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What does a healthy Penguins defense look like heading into the playoffs?

Analyzing what the Penguins depth defense options may be heading down the stretch into the playoffs

NHL: Pittsburgh Penguins at Columbus Blue Jackets Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

With a number of pivotal performers from last year’s Cup run currently on the shelf during the Penguins’ homestretch, Head Coach Mike Sullivan should use the remaining games on the schedule to see what holes he has to plug when the lineup returns to full health.

Currently, the Penguins are without Kris Letang, Bryan Rust, Olli Maatta, and Trevor Daley — not ideal by any means.

Fortunately, the Pens are firmly entrenched in a playoff spot, so not much other than maybe seeding should change.

Assuming that the Penguins are able to take a healthy group into the postseason, trade deadline acquisitions Ron Hainsey and Mark Streit add an interesting wrinkle to a Penguins blue line, which, historically, has been thin come springtime. Remember icing five defensemen in the midst of a playoff push back in 2015 because of injuries and cap constraints? Good times!

NHL: Buffalo Sabres at Pittsburgh Penguins Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Health and depth on the blue line are never bad things to have. They’re also usually requisite for any team that wants to seriously contend for a Stanley Cup – something the Penguins are in the business of doing.

So when the Pens are at full strength, how will the defensive pairings shake out? Nothing is ever certain – especially health – but let’s take a look at the potential pairings the Penguins could deploy come April.

The Top Four

Hypothetically speaking, the Penguins could take one of the deepest defense corps in the field into the playoffs. The top four should include the Brian Dumoulin-Kris Letang (pending Kris Letang’s health and whatever injury it is that he is currently dealing with) and Justin Schultz–Ian Cole pairings as 1A and 1B options for Sullivan.

NHL: Dallas Stars at Pittsburgh Penguins Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

During last year’s playoffs, Letang played an ungodly 28:53 per game. He was fantastic, of course, but that is a ton of ice time during a deep playoff run. And given the projected path to the Stanley Cup – with the Pens most likely facing at least one of Columbus and Washington – it would be wise to not run Letang out there every other shift this year.

A less sheltered and more trusted version of Justin Schultz should help cut down Letang’s ice time this postseason – his regular season TOI average is down nearly a minute and a half from last year’s – and hopefully keep #58 fresher (or more importantly, healthy) for another deep run.

Ian Cole’s style meshes perfectly with Schultz’s and the two have passed both the eye test and the analytics test this season. Cole’s been a staple alongside Schultz since the beginning of his time in Pittsburgh and if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

The Bottom Pairing

Although the top four seems pretty set in stone, the bottom pairing and last-man-out role are significantly murkier. The obvious candidates here would have been Maatta and Daley, but hand and arthroscopic knee surgeries have each sidelined for the time being and their availability for the playoffs is largely unknown. The speculation is that both should be ready for action; however, Daley – who is 33 – is dealing with his second long-term injury since last postseason, and Maatta always seems to take a handful of games to get his legs back underneath of him following an extended absence from the lineup.

With an increasingly likely first-round series against the Columbus Blue Jackets, a rusty or not-100% version of Daley or Maatta could make the Pens’ bottom pairing one the Blue Jackets are capable of exploiting.

Deadline Insurance

If the absences of Maatta and Daley extend into late April, the pairing of newly acquired Penguins Mark Streit and Ron Hainsey, who were on the same Montreal Canadiens team during the Great Depression, have shown to be a formidable one since being inserted into the lineup. In fact, the two have played almost exclusively together during their time in Pittsburgh.

While the sample size is way too small to glean anything of significance, the duo has shown the ability to contribute in all facets. Individually, they’ve each chipped in a bit offensively and as a pairing they’ve posted solid possession metrics, generated chances when on the ice, and done a nice job of suppressing shots.

In a way, they appear to have the feel of a Schultz–Cole pairing. Streit, like Schultz, is the more offensive-minded of the two, has a hard shot from the point, and moves the puck well. Hainsey, like Cole, is the bigger body of the two who has more of a stay-at-home mindset, which can allow Streit (like Schultz) to frequently join the rush.

Certainly, a ton of things can happen between now and April, but it will be interesting to see if Sully decides to experiment with new lines and pairings in the final 15 games before the playoffs. Whatever happens down the stretch, we can all rest assured that the Pens’ 7th and 8th defensemen this spring will not be named Steve Oleksy and Derrick Pouliot.