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The Penguins’ Achilles Heel

We need to talk about the third defense pairing.

NHL: New Jersey Devils at Pittsburgh Penguins Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Think back to the Pittsburgh PenguinsStanley Cup in in 2015-16 and their first-round matchup against the New York Rangers.

What do you remember about that series?

For me, it is the lasting image of the Penguins going right at Dan Girardi and Marc Staal every single time they were on the ice and exploiting his lack of speed and mobility, and just blowing past them with ease. They crushed them.

That is what playoff hockey is all about. Finding a matchup on your opponent that you can exploit, and doing everything you can to exploit it. In a best-of-seven series when coaches actually have an opportunity to sit down and truly dissect an opponent and gameplan for them they are going to find that matchup and try to go at it.

If I am an Eastern Conference team that draws the Penguins at any point I know exactly what matchup I am going for.

Jack Johnson and Marcus Pettersson.

I didn’t like the Johnson signing. I didn’t understand it. I didn’t think it did anything to make the Penguins better in the short-term and certainly not in the long-term with that contract going on for four more years beyond this one. But it happened. It’s done.

But now that we’re more than halfway through the season, it’s really not something that you can just ignore any longer. We have to talk about it and we have to keep talking about it because it is going to continue to be a point of discussion as long as it exists.

It’s a problem, and it’s been growing into a really big problem lately.

It seems as if they are on the ice for nearly every goal against. When they are on the ice, the Penguins seem to be glued to their own end of the rink. They don’t move the puck well, they don’t create much, and for as much credit as they got for their initial success today it is starting to look like it was all nothing but a mirage.

Here are the Penguins’ three most commonly used defense pairings over the past 10 games and their overall performance at even-strength relating to shot attempts, scoring chances, and goals.


Pairing CF% GF-GA SC% HDSC% SCA/60 HDSCA/60
Pairing CF% GF-GA SC% HDSC% SCA/60 HDSCA/60
Kris Letang-Brian Dumoulin 52.1 9-7 59.4 59.1 25.1 12
Olli Maatta-Juuso Riikola 51.1 3-5 62.5 70.1 21.5 5.8
Jack Johnson-Marcus Pettersson 48.3 4-9 48.3 45.6 28.6 11.2

The Letang-Dumoulin pairing gives up its share of high-danger scoring chances, but they also create a ton more and help drive the offense. I can deal with that, and so can the Penguins.

I am not entirely sold on the Maatta-Rikkola pairing and am ready for Justin Schultz’s return, but they are not playing terribly. They have, at the very least limited chances against.

Then we get to the third pair where the bottom just falls out. I know, “it’s only the third pairing, they’re not supposed to be as good as the top-pairing,” but that doesn’t mean you can just throw anybody out there and have it work. They are still playing nearly a third of every game, and that can easily cost you.

The narrative around this pairing being a solid third-pair is based almost entirely on that 10-game sampling back in December, and in their defense, they did play really well (yes, goaltending drove the goals against numbers but their underlying numbers were also very good during that stretch). Everything else around that, though, has been terrible. And I’m not entirely convinced they are going to get back to that level.

The only reasonable solution that I keep coming back to here is that Johnson, at some point, has to be the odd-man out.

Every defender on the roster after Letang and Dumoulin has its flaws (and so do Letang and Dumoulin, to an extent — their flaws just aren’t always as glaring), but Johnson is consistently the one that rates out the worst in terms of his overall performance. And that just continues the same trend that has followed him around for his entire career. At some point it’s not just bad luck.

The problem is I don’t think there is any chance the Penguins see the situation the same way. They clearly value him in some way, and for as much as they are quick to admit their mistakes and move on from them as an organization I just haven’t seen any sign that is going to happen here.

That could end up burning them come playoff time.