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What have we learned about the Penguins’ crowded defense group?

It’s only been a week, but we dive into what has happened and could be ahead for the Penguins’ defense

Winnipeg Jets v Pittsburgh Penguins Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images

The Penguins’ defense has been one of the most interesting groups on the team to track. The forwards have gotten more of the spotlight early in the 2019-20 season, and for good reason since an amazing five key forwards ended up hurt by the third game of the year in an almost unprecedented run of bad fortune.

But defensively the Pens remain a fascinating case study. Most teams will go with seven healthy defensemen on their 23-man roster. Maybe have an eighth if there’s an injury concern. Pittsburgh broke camp with nine healthy defensemen, more than anyone else in the league.

It’s only been one week of the season and four games, but what have we learned?

Something has to give

We’ve seen Jack Johnson’s name in the rumors. And Erik Gudbranson has too recently. And even Juuso Riikola has had his name floated in potential trade talk. There’s a lot of smoke that the Pens are working to solve their defensive logjam by moving someone out via a trade, and that makes logical sense.

Also, just an observation, but from the notorious “75-80% chance Johnson gets traded in the next 48 hours” report that went without a deal, it’s tough to ignore that Bryan Rust’s injury occurred right in the middle of that window. Could that have delayed or affected those plans? No one who knows it talking now, but it’s interesting timing, if nothing else.

Either way, carrying nine doesn’t seem a viable option for too much longer. The Pens’ issue could be timing — other teams may be looking to wait a few weeks before making any trades so quickly out of the gate.

Emergence of Marino

Besides the sheer number of blueliners and steady stream of local and national trade reports, the big story on the ice for the Penguins has been the emergence of youngster John Marino.

Marino was acquired from the Oilers in late July for a future sixth round draft pick. It was seen more as a move for organizational depth to simply add a right handed shooting defensive prospect in an age range (22) where Pittsburgh didn’t have much stocked in their organization.

However, Marino’s impressive play has accelerated his timeline and exceeded even the best case scenario. He was one of Pittsburgh’s best players in the preseason and kept earning more spots in the lineup for games.

He’s been broken into the league slowly in the regular season — a scratch in the first two games, the 7th defenseman in the third game and then final part of a regular pair in the fourth — but Marino’s been able to keep making every step and progression.

He’s good all around the ice, can move well, and his stick offensively and defensively is pretty impressive, even from the very start of his career it’s clear that he plays with a lot of confidence and is a capable player.

Marino’s place on the team changes the roster calculus of the back-end. If he’s to be a regular in the lineup moving forward —and there’s no real reason shown yet that he shouldn’t be — suddenly Gudbranson is a healthy scratch. Gudbranson bumbled and fumbled around against the Jets earlier this week and was a scratch for the first time since joining the Pens. That’s probably more a result of the team liking Marino more than anything though.

Bigger plans

For salary purposes, one would think Gudbranson and Johnson should be traded as quickly as possible, given that the team has so many important free agents on the horizon. If general manager Jim Rutherford can move Gudbranson in the interim, it will buy some breathing room under the salary cap to operate.

The team may then see how a Johnson-Marino duo can fare as the third pair. Propping up Johnson is a tall ask for a rookie in Marino. Last night against the Ducks, Marino had a 33.3% Corsi For%, Johnson a 38.89%. Both had negative nights on scoring chances in big ways but were bailed out by goaltending. While they kept the puck out of the net, it wasn’t a performance to be confident that Marino can do what so many others have failed to do to help Johnson not get caved in with shots, chances and more goals against than for. It’s probably just impossible, but the experiment continues.

Pittsburgh was also at home and used Kris Letang (16:43 5v5 time played) and Brian Dumoulin (15:34) to shield Marino (13:07) and Johnson (12:46) as much as they could. That might not always be possible, especially with matchups and facing better lines as the Pens head out on the road, it may not always be possible to hide the third pair. And sometimes even at home it’s not possible (see first liner Mark Schleifele burning Gudbranson the other night).

Time is in the Pens’ favor. Deal Gudbranson now for a player who makes less and that will buy some space. Give Johnson-Marino a bit more time to swim or, more likely sink, and that should identify the next change to the roster — replacing Johnson in the lineup and scratching him like the team did in Game 1 of the playoffs. The space to go and add a viable LHD by the deadline should be found with the savings from Gudbranson.

That would be the best of all worlds and complete the full restoration of the Pens’ defense to end up the year with an upgraded third pair courtesy of finding someone in a trade for the left side, and John Marino on the right.

Pittsburgh’s defense is a work in progress, even if right now it has been status quo by carrying a bloated nine man crew that probably only has a few quality pieces and a lot of flotsam to sort out.