There has been a lot of talk the past few weeks about the Pittsburgh Penguins defense prospects, what with all the injuries causing younger players to appear and take bigger roles on the team, and the story about the Salary Cap expected to rise leading to discussion of what the roster could look like next year and beyond and who is expendable in the lineup. With Brian Dumoulin receiving his first call-up to the NHL he has been on the forefront of the discussion and it has brought up related topics such as the viability of the AHL and NCAA becoming increasingly important developmentally.
So with Dumoulin expected to make his NHL debut this weekend, for this week's Minor Distractions I wanted to ask some of the experts to provide some insight into the newest Pittsburgh D for those that may not be familiar with him. I had planned to make it a round table type discussion, messaging multiple people that are quite familiar with Dumoulin's career. However, I only got one response to my queries, from Ian Altenbaugh of Hockey's Future. Fortunately it was an exceptional response, so it should provide us with more than enough information to get to know this future star.
What are Dumoulin's greatest strengths as a player? What does he bring to the lineup that sets him apart from the other options?
He's big, he can skate well, he can shoot the puck hard, and he is good at going back on puck retrievals. I wouldn't say he has characteristics that are distinctly different than other Pens prospects, but he possesses a lot of qualities that you want in a defenseman. His size reminds me a bit of Simon Despres, though I would say he shoots the puck more than Despres and isn't quite as good at rushing the puck up ice.
That's about what I would characterize him as, a mobile PMD with some offensive upside that is mostly known for his ability as a shutdown D. Dumoulin and Despres are very similar to Paul Martin and Olli Maatta, although Dumoulin and Despres have the size available that gives them a wingspan and physicality that is unmatched by the others. If you add Scott Harrington and Matt Niskanen to the mix you have 6 mobile PMDs that play an extremely similar two-way shutdown role.
What are Dumoulin's greatest weaknesses as a player? What does he still need to work on as he continues his development?
Inexperience. He hasn't had a healthy NHL training camp (or one at all) and as a result, is a little behind where he should be at this point. He comes from Boston College, the same place as Brooks Orpik and Rob Scuderi, and needs to work on the same things they did 10 years ago. General use of time and space, gap control, and other nuances of the position. Unless you are an offensive defenseman, there is little room for error and you have to be almost perfect in your execution. Dumoulin also needs to get stronger. He's already a big load, but with that type of frame and reach, he could be almost unstoppable in his own zone.
Again, that seems spot on. With so much similarity between the 6 primary two-way PMDs in the system the main think Dumoulin is lacking is experience. This is just his 2nd year pro and this will be his first opportunity to play in the NHL. Missing out on NHL related activities last year due to the lockout and then most of Training Camp this year due to injury has left him a little further behind than we would have liked. He was the top D in WBS as a rookie last year and after a little bit of a slow start coming off his pre-season injury looked to be picking up right where he left off, there isn't really much left to learn in the AHL and he is ready to move up to get his feet wet in the NHL.
The main complaint I have about Dumoulin is the same I have with Despres, with the size and strength they have available it would be nice to see them throw their weight around more often. It doesn't have to be big hits like Orpik is known for, but they should be able to power opponents off the puck, clear the crease, and win battles along the boards. They are so used to playing as skilled mobile PMDs, relying on fancy stick work, that sometimes they forget they are bigger than most of their opponents.
What do you foresee as his highest potential upside at the NHL level?
Potential is a funny thing because everyone sees something a little bit different. In terms of ice time, I can see him being a 4-5th defenseman. Someone who plays a similar role to Matt Niskanen now or how Zbynek Michalek used to, meaning a guy who is probably best suited as a fourth or fifth defenseman, but can slot in higher and play both special teams. Ideally though, you want Dumoulin to be one of your shutdown guys. In the AHL, he is the top guy, playing in all situations and is the shooter on the powerplay.
I would say that is a fairly accurate assessment, although I'd put him a little closer to Martin than Niskanen it terms of skill. The way the Pens use their shutdown pair that would make him a Top 4 D, so the 3/4 D potential we found when looking back at his old scouting reports seems accurate, and like Niskanen if there weren't so much depth on the blue line that is where he would be. However, considering how many other Top 4 capable D there are he winds up being a 4/5 D. Like Martin, and to a lesser extent Niskanen, he can be a great asset on the PK, and while he is not ideally suited to be the go to guy he is capable of contributing to the PP.
How long do you expect him to take? Is he NHL ready now or will it be another year or more?
Dumoulin will likely follow a similar path as Robert Bortuzzo, for better or worse. Meaning most of this year in the AHL. Next year he will be 23 and may or may not compete for a spot out of camp.
Where he plays next year will greatly hinge on the Penguins decision to re-sign Orpik, Niskanen, and Engelland at the end of the year. If they all walk, the Pens D could look something like: Scuderi-Letang, Despres-Martin, Maatta-Bortuzzo/Dumoulin. If just one of them is re-signed though, I would guess Dumoulin starts the year in the AHL.
There's nothing wrong with having NHL-ready defensemen in the AHL. As Pens fans are witnessing firsthand, it is quite a good thing to be 10+ deep on NHL quality defensemen. I also have no problem with a guy playing in the bottom of the lineup, as long as they are physically in the lineup and as a defenseman, playing 13+ minutes a game.
Keep in mind even guys like Rob Scuderi, Brooks Orpik, and Kris Letang grew into their roles as defensemen. None started as top four guys but are all now staples of the Penguins top four. They had to play behind guys like Gonchar, Eaton, Whitney, Gill, and others. Orpik averaged 16 minutes a game as a 26-year-old! So I don't buy the idea of a defenseman being hurt by playing third pairing minutes, especially a more defensively oriented player like Dumoulin.
That could very well be the case, we have seen the same thing happen many times in the past. By all accounts, coming from the praise Dumoulin received as the best player last year in Prospect Development Camp and through the course of the AHL season in which he made his way the #1D position, and then this year as he was once again lauded as the best player in Prospect Development Camp and the Rookie Tournament and then talked up in Training Camp until he was injured, he is NHL ready right now. But just because he is ready doesn't mean the NHL is ready for him. There are other players already playing on NHL contracts, and if there are no openings in the lineup then it is much more difficult to outplay and replace a tenured player than it is to win a battle for an open spot.
His suggested D-pairs for next year are quite similar to what we see right now with all the injuries in the lineup, although we would need to swap Niskanen and Deryk Engelland in for the injured Martin and Scuderi. Of course the one glaring omission from his list for next year is Derrick Pouliot. The way Despres has been playing solid defensively I wouldn't mind having him back next year, but considering the fact that Pouliot, Maatta, and Dumoulin are ready to play in the NHL next year I'm not quite convinced they will be bringing him back. So add Despres to the list with Orpik, Niskanen, and Engelland as players that if any one of them are back it means somebody that should be in the NHL, such as Maatta, Dumoulin, or Despres, will instead start the year in the AHL until the injury bug strikes again.
If all things were equal, a fully healthy roster and we were not constrained by Cap and roster space limitations, how would you arrange the Penguins Defenseive Depth Chart?
My defensive chart: 5x5 Orpik-Martin, Scuderi-Letang, Maatta-Niskanen, Despres-Bortuzzo, Engo-Dumoulin.
I'd put Dumoulin with Despres on the fourth pairing PK. Would have him on third powerplay unit opposite Despres or Maatta.
That's probably what I would expect to see, though not necessarily what I would want to see. I realize Scuderi is technically the #4 D in the lineup, but I was not impressed with what I saw when him and Letang were paired up. I'd like to see him partnered with Niskanen again, they could be the new 3rd pair and let Letang skate alongside one of the younger D.
As we saw last year when Letang played with Despres and for the most part this year with Maatta, Letang plays better when he is with a less experienced D because he is more concerned with playing sound positionally and makes sure to be able to cover up for any rookie mistakes. In contrast, last year with Eaton and this year with Scuderi, and to a lesser extent his time in general with Orpik and Niskanen, he seems to be far more prone to making stupid mistakes, rushing too far into the offensive zone and relying on the defensive veteran to cover up for any of his mistakes. So I'd prefer the responsible mentor Letang to the reckless offensive Letang.
Which of the young D should be partnered with Letang is a much tougher decision though. Based on experience one would assume Maatta, but I haven't been fond of that pairing, it seems Maatta is picking up some bad habits playing with Letang and a player who was once known as being quite calm and positionally sound for a rookie has started making a lot of risky plays and stupid mistakes. He was at his best skating alongside Bortuzzo when he was allowed to play a simple stay at home game as a defensive shutdown D. The free wheeling style favored by Letang does not suit him. Despres was good with Letang for a short time last year too, but now that he has a renewed focus on playing a defensive shutdown role would they still mesh? Nobody really seems to work with Letang, so perhaps he is the one that needs to change.
Dumoulin I think, given enough time, would be a better option than either Despres or Maatta. But his window to prove that is going to be quite short with the expected return of Scuderi to practice next week. He needs to have a huge impact this weekend or expect to be back down to the AHL and have to battle his way into the lineup coming out of Camp next year, which could be difficult if Maatta and/or Despres have the edge on experience and establish their places on the roster. I would still plan to send Maatta back to London before he hits the 40 game threshold, and probably get Bortuzzo a trade to a team that has need of a 4/5 shutdown D since he would really benefit from a change of scenery. That would leave us with Engelland as a #7 D and one of Despres/Dumoulin would return to WBS until another call-up was needed. And possibly consider trading Despres and/or Niskanen at the deadline if it looks less than likely that they will be coming back next season, which would open up the spot for Dumoulin to come back up.
Any final thoughts and comments about the AHL or NCAA in general?
The NCAA is the fastest growing source of NHL caliber talent in the world and over 30 percent of NHL players played some college hockey. That's a fact and I can produce piles of empirical data to prove it. NCAA alumni in the NHL increased by 40 percent from 2002 to 2012, going from 216 players to 300. It's not just depth guys either, there are tons of skill guys who come out of the NCAA as well. I don't think Jonathan Quick, Zach Parise, or Jonathan Toews are fringe players and they are all products of NCAA hockey. That being said, the NCAA route is distinctly different than the CHL. There are fewer games per year and a greater emphasis on conditioning. As a developmental route, the NCAA route is probably better for guys who physically develop a little bit later than other guys. David Backes is example A of this. Guy was like 170 pounds when he was drafted and wouldn't have stood a chance in the CHL. You've seen him now, guy is one of the premiere power forwards in the game. Would've got killed in CHL as a 17-19-year-old.
I follow the drafting habits of every team in the NHL, and with maybe a few exceptions, every team is drafting more heavily out of the NCAA every year. Teams like the fact they are afforded an extra two years developmentally, especially with later picks, who would otherwise spend years and years developing in the AHL on the team's dime. One trend that has been growing a lot recently is European NCAA players. Europeans coming to the US and playing in the NCAA route rather than the CHL. Gustav Nyquist, a forward for the Red Wings, is probably the most prominent part of this club, but others include Viktor Stalberg and Teddy Blueger. Zemgus Girgensons was another, though he went pro just after being drafted.
Only a small, elite group of players go straight from wherever to the NHL and even among that group, a lot of them are rushed. I look at the Buffalo Sabres as a great example. When they were developing talent the right way and regularly making the playoffs, guys played at least 100 if not 150 games in the AHL. Then in the last few years, they started promoting their first-rounders to the NHL right away, with disastrous consequences too. The Isles mishandled Justin Bailey and Nino Niederreiter early on and as a result, have taken their good old time with later picks like Brock Nelson and Ryan Strome. I think we can all agree that was the right decision too.
So much of the game is about confidence. So much of any job performance is confidence driven. When you go to the highest level, and don't perform, your confidence is down. Especially if you are younger. No way I coped as well with problems as an 18-year-old as I do at my current age. As an 18-year-old who has been the best at every level, it can be a serious shock to your psyche to play in the NHL, against guys who make you look like an amateur. The AHL acts as a great buffer to that.
In general, if a guy is going straight to the NHL, it merits a pause for concern. Far more players have been ruined than benefited from playing in the show early.
Thanks to Ian Altenbaugh for the excellent info!