A depth defenseman, someone that — if they are lucky — might play on the third pairing or be a solid seventh-defender this season and maybe in the future work his way up the depth chart.
Just a couple of months into the 2019-20 season and it is becoming very clear that he is not only going to be much more than that, he already is much more than that.
The Penguins coaching staff and front office loved him from the beginning, and that was very apparent early in the year when they forced him into the lineup by dressing seven defensemen in an early season home loss to the Winnipeg Jets. On that night it seemed like an odd move, messing up the defense pairings and giving a rookie some playing time because he impressed in training camp and in practice. In his first few games after that he received high praise, but the on-ice results were kind of inconsistent. Nothing to be overly worried about, but still a little bit of a question mark.
Little more than one month later and things are dramatically different for Marino and the Penguins’ defense.
Not only are the Penguins playing rock-solid defense as a team (I wrote about this over at NBC on Tuesday, if you want to check that out) but Marino has become one of the big drivers in that performance and one of the most important offseason pickups.
He has not only been better than advertised, he has been everything the Penguins defense has needed the past couple of years, adding a young, cheap against the salary cap, and mobile player to a blue line that had become increasingly slower and, for lack of a better word, worse.
What is perhaps most impressive is the way he has fit into a bigger role when called upon in the absence of either Kris Letang or Brian Dumoulin and never really looking out of place.
He has topped 20 minutes in each of the Penguins’ past 10 games, has eight points (two goals, six assists), and looks the part in every way. He moves the puck, he has great patience and poise, and he rarely seems to get caught out of position or get beat. The play that still stands out most to me was the come-from-behind win against Chicago when he held the puck until the last possible second and slid a perfect cross-ice pass to Bryan Rust for the game-tying goal to send it to overtime.
He has not only been a great find for this season, he looks like he has a chance to be a long-term fit on the blue line, which should make it even easier to make a decision on pending unrestricted free agent Justin Schultz (let him go). With Marino in place, alongside 23-year-old Marcus Pettersson (who will be in need of a new contract extension very soon), and Pierre-Oliver Joseph in the organization as part of the Phil Kessel trade, the Penguins suddenly have some promising young depth on their defense that all fit what should be their preferred style of play.
You know Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin are going to be there at the top of the lineup.
Now they have two outstanding young players behind them (and maybe a third) to help complement them.
It is not unfair to say that general manager Jim Rutherford has had an up-and-down run with the Penguins. His first year had some growing pains and the team struggled as a result. The next two years were about as flawless as a general manager could possibly be and he has two Stanley Cups to show for it. Then things kind of started to get weird the two years after and the team regressed more than it probably needed to because the direction of the team changed too much in the wrong way. But getting the duo of Marino and Pettersson for what amounts to a conditional draft pick and Daniel Sprong is playing a big part in getting the Penguins back in the right direction.