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.
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.