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Brian Dumoulin can’t get back soon enough

The Pens’ are slipping into some old and not great defensive habits

NHL: NOV 27 Canucks at Penguins Photo by Jeanine Leech/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Due to one devastating and long-term injury to one key player after another, the Penguins have been in “hold on” mode for much of this season. And, they’ve held on, looking at another 100+ point season that should easily punch their ticket to the playoffs, even in a more competitive than imagined Metropolitan Division this year.

Now that Sidney Crosby is back from his surgery and looking like, well, Sidney Crosby, the team has two big problems. First is one that will be addressed with a trade, to replace as much of the scoring of Jake Guentzel as possible. That will be necessary with Guentzel out for the season.

The second issue is at least one that can be remedied, and that’s a defensive boost by the return to injury from Brian Dumoulin. Dumoulin was said to be out at minimum eight weeks from December 1st when he had a surgery to repair sliced ankle tendons. That was nine weeks ago, yesterday. However “minimum” is the key word and Dumoulin hasn’t yet even practiced with the team so his return does not look imminent at this point.

However, that return to full health and getting back in the lineup really can’t come soon enough. Here’s the Pens’ defense’s advanced look from Natural Stat Trick since 12/1:

Justin Schultz’s sample is small at only eight games and can largely be dismissed at such, but it’s more evidence that his 2019-20 season is looking a lot like the ineffective 2018-19 season. He’ll have the chance to improve as he works his way back into the lineup coming off an injury, but not a lot of good things have been happening with Schultz on the ice.

The major standout is without Dumoulin we see Jack Johnson forced to be placed in a bigger role, and quickly drowning. Johnson’s Corsi For% is the worst of regular players (45.4%), he’s been on ice for more goals against (21) at 5-on-5 play than for (16) and his high danger differential (42.7%) is also worst on the team. After a really solid beginning to 2019-20 in a highly sheltered role of low TOI and favorable competition, Johnson has basically been reverting to 2018-19 disastrous levels when pushed up the lineup.

This is also having a negative effect on Kris Letang, who has been unable to compensate for the downgrade in partner and himself has probably pressed and made additional mistakes as well. Letang+Dumoulin since 2018-19 (1,139 minutes) are a 55.7% Corsi% pair that sees the Pens score 62.6% of the Goals. Letang+Johnson (474 minutes) slump to a 47.5% Corsi% and only are on ice for 46.9% of the goals for.

The other standout item is the questionable scratching of Juuso Riikola to favor playing Chad Ruhwedel as an extra right handed defensemen, which we addressed in greater detail here over the weekend. There’s no advanced metric that would advocate for this coaching decision, so clearly there are other factors in play.

The usage of John Marino continues to increase and gradually improve, his strong play has certainly been a revelation this season. Marcus Pettersson has quietly gone about his business as well and is driving pretty good results in the context of how the rest of the team is performing.

The Pens’ goaltending has done well to cover up and mask Dumoulin’s absence and help Pittsburgh to a 19-5-1 record that belies how much they’re missing their best defensive defenseman. Tristan Jarry (12-4-1, .927 save%, 3 shutouts since 12/1) has been tremendous without Dumoulin. Matt Murray only has a .907 save%, but he’s also 7-1-0 and battled to keep the team in games.

It also helps that while Jarry was absolutely lights out in December (.947 save% in nine games), Murray has picked it up and provided better play in January (.929% in four games) when Jarry’s performance has hit natural and understandable regression.

Still, the Pens are a team that is slipping in shot share to mediocre levels without Dumoulin.

In part that’s understandable. Johnson and Letang have struggled as a duo and both looked very poor at moments, but they do continue to battle and find ways to win, which is admirable. The team in general looks cohesive and talented enough with Crosby back to outscore the defensive mistakes (the power play is clicking at a 26.4% rate in the last 18 games, thanks in part to getting Crosby and Patric Hornqvist healthy again).

But this is still a team that is missing Dumoulin’s steady presence and ability to tip the ice in their favor an awful lot. The sooner he can be back, the better.