Sometimes in sports we overrate the underrated, and the Pittsburgh Penguins’ top defense pairing is a pretty good example.
It is pretty much a universally held opinion by everyone that watches the Penguins closely that Brian Dumoulin is an underrated player. And league-wide, he probably is. He is a superb defensive player, and a reliable, steady hand that probably has a bit more offensive punch than his goal-scoring numbers might illustrate. He is a perfectly legitimate No. 2 defender on a championship caliber team, especially when he is one half of a dominant top defense pairing as he is in Pittsburgh when he is healthy.
There has also been a tendency over the past year or so — and especially in the wake of the Penguins’ playoff loss to the New York Islanders — for an argument to be made that he might actually be the team’s best defensemen despite the continued presence of Kris Letang on the team’s roster. It’s taking a good idea (Brian Dumoulin is really good and underappreciated) and taking it just a little too far.
Sometimes the correct answer is the obvious answer.
I am here to tell you, friends, that the obvious answer is that Letang is still the straw that stirs the drink on that blue line, and he is off to a pretty remarkable start this season that is probably going a little unnoticed.
I understand why Letang has his legions of critics that still exist (and I know pointing them out is responding to a pretty vocal minority). Sometimes he is guilty of a giveaway, sometimes he makes an overly-aggressive play and gets caught. But when you are talking about a player that plays 25 minutes per night against the best players in the league and always has the puck on his stick you are going to have the occasional giveaway or wrong decision (the league leaders in “giveaways” every year is an All-Star team made up of superstars.)
Overall, though, the pros are going to outweigh the cons by a significant margin.
He is not the sieve his loudest critics think he is defensively, and there are only a handful of defenders in the league that can impact the game the way he can offensively.
For all of the talk last spring about how he had to change his game and change the way he played (something he infamously scoffed at in his locker clean out day media session) I am not really sure that he has — and that is good for the Penguins, because he is off to a pretty dominant start across the board. That style of play is what makes him such a valuable asset to the team and its offense.
How good has he been so far this season? The numbers are fairly dominant.
From a box score stat standpoint, his 42 shots on goal as of Monday lead all defensemen in the NHL, while he is one of just nine defenders to already have 10 points. It is also one of the best starts of his career offensively and is just the third time he has recorded at least 10 points through the team’s first 12 games (he also did it a year ago and also during the 2010-11 season).
As for the as underlying numbers go, among the 126 defenders that have logged at least 150 minutes of 5-on-5 ice-time this season he is currently in the top-20 in shot attempt differential and scoring chance differential.
In other words, it is business as usual for No. 58. Not that it should be unexpected. It just seemed like all of the focus so far this season has been on the top line (and justifiably so) and the run of injuries (also understandable) and I wanted to call a little attention to one of the big three core players whose performance has — in my view — snuck under the radar a bit.
His highlight reel goal against Dallas got attention, but his season has been so much more than that.
His great regular season a year ago was enough to earn him a sixth-place finish in the Norris Trophy voting. There is nothing in his early play this season to suggest he will not once again be in that discussion.