who are we to doubt it?
Among the Pittsburgh Penguins training camp storylines, from replacing Evgeni Malkin to finding fourth-liners and the progress of top prospects Nathan Legare and Sam Poulin, the sneaky one to watch just may be a surprise shuffling of the Penguins blue line. They’re still short one right-side NHL blueliner. Mark Friedman and Chad Ruhwedel would be the natural inserts for the third pairing, but neither has yet established themselves as everyday NHL d-men.
“I skated all summer with him…I thought I took a step in the summer. I feel like he’s faster on his feet, quicker. Making decisions and plays,” Letang said on Thursday. “He showed us last year that he was able to play at that level, and he’s playing against top players—big minutes. Special units also. I think he’s just going to keep growing, and he’s done a tremendous job this summer to work out and train really well. So I’m not surprised at the step he took.”
Maybe, just maybe, Joseph could leapfrog both and form a dynamic top pairing with Kris Letang that can play with the puck from either side. Sullivan didn’t dismiss the possibility. In fact, he seemed to encourage it. Joseph on the Pittsburgh Penguins blue line is something worth watching.