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Penguins Stacked on Right Side, But Blue Line Hinges on One Left-Sider

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NHL trade, Pittsburgh Penguins, Brian Dumoulin

Pittsburgh Penguins GM Ron Hextall went for it. He didn’t just shed salary by fleecing the New Jersey Devils for Ty Smith and a third-rounder for light-scoring defenseman John Marino, he also handed over the dynamic skating Mike Matheson for the premier right-side defenseman on the NHL trade block, Jeff Petry.

And on the first day of free agency, Hextall signed right-sider Jan Rutta to a three-year deal with an affordable $2.75 million AAV. And he re-signed Kris Letang.

The right side of the Penguins’ defense, which was Letang-Marino-Chad Ruhwedel, was adequate but is now a strength of the team. Letang-Petry-Rutta is a significant upgrade as the Penguins added legit 40-point offensive upside with Petry and solid, heavy, stay-at-home defense with Rutta.

If the Penguins had Rutta in the playoffs, perhaps a couple of those loose rebounds while shorthanded would have been controlled rather than taken away or put into the net.

As good as Matheson was, Petry is a better defender and puts a few more points on the board.

Rutta is a two-time Stanley Cup winner who will upgrade the Penguins’ penalty kill, offensive contributions, and heft on the third pair.

That’s the right side. It’s as good as any in the NHL.

The left side is another matter.

The Pittsburgh Penguins do not have an established NHL’er for the left side of the third pair. Some combination of Ty Smith, P.O Joseph, and Mark Friedman is in line for the spot.

Marcus Pettersson had a better 2021-22 than 2020-21. He was solid if unspectacular. His game has limitations, evidenced by his lack of physicality and 19 points with only two goals.

He’ll be the second, maybe third pair left-side defenseman.

And that brings us to the crux of the Penguins’ defense. The Penguins’ top pairing might be just fine, as it has been for most days since Brian Dumoulin side-saddled Letang in 2017.

From 2018 through 2021, the Penguins’ top pair of Dumoulin and Letang had exemplary statistics. They had 60% of the goals-for, 52.5% of the expected goals, and 55% of the scoring chances.

Last season, the goals-for went down by five points. The other stats trickled down by a few points.

The eye tests were far more of an indictment of Dumoulin’s slippage. The battles lost, the pucks not retrieved, and the rushing forwards who slipped past in the second half of last season probably outnumbered the total from the previous three years.

Lower body injuries felled Dumoulin in 2021, but he was mostly healthy in 2021-22. He played 76 games and, despite a battle with COVID, was available for most games.

For a few weeks, Dumoulin shuffled around the pairings for the first time since his first Penguins season in 2016. Matheson climbed to the top pairing, and the numbers climbed.

The numbers fell on the other pairings without Matheson, which ultimately led head coach Mike Sullivan to more evenly distribute his offensive talent and return Dumoulin to Letang’s side late in the season.

The defense can hinge on Dumoulin because there is a specific lack of defensemen capable of playing with Letang should Dumoulin falter again. If not Dumoulin, who is capable of playing beside Letang?

Joseph, Friedman, Smith, and Pettersson are most likely not good candidates. Rutta has experience on both sides of the blue line, but that breaks up the dominant right side.

Dumoulin committed the second most giveaways of his career (46), and his hit total was his lowest (in a full season) since his rookie year in 2015-16. The underlying numbers weren’t great, either.

The Penguins’ blue line could be the best it has had in a decade, going back to Sergei Gonchar and Kris Letang on the same unit. That seemingly depends on Dumoulin. If he stumbles, it could throw Sullivan and assistant coach Todd Reirden into a constant game of defensemen shuffling.

But if he returns to form, the Pittsburgh Penguins are rock solid.

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Pittsburgh Hockey Now Editor-in-Chief, formerly 93.7 The Fan, Sportsnet Hockey Tonight, NHL Home Ice. Catch Dan tweeting @theDanKingerski and the official @pghhockeynow account.

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William Maloni
William Maloni
19 days ago

I’m still looking for “grit and sand,” any coming Dan???

Bob
Bob
19 days ago
Reply to  Dan Kingerski

Wait till we play the Flyers with Torts behind the bench and the addition of Deslauriers tough guy. Pens will be banged around.

Phil
Phil
18 days ago
Reply to  Bob

Petry is tough as well. But as for acquiring an enforcer it would be a luxury to have not at the expense of skilled players. The flyers may bang us a little bit. But as long as we win doesn’t matter. But with rutta, petry, Archibald. We have size skill and toughness. Poehling has size as well. So the team is bigger tougher and just as skilled if not more. I think hexy still has a move or two to make but the team is better and that’s what matters.

Cal
Cal
18 days ago
Reply to  Phil

Maybe Hex can bring snag McDermid from the Av’s. He can play albeit limited minutes but he checks the grit and toughness boxes….actually he crushes them.

Phil
Phil
18 days ago
Reply to  Cal

Yeah hes a big guy. But acquiring a player just for their size is not the right way to evaluate players. I’d rather have guys who can help us no matter their size. Obviously it would be great to have a player big and skilled at any position. But there are not many of those around. And the ones that are out there either not available or too expensive for us. I liked Erik gudbranson but he got a big contract from Columbus. So I think we have a good team. Hexy made some good moves. Got bigger tougher with… Read more »

Cal
Cal
17 days ago
Reply to  Phil

The tough you refer to is not the same tough as these heavyweights can bring. Its a contact sport so why wouldn’t you want a guy who can not only initiate heavy contact but aid in employing a strategy that the opposing team has things to worry about other than creating extra havoc on the that players team? There have been many articles written about how much the players appreciate having these guys on their teams. To think because a guy is big and/or tough that he cannot play is shortsighted. I do agree that the team needs to make… Read more »

Phil
Phil
17 days ago
Reply to  Cal

So you didnt read my whole comment the guy you suggested. Barely played on the 3rd pair sheltered minutes.Hes big and has size and some upside.So I’m for adding someone big and physical that could play and help. I wish we kept Reeves. And wish we kept gudbranson. I liked both players. And would take an enforcer any day. But one that can help and contribute. That is all I said in my above comment. But trading players that can help and play significant minutes. For an enforcer is just bad management. Not shortsighted. I’m all for having a big… Read more »

Last edited 17 days ago by Phil
Cal
Cal
17 days ago
Reply to  Phil

It’s all good. I think we are on the same page.

Phil
Phil
17 days ago
Reply to  Cal

We are! I would love to have an enforcer. But Sullivan wants guys who have skill and can play. We need help on our bottom 6. If there ever was a right time to try an acquire one it’s now. If we kept reeves, tom wilson would not have destroyed us in 2018 playoffs. Or if we would of kept gudbranson I thought he played good big RHD. But we agree someone to protect our players is needed.

Bachinga
Bachinga
18 days ago
Reply to  Bob

Deslauriers has been a liability for the last several teams for which he has played…Torts will not want his guys taking dumb penalties…Deslauriers takes a ton of them…

maybeTROLLn
maybeTROLLn
17 days ago
Reply to  Bob

Right, the Broad street “bullies” look the most FORMIDABLE in years. Haahaha

Bachinga
Bachinga
18 days ago
Reply to  Dan Kingerski

Ruutu is not a strong “knock you off the puck Defenseman”…he uses nhis stick and body position. Archibald and his linemates were physically and routinely over matched v Colorado to the point where the barely saw the ice as a trio…

Benny
Benny
18 days ago
Reply to  William Maloni

Matheson and Marino out, Rutta and Petry in. That’s a lot more grit. Archibald brings it and Poehling is a big body too.

Last edited 18 days ago by Benny
maybeTROLLn
maybeTROLLn
17 days ago
Reply to  William Maloni

This guy is obsessed with grit and sand lol. Go lock yourself in a workshop, bud.

Bachinga
Bachinga
18 days ago

Seriously dreaming if you think the Pens were made better…first…Tampa uses its Center as a third defenseman…so Ruutu wasn’t as pressured as Pens D, which aren’t acnhored to net front anyway…second I’ll believe Petry when I see it…third…we have no bottom 6…

ehasenel
ehasenel
17 days ago

Much easier to add/trade for an upgrade at left-d mid season than right. After getting over the loss of Mattheson, what a fun player and-seemingly-great guy, I like this set-up. Let the young kids fight for a spot, see if dumo can recover so you don’t sell low, and ditto for Petterson.

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