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Penguins’ defensive pairings see slight rearrangement in practice

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Mike Sullivan’s shuffling could lead to regular season debuts for Riikola and/or Ruhwedel.

NHL: Montreal Canadiens at Pittsburgh Penguins Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

There’s no denying Pittsburgh’s poor defensive effort to start the season — one that has allowed a whopping 11 goals in just two games thus far. And after Mike Sullivan went off in his post-game conference the night the Penguins dropped an embarrassing 5-1 loss to the Montreal Canadiens, a defensive pairing shuffle was more or less expected before the team hit the ice again.

Adam touched on this Monday, but it’s worth reminding everyone that this team isn’t bred for defensive shutdowns, and the system Sullivan runs will never, ever be that. However, the defense has done nothing but expose Matt Murray for 120 minutes straight, and if they don’t figure out a different identity soon, this will progressively get uglier and uglier as the season marches on.

Obviously we’re not at panic button mode just yet, but Sullivan’s solution to the lackadaisical play came about in the Penguins’ first practice back since the crumbling at the hands of the Habs. It took the form of a grueling Monday of film and ice work, a newly scheduled Tuesday practice, plus what Sullivan (maybe infamously) is known for: switching around different guys onto different pairs to see if any sort of chemistry developed in the preseason will carry over to right now. To be frank, from what he and the rest of us have seen so far, he didn’t have a choice.

“We try different pairs almost daily to see what we might find, what chemistry might develop,” Sullivan said. “We’re trying to make the best decisions that we think give the team the best chance to win. What we decide ultimately to go with on Thursday will probably be something that we’ll decide Wednesday night.”

Those new defensive partners were as follows:

Brian Dumoulin-Kris Letang

Jack Johnson-Justin Schultz

Jamie Oleksiak-Juuso Riikola

Olli Maatta-Chad Ruhwedel

The duo of Johnson and Schultz should come as no surprise, as the two played beside each other often in the preseason and saw some (?) success. They make enough sense together as well. Schultz is your offensively astute puck mover, and Johnson can be utilized at the points with his gigantic shot and execute zone entries well, but can also throw his big body around if he has to (or so I’m told, I’m still waiting to see evidence of that during a game). I have a lot of reservations about a pairing like this, though. If you’re smashing together two guys who seem to excel more on offense than they’re willing to play on defense...isn’t that counter-productive to the problem at hand?

Moving past those concerns, Johnson is lauded for being able to play the right side without any discomfort as well, but with the switch to Schultz’s flank, he can return back to the left side and play according to his handedness. That tiny tweak might make a huge difference. His willingness to be flexible also gifts Sullivan with a plethora of options if things, once again, don’t work out. I predicted he’d end up with Maatta to start the season, and I ended up correct in that assessment, but the things I knew would get exposed with those two together (i.e., slow skating, no hustle to the puck, etc.), have shown in a pretty horrid way, and already it’s time for Pittsburgh to try something new.

Speaking of Maatta, the biggest thing that jumped out at me was the fact that if those pairings were running tonight, he’d be a healthy scratch, and Riikola would be making his regular season debut — something fans are calling for after the Penguins’ worse-than-expected start. That’s quite telling when you consider Maatta’s underlying numbers were some of the best on the team just a year ago. Currently, I have yet to see the 2017-18 Maatta show up. He’s been cringeworthy bad.

Of course, Sullivan is likely just blowing everything up after a bad loss and considering every facet before he ices a new version of the team Thursday vs. the Vegas Golden Knights. He ripped the team apart and pieced them back together with several spirited speeches from practice, and he’s confident he got through to them. It’s only the third game of the season, after all.

However, I wouldn’t hate to see smooth-skating Riikola get some genuine NHL playing time — especially early in the season when nothing actually matters yet — to see what he’s really got. I don’t think I’m the only one. Riikola’s preseason numbers were staggering, and among the Penguins’ defensemen, he easily saw the most minutes out of all of them. He also showed his skating prowess along the blue line, always finding enough space to become a threat in the attacking zone. His potential has an undetermined ceiling currently, and if he takes this potential start in stride and produces, Sullivan will have big questions to answer as the season moves forward.

It should be an interesting next couple of days, to say the least. Keep a weather eye on any practice notes coming out of the woodwork.