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Sullivan Shuffles Penguins Pairs, Drops Graves; Why It Works



Pittsburgh Penguins, Ryan Graves, Tristan Jarry, Steve Stamkos

The Pittsburgh Penguins scored four unanswered goals Thursday night, and what seemed to be a deep 2-0 deficit to the Tampa Bay Lightning became a 4-2 win at Amalie Arena.

The Penguins looked like week-old turkey in the first period. Actually, that would be an insult to spoiled meat inside plastic containers across the country. The team’s ability to force a 180-degree turn netted a win, a historic goal by goalie Tristan Jarry, and a significant change to the Penguins’ defense pairings.

Ryan Graves, who signed a six-year, $27 million deal on July 1, has been struggling. He’s openly admitted the adjustment from the unique New Jersey Devils system to the Penguins system has been a sea change that isn’t coming easy.

The number of bad reads, ill-advised pinches, and mistakes have been much higher than the supposed stay-at-home defenseman beside Kris Letang should make.

The emergence of John Ludvig on the third pairing has been a burgeoning story of the recent Penguins improvements. A trio of tight Metro Division losses have been followed by a three-game points streak with a pair of wins over very good Atlantic Division teams, the Toronto Maple Leafs and Tampa Bay.

Coach Mike Sullivan has praised Ludvig on multiple occasions over the last week as “bringing a different dimension” to the lineup.

That dimension is some brute physicality. The 6-foot-1, 213-pound Ludvig has scrapped with Michael McCarron, delivered a few pounding hits, and otherwise manned the position with responsibility, even with sheltered third-pair minutes.

Graves had an especially difficult stretch Thursday with a couple of turnovers and shaky play. He was caught by the backcheck, causing a D-zone turnover that led to some high-danger chances against, and a rough turnover at the defensive blue line in the second period was the end of his stay on the second pair.

The Penguins report card wasn’t kind to Graves’s game.

And it was the beginning of John Ludvig’s promotion.

“We like his game. He brings he brings a physical dimension to our game,” Sullivan said. “We didn’t think we controlled the net front as well as we needed to in the first period — they were shooting the puck from everywhere. I think that they did get some quality looks, without a doubt, but they were put in pucks on the net from everywhere, trying to manufacture that next play. And they got a few of them because of it.”

Why the Penguins Change Works

Eventually, Graves must reclaim his role in the top four, or he’ll be a far too expensive third-pairing defenseman. The dime store analysis of Graves’s game was that he was straying from his base role. Whether he was jumping forward into the offensive zone without forward support or chasing the puck in the defensive zone, it’s been a struggle for the 6-foot-5, 220-pound defender.

Ludvig is less than a handful of games into his NHL career. Thursday was just his fourth big-league game after the Penguins snagged him off the waiver wire from the Florida Panthers.

The move has a chance to stick for the Penguins because Ludvig’s simpler game allows Letang to freelance more. Ludvig is also harder at the net than Graves. Since the second pair plays higher-leverage minutes, they see greater competition more capable of offensive chances.

“(Ludvig) is a guy that can help us (at the net front). He’s hard. He’s hard at the net front. He’s hard,” Sullivan praised. “His whole game is hard … We didn’t like the way that went the first period. And so we made a conscious choice to get “Luds” more ice time. And we liked how he responded.”

The New York Rangers and Tampa Bay Lightning like to crash the net. A stronger presence near the net is never a bad thing.

Someone who stands up for teammates and rattles a few cages is also not a bad thing.

Putting Graves on the third pair with the ever-steady Ryan Shea in a lower-pressure situation can also allow Graves to find his game with the Penguins.

It seems Penguins president of hockey operations/GM Kyle Dubas’s plan to overstock the roster, creating competition, and giving coach Mike Sullivan options worked.

It’s a win-win that might last a game, a few weeks, or alter the structural composition of the team.