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Second pair is a first problem for the Pittsburgh Penguins

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Fix the second pair, and you might just fix the Penguins’ defense

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Pittsburgh Penguins v New Jersey Devils Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

It’s going to be an off-season of change for the Pittsburgh Penguins. Their mix of players never worked, and fittingly they lost in the first round of the playoffs this year.

And, despite general manager Jim Rutherford’s instantly infamous “I think our defense is the best it’s been since I’ve been here as a group” quote, the defense remains the easiest identifiable area to upgrade.

Really, Rutherford might not be that off, though either, if you think about it.

Brian Dumoulin has developed into a legitimate first pair defensive defenseman that can do just about everything well.

Kris Letang played at a borderline Norris trophy level for 65 games this season, with his caveats known about missing time and making inconsistent decisions at times. That said, while Letang’s mistakes are very visible, in the big, complete picture he’s a right-handed defenseman who skates like the wind, can play 25+ minutes every game and helps the Pens score more goals than they allow while he’s on the ice. Letang is a legit number one defenseman, full stop.

Then, crazy enough, two Rutherford acquisitions in Marcus Pettersson and Erik Gudbranson have formed a cohesive third pair in a brief 23 game pairing at the end of this season. Pettersson is young — still technically a rookie in 2018-19 — and could develop into a sturdy all-around player. Gudbranson has his limitations, but he also provides size and a physical edge that NHL coaches and managers crave.

So you’ve got what is a quality first pair, and a serviceable third. That leaves the big, glaring hole on the team, the second pair.

Old face in a new place Sean Gentille spoke a bit about it on The Athletic ($) and it stood out:

Justin Schultz and Jack Johnson are a mess. Against the Islanders, in three games together, they were out-attempted 39-32 (45.07 percent), outshot 26-12 (31.58 percent), out-chanced 26-13 (33.33 percent) and outscored 3-0 (zero percent).

That’s in step with where they were in 29 games and more than 383 minutes together in the regular season; with them on the ice, the Penguins controlled 44.97 of all shot attempts, 44.97 of actual shots, 46.83 of all scoring chances and outscored opponents 16-11. That last number is pumped up by Matt Murray’s return to form. He gets the credit there.

The worst thing, well besides the results, about the bad stats is something Gentille doesn’t mention: usage. Jack Johnson had 72.7% offensive zone starts in the playoff games he played. Justin Schultz was basically identical at 71.4%. (Olli Maatta, who was tried and failed on the second pair had 100% o-zone starts in Game 1).

So not only were those players gifted great usage, they still got caved in possession-wise an outscored 0-3. That’s not something that can continue.

While everyone assumes Schultz is a part of the solution, his play in 2018-19 wasn’t really the best. Tough to critique a guy too much who breaks his leg in the fourth game of the season and misses most the season, but Schultz never got on track, and has failed to elevate his game when playing with players like Johnson and Maatta that you would hope Schultz could help.

Schultz is also an unrestricted free agent following next season. Negotiations with him and his representatives haven’t always been easy. Schultz is a player who knows his worth and wants to be paid appropriately (as well he should). Problem is he is also a puck moving right handed defenseman and at 29 years old is in the prime of his career.

Can the Pens afford to keep Schultz on his next contract? It’s a question that needs to be at least asked now and a plan formulated for all contingencies.

Maatta, at his best, looked like he was developing into a solid second pair defensive defenseman. He was one of the Pens’ best players in the 2017 Stanley Cup run. Much has changed in the last two years with Maatta a healthy scratch for the last three games. It was justifiable too, his stats and metrics were terrible this season. Maatta has been wholly unable to rise above the level of his partners and playing with replacement level players like Johnson and Juuso Riikola have resulted in Maatta ending up dragged down with them.

Johnson, well, we all know his struggles. The Pens scored just 43.4% of the goals with Johnson on the ice in 2018-19. With Johnson on the bench if a goal was scored, 61.8% of the time it was the Pens scoring. The way the ice tilts negatively with Johnson on the ice is undeniable and unavoidable. He’s got four more seasons on what always was an ill-advised contract, but NHL general managers have been over-valuing him for years. If the Pens retain some money or offer a sweetener of some sort, a transaction should be possible.

So there you have it - three options under contract for next year but all have some warts or questions about if they should stay there. It seems likely that movement will happen here, almost certainly Maatta is going to be dangled but Pittsburgh needs more than that for improvement.

A big part of fixing the Pens will revolve around in what their plan is for their second pair defense. A wise strategy might be to try and cut bait with Johnson and Maatta which would clear up some space to try and find a partner to work with Schultz.