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Pens defensive personnel getting healthy and interesting

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Marcus Pettersson nears a return, and the Pens blueline is suddenly flush with healthy bodies

NHL: JAN 19 Capitals at Penguins Photo by Jeanine Leech/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Penguins are venturing into unusual, but welcome territory these days with regard to their injury situation. It’s starting to improve drastically with the full return of Marcus Pettersson to practice on Saturday.

It wasn’t that long ago that Kris Letang left injured with Pettersson, Brian Dumoulin and Mike Matheson all on the shelf themselves. To compound that, John Marino was briefly added to the NHL’s COVID-protocol list.

Luckily, fortunes turned quickly. Letang only missed a single full game, in part due to a few games getting cancelled. Marino apparently was a false positive and cleared quickly from the list without having to quarantine for 7-14 days. Matheson returned to action, and Pettersson is drawing close.

Rock bottom looks like it was January 30th. The Pens played a lineup that included Yannick Weber (a late free agent signing after he failed on his tryout to make Nashville’s team) and Kevin Czuczman. Czuczman hadn’t played in the NHL since the 2013-14 season, and even then he got in a few games when he first signed as a college free agent as the sort of the incentive to “sign here with this team and we’ll play you in the NHL this season” for a few meaningless games for a non-playoff NHL team at the end of the year.

The Pens’ seventh defenseman and player to be added in the event of an injury in warmup was William Reilly, a former seventh round draft pick who had played exactly 0 professional games at any level at the time.

But now, the tide has turned and health has slowly but surely returned to the Pens’ defense. One positive consequence is these injuries opened a door for Pierre-Olivier Joseph that likely would not have been opened otherwise this season. Joseph stepped in and stepped up big time, earning the opportunity to stay in the lineup. And with the way he’s playing, there’s no reason a coach would want to take Joseph out of the lineup.

What does that mean for the rest of the lineup? First things first, the team is not at full health. Brian Dumoulin is out for a while — his LTIR designation means it will be at least until February 20th and possibly (perhaps likely) even longer considering he has not resumed skating. By the time Dumoulin is ready to return we can not assume the remaining defensemen will be all healthy — uninjured and not testing positive as another potential reason to miss games.

Pettersson’s impending return, whether it is tomorrow or later on in the next few games to follow, should provide a big boost for the Pens. Quietly he is one of the team’s best and steadiest defensive defenseman. There’s also the inconvenient truth that John Marino ranks at the bottom of almost all the offensive and defensive stats on the team for the season. Getting Pettersson back and reuniting a Pettersson-Marino pair could be a bonus.

Once Pettersson is back, the Pens’ depth chart could be looking like:

P.O Joseph / Kris Letang
Marcus Pettersson / John Marino
Mike Matheson / Cody Ceci

Extras: Chad Ruhwedel, Yannick Weber

This is basically the season opening lineup — with Joseph replacing Dumoulin. The fact that a 21-year old with no NHL experience can step in and play 20+ minutes is very, very impressive but not looking like a fluke with every passing game and solid performance. Joseph has the physical tools and ability needed, and appears to have the mental poise to adapt. There have been a couple bumps in the road (he made two mistakes that ended up in the back of the net in the last game against the Islanders) but such is life playing defense in the NHL. It’s a game of mistakes.

When Dumoulin returns, if Pittsburgh is healthy, they will likely have to shift to play four left-handed defensemen, unless they opt to make a healthy scratch out of Matheson. It would be a good problem to have if they get to the point of having seven healthy NHL defensive options for the lineup. That shouldn’t necessarily mean a trade of a sudden surplus is necessary, lest the dark days of playing names like Czuczman and Weber return after a few more injuries strike again.

So even though the news of the moment and the story is about Pettersson taking steps to get closer to a game return, the bigger picture of the Pens’ defense is really still all about P.O. Joseph. Joseph has brought so much to the table, and now as the Pens get healthier, his presence will be a big benefit it he can continue to maintain the same high level of play and will serve to make their group that much better for it.