TORONTO — In hindsight, it seems laughable. The Pittsburgh Penguins snagged Harvard defenseman John Marino from the Edmonton Oilers for a conditional sixth-round draft pick. Edmonton was undergoing management changes and as a pending college free agent, Marino had some say in the process.
One year later, John Marino is a star on the Penguins blue, even though he is still a rookie.
On Monday night Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan responded to a PHN query with effusive praise. He was on a roll. On Tuesday, Penguins defenseman Kris Letang didn’t short the rookie, either.
In the big picture, the Penguins also owe scout and Boston native Kevin Stevens a big thank you. The Marinos, who are also from Boston, and Stevens have been acquainted since Marino was in youth hockey at the same time as Steven’s son.
Because Marino was a pending free agent, he could partially call his shot. And what better place than Steven’s hockey home, the Pittsburgh Penguins?
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It has been a great match. PHN asked Mike Sullivan about Marino on Monday night. Sullivan answered. And kept answering, as praise flowed.
“You can see the role that we cast him in, the circumstances that we put him in, we just believe he’s a really solid player,” head coach Mike Sullivan responded to PHN. “He’s mature beyond his years … he’s gotten better and better with each game he’s played.
“He played his way into the top four.”
For those who may not remember the pre-pandemic hockey season, Marino wasn’t expected to make the team in training camp. Correction, not many except Marino expected him to make the team.
“(My goal is) to be able to make the team,” Marino told us back in September during the Prospects Challenge. “That’s the main goal and the goal from the start, but you take one game at a time and do what you can.”
It’s funny. Our initial reaction was that Marino was good but very confident. Just two weeks later, we wrote a piece on how much Marino impressed everyone in the Pittsburgh Penguins training camp, too. Take a look.
And for more amusing retrospect, Marino summed up his game in September, thusly.
“Yeah, (offense) is something I’ve been trying to incorporate a little more,” he said. “I’d say defense is definitely my strongest suit, but I’m trying to improve little things on the offensive blue line, get shots through, joining the rush, and little things like that.”
In his rookie NHL season, Marino scored as many points in the big show as he did at Harvard, then flew past that total. In 33 games for Harvard last season, Marino scored 11 points. This season, he scored 26 points (6g, 20a) in 56 games.
The kid even played with a broken cheekbone near the end of the season. In the second half of Sullivan’s reply, he lavished the praise on John Marino.
“We just think he’s a real [sic] good defenseman. He’s got a quiet confidence about him. (Marino) is a real [sic] competitive guy,” Sullivan said as he got on a roll. “He’s big and strong. He’s mobile, he’s a good skater, he’s got a good stick.
And he doesn’t get pushed around. He can play against bigger players. Part of it because of his physical stature, but part of it is because of his compete level … The couple of games we’ve watches him here, the stage isn’t too big.”
Marino also earned power play time in the NHL postseason. He’s made the most of that, even as the Penguins power play has often struggled. Marino has effectively kept the play alive with adroit pinches and quick distribution.
“I think he has all the tools a player can ask,” Penguins defenseman Kris Letang said. “He’s just going to get better and better. He and Marcus (Pettersson), are doing a fantastic job for us.”
So, what about Harvard?
Marino left after his junior season because he also played one season in the USHL. PHN has heard different numbers of credits, but Marino was nearing his Harvard degree. Those close to the Penguins young defenseman tell us he has just a few more classes to go.
So, how is Marino spending some of his time in the NHL bubble? He’s taking an online course.
One online course at Harvard, and a crash course in NHL playoff hockey. All for a conditional sixth-round pick.