Pittsburgh Penguins rookie defenseman P-O Joseph is making waves. The defenseman has played a few seconds under 26 minutes in the last two games, earned time on the power play, and effectively killed penalties. Joseph has dropped jaws and excited fans while smashing expectations.
Just a few weeks ago, the 21-year-old defenseman achieved a moral victory of sorts when he made the Penguins taxi squad instead of being sent to the AHL for a second year of seasoning. As the injuries mounted on the Penguins’ blue line, Joseph’s opportunity grew.
First, he played sheltered third-pair minutes, about 13 minutes per game. He and Chad Ruhwedel were protected from hard minutes until they earned a level of trust.
But the hockey gods had different ideas. As significant injuries befell Marcus Pettersson, then Mike Matheson, then Juuso Riikola, Joseph moved up the Penguins depth chart. Then, top-pairing blueliner Brian Dumoulin landed on LTIR, and Joseph was suddenly a top-pair defenseman with Kris Letang.
That lasted until Letang was injured in the first period of that first game with Joseph. Welcome to the Penguins’ luck. However, peeking through the storm clouds, the sunshine has revealed a defenseman every bit worthy of his 2017 first-round status, with speed, vision, and guts.
Penguins coaches are in a balancing act. They need to win games but also put players in positions to be successful. Joseph is quickly proving there isn’t a conflict between the two. He’s handled everything the Penguins have thrown his way and everything else the situation has dumped upon him.
“We understand where P-O is in his career, and we’re excited about his game to this point,” head coach Mike Sullivan said on Monday. “But we also have respect for this league and how difficult it is to play in this league. We’ll take each game as it comes and try to put each player in the best possible position to be successful.”
The situation has dictated the Penguins cannot protect Joseph. He’s the only left-handed defenseman with NHL pedigree on the roster.
Like trumpets heralding royalty, Joseph pounded three assists Saturday night, including setting up Sidney Crosby for the OT game-winner.
“I thought P-O had a great game. He was competing defensively. He has great offensive instincts,” Sullivan said on Saturday after the three-assist game against New York. “You can see how some of the plays he makes. We used him on the power play. He made some real nice outlet passes under pressure. We believe he’s going to get better and better…”
His slick pass set up the Penguins’ first goal. And his ability to moonwalk the blue line enabled him to get a shot on goal, which was deflected for the go-ahead goal. And his speed in 3v3 overtime helped Crosby light the lamp.
There were the heavy hits in Boston. The passes in New York. The skating in every game.
The superlatives former Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins head coach and current Penguins assistant Mike Vellucci heaped upon Joseph.
“He could have played games this year in certain situations,” he said. “No doubt, he could play games next year.”
It’s now next year, and Joseph is on fire. Penguins fans could be forgiven for wistfully thinking to the future when Joseph would pair with second-year-pro John Marino as the Penguins top pair.
That future is now, as long as Letang and Dumoulin are absent. Dumoulin was placed on LTIR retroactive to Jan. 26, so he’ll be out for some time to come. Letang is still being evaluated.
Pittsburgh Penguins Trade Chips
Defensemen are a rare commodity on the NHL trade market. Like pitchers in baseball, they can be dealt for a lopsided value. Former Penguins GM Jim Rutherford may have been ill-advised to trade Patric Hornqvist for LHD Mike Matheson (and Colton Sceviour) in the offseason, but it could pay unexpected benefits.
Eventually, the Penguins defense will be healthy. They will have five LHD defensemen. Whoever gets to sit in the Pittsburgh Penguins GM chair in a few weeks or months will have a surplus of blueline assets.
Matheson and Riikola are the least attractive options, and they’ll likely stick around as a third pair defender and depth, respectively. Before Matheson is a trade chip, he must first prove the last couple of years were rough patches, not a career arc.
Matheson’s contract carries a $4.8 million AAV for this season and five more, so he’s not an attractive Penguins trade chip yet.
This brings us to Marcus Pettersson. Someone has to go to make room for Joseph. Sure, the Penguins could stash Matheson in the press box and expose Riikola to waivers. They could also save about the same amount of money by putting Matheson on the taxi squad (and through waivers) and keeping Riikola on the NHL roster, but those are not long-term solutions.
The only long-term solution is to trade a young defenseman with value. Pettersson, 24, carries an annual cap hit of $4.025 million for the next four years and doesn’t have any trade protection for two more seasons.
The Penguins currently have a second, fifth, and two seventh-round picks in the 2021 NHL Draft. A young defenseman could easily fill a few of those empty slots, perhaps even a pick on the first day of the draft.
Perhaps the Penguins could find a taker for Matheson, though an industry source expressed shock that Florida could deal Matheson. A second trade this year would likely require a substantial salary hold back, too.
It’s not a pressing issue, and no Penguins trade is imminent or immediately necessary. The Penguins blue line will not be full for several weeks, at least. Even then, the Penguins’ easiest solution would be to put Joseph on the taxi squad or let him play in the AHL.
But as we’ve seen, Joseph not on the ice would mean the best six defensemen are not on the ice. It’s a good problem to have, provided the next Pittsburgh Penguins GM handles it well.