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Looking at the Penguins defense pairings that are (and are not) working

It might be time to get Juuso Riikola back in the lineup.

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

On the surface the Pittsburgh Penguins’ 2-1 overtime loss to the Ottawa Senators on Saturday night could be viewed as another setback for the team just when it looked to be turning the season around. But overall I’m not too put off by it. It was not their best game by any stretch, but they got another point and probably played well enough to get a win on most nights. Overall they have still been looking like a team that might be starting to get back on track. Losing a game like that is not anywhere near as frustrating as some of the other games they lost earlier in the season.

One of the more intriguing developments to come out of that game was the performance of new defender Marcus Pettersson, who was not on the ice for a single shot attempt against during five-on-five play. Alongside Jack Johnson the Penguins had a 12-0 shot attempt edge with that duo on the ice. They definitely had more of a sheltered role, and it’s only been three games, but it has still been a promising debut for the newly formed third pairing.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at how the Penguins’ defense pairings have been performing over the past couple of weeks.

I went back over the past 10 games and looked at all of the defense pairings the Penguins have used for at least 30 minutes of five-on-five ice-time.

Here are the results, listed in order of most ice-time together.

Pittsburgh Penguins Defense Pairings Past 10 Games

Defense Pairing Time On Ice Shot Attempt Percentage Scoring Chance Percentage Goal Differential Offensive Zone Start Percentage
Defense Pairing Time On Ice Shot Attempt Percentage Scoring Chance Percentage Goal Differential Offensive Zone Start Percentage
Kris Letang - Brian Dumoulin 167.16 60.1 (212-141) 62.1 (98-60) 72.2 (13-5) 48.3
Olli Maatta - Juuso Riikola 84.04 55.7 (73-58) 60.4 (26-17) 80.0 (4-1) 46.1
Jack Johnson - Jamie Oleksiak 80.55 49.2 (67-69) 50.0 (27-27) 42.8 (3-4) 47.9
Olli Maatta - Jamie Oleksiak 56.01 40.1 (38-57) 45.4 (20-24) 83.3 (5-1) 55.2
Jack Johnson - Marcus Pettersson 34.19 51.2 (40-38) 43.7 (14-18) 100.0 (2-0) 59.2

Obviously the Kris Letang-Brian Dumoulin pairing has been dominant. Just look at those numbers. They are controlling possession, they are outchancing everyone, and the goal differential is exactly what you want to see from your top defense pairing (or any defense pairing, really). They are playing big minutes against top competition, and they are not really being sheltered in terms of where they start their shifts. Letang may still have his critics that are just waiting for him to make a mistake so they can jump on it, but he is truly playing at a Norris Trophy level this season and Dumoulin has been a perfect complement to him. This is one of the best defense pairings in the NHL right now.

The Johnson-Petterson pairing has been fine for a third-pairing duo. They are getting sheltered minutes, and the scoring chance numbers are a concern, but they have managed to keep their heads above water overall. General manager Jim Rutherford said he thinks Pettersson can be a Dumoulin-type defender in the future, and while I still think that is setting an extremely high bar, I have liked his game so far in Pittsburgh.

The real concern is that second pairing of Olli Maatta and Jamie Oleksiak. The optimist will look at the goal differential and say things are going just fine. But the shot attempt and scoring chance numbers, which are beyond ugly, paint a picture of a duo that has been incredibly lucky and is playing at an unsustainable level. They are simply getting buried when it comes to shots and scoring chances even though they are getting some very favorite usage in terms of where they are starting on the ice. Eventually some of those scoring chances and shots they are giving up are going to start finding the back of their net.

The intriguing one here is the Maatta-Juuso Riikola duo that had a great run over the past couple of weeks. That is a little surprising because they were terrible together during the first month of the season, but Riikola has looked significantly better on the rare occasion he’s had a chance to play over the past month.

The common denominator in the defense pairings that have played the worst has been Oleksiak, which is kind of surprising given how strong he was at the start of the year.

Until Justin Schultz returns (or until they make another trade) this is what they are going to have to work with on defense.

They have one great pairing in Letang and Dumoulin that should remain untouched no matter what. They have a promising start for a third pairing that can play a sheltered role in Pettersson and Johnson. They just need to get that second pairing figured out, and it might be worth giving Riikola another look alongside Maatta given how well they have played together recently.

(Data in this post via Natural Stat Trick)