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Looking at the Penguins’ long-term defense after Marcus Pettersson’s contract extension

The top-four of the defense is in place for several years and looking to be outstanding.

Arizona Coyotes v Pittsburgh Penguins Photo by Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images

It was always a matter of when, and not if, the Pittsburgh Penguins were going to sign defenseman Marcus Pettersson to a long-term contract extension. They wanted to sign him during the summer, did not have the salary cap space at the time, and were finally able to put pen to paper on Tuesday with a five-year, $20 million extension that takes him through the 2024-25 season.

Overall, it seems like a pretty fair deal for both sides.

The roughly $4 million per year salary cap hit is fair for what a strong second-pairing defenseman gets, and it runs through the first two years of his unrestricted free agent eligibility. Because everyone likes comparisons, it takes a lower percentage of the salary cap (4.9 percent) than Olli Maatta’s long-term deal (5.9 percent) did when he signed it with the Penguins a few years ago, and is comparable to Rasmus Andersson’s recent deal with the Calgary Flames (Pettersson’s contract is slightly less money per year and also one year shorter).

It also locks the Penguins’ defensive core in place contractually for the next few years.

Kris Letang is signed through the end of the 2021-22 season.

Brian Dumoulin is signed through 2022-23.

Pettersson is signed through 2024-25.

John Marino is only signed through the end of next season on his entry-level deal, but he the Penguins control his RFA rights for the next four years.

If you want to, you can also include Jack Johnson in there as being signed through the end of the 2022-23 season.

That group has the makings of a really good top-four, and it is kind of remarkable to think about how much the perception of this defense has changed over the past few months. Go back to the end of the 2018-19 season, or even the start of the 2019-20 season, and there seemed to be more questions than answers regarding this blue line.

We knew the Letang-Dumoulin pairing was going to be outstanding (because it always is) but everything after that was a complete unknown. Pettersson’s debut with the team was promising, but there were still questions as to what type of player he would become. It became clear in training camp and the preseason that the Penguins loved Marino’s potential, but he was still a prospect they acquired for a late-round draft pick. There is, after all, a massive difference between a training camp prospect tournament or an exhibition games against the Buffalo Sabres’ B-team versus playing against actual NHL teams in games that count.

They were two of the wild card players that, depending on their development, could swing the Penguins’ overall performance and season in one direction or another. It is easy to see the direction they have helped take the Penguins. Both have been a huge part of the Penguins regaining their identity and have helped transform the defense into something that at least resembles the team that won back-to-back Stanley Cups during the 2016 and 2017 seasons. There is mobility on the back end. There are players that can get out of the zone and get the puck to the forwards. It is not about trying to provide “pushback” or be physical for the sake of being physical.

Getting two young, top-four caliber defensemen without having to give up anything of significance (Daniel Sprong and a sixth-round draft pick is what it cost to get Marino and Pettersson over the past two years) while making a few tweaks to the forward group has helped take the Penguins from being a defensively suspect team, to being one of the best defensive teams in the entire NHL. It is not hyperbole or any sort of a stretch to say they are playing Stanley Cup caliber defense this season.

The other factor here is that it makes re-signing Justin Schultz a significant long-shot without some other move to clear salary cap space. Signing him to a new contract always seemed unlikely, but it is really hard to see where he fits in with this current defense beyond this season. With Letang, Dumoulin, Pettersson, Marino, and Johnson that is already more $20 million in cap space committed toward the defense for next season (while Marino will be due for a raise starting with the 2021-22 season), further pushing the team to the upper limits of the salary cap with still several restricted free agents to sign (Matt Murray, Tristan Jarry, Jared McCann, Dominik Kahun, Dominik Simon). You have to assume at some point a salary dump trade is going to be made (Nick Bjugstad seems like a given to be traded over the next year-and-a-half, and Johnson could also theoretically be moved; Maybe Patric Hornqvist, too) to create enough room for restricted free agent re-signings, but not enough to realistically re-sign what might be your fifth-best defenseman on a long-term contract.

Overall the Penguins defense has rapidly improved far more than I thought it would at the start of the season, and it is not only giving them a great chance this season, it is a group that is going to give them a chance and be a key part of the core for the next several years.