Marcus Pettersson has played 12 games with the Pittsburgh Penguins since coming over in a trade from Anaheim, and it took until the 12th game for the defenseman to earn a point, an assist in Thursday’s win against Detroit.
That’s OK. Pettersson’s calling card is the defensive aspect of his game. Not only has he provided that, but he also might have served as one of the catalysts in the team’s 9-2-1 record since he joined the lineup.
That’s right. All 6 feet 3, lanky 177 pounds of him. At 22 years old. With 61 NHL games under his not-very-long belt.
Team captain Sidney Crosby has been among those who have cited better overall team defense as a prime reason for the Penguins’ thrust back into solid contention in the Metropolitan Division.
Coach Mike Sullivan was asked Friday by Pittsburgh Hockey Now if the overlap in Pettersson’s arrival and that improvement in team defense is a coincidence.
“No, I don’t think it is,” Sullivan said. “He’s a real good defenseman. He’s hard to play against. He’s got a long reach. He has great gaps. He reads the play extremely, well. For a guy that’s as big as he is, he’s a mobile defenseman. He can skate. And he can move the puck.
“We felt like he was really going to strengthen our blueline, and he can play the game the way we’re trying to play. He’s shown nothing but competence since he’s been here. We think he’s getting better. With each game he plays, I think he gets a little bit more comfortable with how we’re trying to play, but also with his surroundings, with his teammates, with the city of Pittsburgh. I think when players get more comfortable, they tend to play better.”
So apparently, Pettersson’s solid defensive play served as a reminder to the rest of the club about the importance of that part of the game. He has been routinely solid defensively, such as with strong positional play, and he has made some spectacular plays – remember that diving save to knock away an apparent goal Dec. 19 in a 2-1 win at Washington?
PHN asked Pettersson about setting such a strong example that the whole team followed his lead.
“Maybe,” he said sheepishly, pointing out that he hadn’t studied the Penguins’ games before his arrival.
OK, that was putting the young defenseman on the spot. But Pettersson did agree that the Penguins have played well defensively often since he joined the team.
“I feel like when we play a five-guys defense, I feel like we’re a dangerous team to play against and it’s going to take a lot to beat us,” he said.
“The road wins in Washington and Carolina (3-0 Dec. 22), and especially the 2-1 wins (also including one against Minnesota), those kind of games … really show us what a group we are.”
The Penguins’ style asks their defensemen to activate and join in offensively, and Sullivan sees potential in Pettersson there.
“We think there is (some offensive upside), and that’s why we’ve got him involved on the second power play (unit),” Sullivan said. “He sees the ice pretty well. He’s got decent instincts. He can pass the puck. He’s got a decent shot. We believe there’s some upside there, so we’re trying to put him in those positions where he’s got an opportunity to grow and develop in that regard.
“But we’ve really been impressed with his overall game.”
That starts with being defensively sound.
Pettersson, who has been paired with Jack Johnson, said that’s what was ingrained in him growing up in Sweden.
“I feel like I’ve always been that guy and I’ve been raised that way – I play defense first and let the offense take care of itself,” he said. “I don’t want to chase the game, chase offense or anything like that. I feel like I should establish myself defensively first.
“Especially with me as a young guy, I want to establish a trust with my teammates and with the coaches, so I feel like playing solid defense first is a priority and let the offense take of itself.”