After a pair of weekend losses in pathetic fashion, the Pittsburgh Penguins and their fans are taking a hard look at the team. The usual suspects are under fire: a bad power play. The coaching of the bad power play. Star players not scoring. Supporting players not doing much either. The realization that a hot goalie has propped the team up quite a bit in the first month-plus of the season.
Ironically, the one who has avoided most of the scrutiny is the one man whose decisions will get the team on track. (Or, torpedo them for good, if you're a glass half-empty type). That of course would be the man calling the shots on the team, general manager Jim Rutherford.
I've had no patience with this defense since day one - see this Week 1 of the season column "How much patience will management have in this defense?"
In it is a Rutherford quote from last summer that I like to use again and again, and it's making another appearance.
"I’m comfortable with (our defense) going into the season, but it is certainly the area we will watch the closest. Hopefully the younger guys can fall into place and do a consistent job. If not, part of having more depth up front, is that it can help us in the long run because if we have to go get a defenseman we have those extra pieces. I’m fully aware that at some point in time we may have to address that position."
Rutherford surely can not be comfortable any longer with 17 games of evidence into the season.
The Penguins bet on youth on defense for 2015-16. That's why they let Paul Martin go, they didn't think Christian Ehrhoff was durable enough, so they let him go too. That $6.5 million dollars was reinvested in forwards in the summer flurry that saw Pittsburgh add Phil Kessel, Eric Fehr and Nick Bonino. Add in the surprise of 18-year-old Daniel Sprong being NHL ready and the Pens have their best and deepest forward group in recent memory.
However, as we've come to learn the hard way, the forwards can't score if they're stuck in their defensive zone for too much of their shifts. The Pens, for all their talent, sit an embarrassing 27th in the league in scoring at just 2.06 goals per game. We're now 17 games, 20% into the season. This isn't just an early season slump, this is a pretty well defined trend at this point.
Just take a look at this chart of players who have played for Pittsburgh over the past few years and their Corsi For %
The numbers are stark and obvious - despite having better forwards, the Penguins forwards are spending more time in their defensive end. This is across the board. It isn't a function of coaching or systems, it is a personnel issue of the players tasked with getting the puck to the forwards.
Rutherford bet on youth, but oddly enough the Pens haven't committed to it.
Olli Maatta, sure, is coming off missing most of last season and still needs time to get back in the swing after 2 shoulder surgeries. That's understandable, and he's been coming on strong in recent weeks as his ice-time and responsibilities ramp up as his game slowly comes back to him (including a season high 22:23 played last game out). No worries there.
But Brian Dumoulin is only playing 16:08 per night, lowest among defensemen the team. 23-year old Adam Clendening has only played in 1 single game. Is that because neither can handle a bigger role? Or are neither getting the opportunity for game action?
Then there's Derrick Pouliot, who was perhaps the key to the youth movement. The 8th overall pick was terrible in training camp and admittedly played himself out of the NHL, on a team that was counting on him to be a factor. Recent reports of a citation for public drunkness show that this 21-year old seems long off from adding to the NHL roster at this point.
Meanwhile, the coaching staff have leaned on Ben Lovejoy and Rob Scuderi , two players most assuredly not young players. And the truth is, even though both should be playing far lesser roles, Lovejoy and Scuderi have been among the steadier and more consistent defensemen the coaches have to turn to.
The bottom line is the Penguins youth movement has floundered big-time. Maatta is slowly rounding into shape, not much is being asked of Dumoulin or Clendening and Pouliot has been a big-time dud in 2015. That's not all Rutherford or coach Mike Johnston's fault, but it is the music they have to face for the bet made on "going young" on defense.
Rutherford's job gets difficult, but provides opportunity in the challenge..
Is a trade the answer? Seems like it would be, however, that opens up many more issues.
First, the Penguins don't have a lot of salary cap space, so any deal they make will have to subtract as much salary as they bring in.
Secondly, good defensemen usually aren't cheap (and cheap defensemen usually aren't good). Aside from of course, young solid defensemen, but those types of players aren't ones that NHL teams trade during the season.
Third, after a bunch of trades to add NHL talent, Pittsburgh doesn't have a ton of appealing trade chips to offer out there for the rest of the league.
30 NHL teams would like to add a good, fairly inexpensive defenseman. 0 teams have a perfect candidate available.
Jim Rutherford has a history of making trades fairly early in NHL seasons. Now would be a good time for another one, if he can find just the right balance and cost to round out the Penguins by bringing in someone who can help on defense.