It really is not that complicated.
I do not for one second believe that the Penguins’ recent struggles defensively are due to them losing their commitment or forgetting how to play. I know what Mike Sullivan is saying when he talks about playing smart and playing the right way. I hear it. He has to say it. He has to try to push the right buttons to get his point across and try to squeeze everything he can out of what has been an undermanned lineup for most of the seasom.
It is still a matter of talent.
Specifically, the talent that is currently out of the lineup and the talent that is back in the lineup replacing the talent that is out of the lineup.
When you take Brian Dumoulin and John Marino out of the picture you are not only taking two of your top-four defensemen away, you are taking two of your best overall defensive players away. That is a lot to overcome. It becomes even tougher to overcome when you lose forwards like Dominik Kahun and Zach Aston-Reese, two outstanding defensive forwards that have also played a significant role in the Penguins’ defensive turnaround this season.
It does not matter how much organizational depth you have, you are not going to be able to adequately replace all of that at the same time. That is still the biggest problem right now.
It is, however, not the only problem.
While Sullivan is probably in line to be — at the very least — a finalist for the Jack Adams award this season, and while I can not find much fault in many of the decisions he has made this season, I am having a hard time understanding the defense usage at the moment.
Specifically, the top pairing.
Look, I know. A lot of you don’t like hearing about Jack Johnson and the piling on that comes with the mere mention of his name. But you can not ignore objective data here. Back in August before the season we looked at the different defense pairings the Penguins used during the 2018-19 season and, to the surprise of no one, the Johnson-Kris Letang pairing was one of the team’s worst. Anytime the Penguins try to pair Letang with a slow-footed, stay-at-home defender it fails to produce results because it basically ties the team’s most dynamic blue-liner down to an anchor.
Guess what is happening lately as Johnson has seen his role dramatically increase from what it was earlier in the season?
You guessed it.
The table below looks at the Penguins’ defense pairings over the past 10 and past 25 games and their overall performance. The Letang-Johnson pairing is playing the bulk of the team’s 5-on-5 minutes, and it is getting CRUSHED.
Pairings are ranked by most time-on-ice over the past 10 games.
Is it any wonder that the team’s overall defensive performance has dropped when the defense pairing that sees the bulk of the minutes is getting crushed?
The (hopeful) return of Dumoulin would go a long way toward fixing this, and it would probably be better and more impactful than any trade that could possibly be made before the trade deadline today. But even though he is back skating and traveling on the road trip we still do not know when exactly he will return. Until that happens there has to be another option. I know options are limited. But we are at the point here where trying anything might be preferable.
Perhaps the biggest oddity here is how Juuso Riikola continues to be the odd-man out in these equations.
We are obviously dealing with small sample sizes here, and I still do not know how good he actually is, but his recent performance has been mostly strong. He and Chad Ruhwedel had formed a solid third-pairing (in very sheltered minutes, but someone has to play those minutes) and he played well in limited time next to Letang — right up until that mix-up in Toronto that resulted in a goal. It is frustrating when a player like that makes one mistake and immediately gets sent to the press box, while other players seem to have a free ticket no matter what happens.
None of this gets into the elephant in the room that is the second-pairing where Justin Schultz does not have a point (A POINT!) since November 12, a stretch of 20 games for him, and where Marcus Pettersson had a miserable game on Sunday. He and Marino were also starting to slow down a bit in recent weeks before the latter exited the lineup.
Obviously the most important thing for the Penguins is getting Dumoulin and Marino back. That fixes a lot. It still comes down to the Penguins making the right decisions with the lineup once that happens, and putting the right players together. That means Letang with Dumoulin. Giving Marino and Pettersson another chance to work their way back. Then trying to figure out where the quartet of Johnson, Schultz, Ruhwedel, and Riikola fit as a third-pairing.