Last night the Penguins had to dig deep with a depleted bench, as two defensemen suffered injury in the second period of the game against the Capitals.
Coach Sullivan on Pettersson and Riikola: "Those guys are both being evaluated with upper-body injuries. I don't have an update for you right now."— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) January 20, 2021
Add Pettersson and Riikola to Mike Matheson — who was injured in the second game of the season and placed on injured reserve — and the Pens have now suffered three injuries to left handed defensemen, through just one week and four games of the season. The Penguins have used four different lineups in the four games (though one was a choice for performance, not injury) and it looks like the changes are going to become the constant.
This is a big dagger to deal with, any injury to the same position in a matter of days can drastically change the course of how the team looks. Suffering multiple injuries to the same spot is just tough to deal with and always going to be a negative.
Where do the Pens go from here? Let’s dig into some possibilities:
An injured player dodges a bullet
Mike Sullivan doesn’t like to give details on injuries, and after a game he almost always says what he says above about ongoing evaluations. The Pens are off today, but return to the ice tomorrow. In a perfect world, one or both of Pettersson/Riikola return to the ice for practice on Thursday, and in that case it’s almost no harm, no foul. The chances aren’t as good for Matheson, who was deemed to be out “longer term” by Sullivan, which is usually code for an injury that will last weeks, not days.
Pierre-Olivier Joseph time
However, odds are that the Pens will be without at least on player from last game. The known healthy left handed defense depth chart right now is Brian Dumoulin and then on the practice squad Pittsburgh has Pierre-Olivier Joseph and Kevin Czuczman. These players are polar opposites of one another; Joseph at 21 has no NHL experience, but is a top prospect. Czucman, at age 30, has played 13 NHL games for NYI way back in 2013-14, and is considered a good AHL player without an NHL future. Czuczman has played almost 400 career pro hockey games over seven seasons; Joseph has played 52 in one year.
It will remain to be seen which player would be favored, but one would think Joseph ought to be in position to make his NHL debut given the flattering comments the Pens have made about him in recent months.
The one silver lining about losing three defensemen in a week, if there can be such a thing, is that at least in this instance it hasn’t been very meaningful players. Pettersson is the Pens’ fourth best blueliner. Matheson is probably fifth or six. Riikola was seen as a seventh or eight depth defender.
Considering the Pens have lost Dumoulin and Kris Letang to injuries in the same game, ON THE VERY SAME SEQUENCE, this is almost a walk in the park by comparison.
There could also be some positional flexibility. We saw John Marino play the left side (on a pair with Letang) last season. Last night and also occasionally in the past, Chad Ruhwedel has played on the left as a right-side shot. Back in the day, Matt Niskanen used to do this all the time.
The also unnammed to the this point is the Pens have Cody Ceci. He’s been a healthy scratch for the last three games, but he’s as decent a bottom of the lineup option remaining when we’re throwing around names like Czuczman and players with no NHL experience
Could the Pens roll out with something like:
It’s not ideal, but at least would be six players. Ruhwedel/Marino played for a period together in a pinch and survived, and the fact of the matter is that Chad Ruhwedel is the fourth best healthy defenseman left if the players from last night can’t play the next game on Friday.
If one of Riikola or especially Pettersson can return immediately and miss no time, the picture gets prettier. The Pens can then align their defense with 3LD-3RD as they doubtlessly would prefer to do, and probably push Ceci back up to the press box. At this point, that might be the most realistic best case scenario.
Unfortunately for Pittsburgh though, it sure didn’t take long for one of the strengths of their team (8 NHL defensemen) to be put to the test in a major way with three apparent injuries to those eight players in the season’s first week.
Fortunately for the Pens, they do have an intriguing player in Joseph who has at least a little professional experience who they can turn to as the deeper part of the reserves gets tested.