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Will the Penguins trust Marcus Pettersson to improve their defense?

Pettersson has played well, but sheltered. It might be time to ask a little more from him

New York Islanders v Pittsburgh Penguins Photo by Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images

With all the Penguins injuries on defense, one of the highlights of the whole season has been the emergence of Pierre-Olivier Joseph. Joseph was thrust into the NHL lineup after several injuries to defensemen and shined brightly. For a 21-year old who made his NHL debut on January 22nd, by January 30th Joseph had a three point night in his fifth NHL game while playing 25:58. The next game he played 26:14, and the game after that he scored his first NHL goal.

It was a whirlwind start for Joseph, who went from a complete unknown quantity to almost instantly playing first pair NHL minutes, and playing them well.

But, the problem is, there have been problems for Joseph since then. His play has turned sour, and what once was a nice mesh with Kris Letang has started to bring out the worst in each of them.

The downturn in Joseph’s play hasn’t gone unnoticed by the coaching staff. Joseph has played 16 minutes or less in each of the last three games. Saturday night Joseph was on the ice for both of the Islanders goals against. He found himself stapled to the bench for the last 8:45 of the game.

With Joseph fading away a bit, there is good news on the horizon. Brian Dumoulin has been skating in limited fashion and is on the return from an injury suffered on January 26th. Dumoulin was said to be out “week-to-week” which is Mike Sullivan-speak for typically about 4-7ish weeks, a window about to open soon and should be coinciding with Dumoulin’s return to practice in the fairly near future.

The Penguins do have another option though to replace Joseph before Dumoulin returns. It just happens to be down an avenue that the team has never really elected to go.

That would be trying Marcus Pettersson with Kris Letang.

Last season, with Dumoulin suffering a known long-term injury, the Pens almost never played Pettersson on the top pair, despite his availability. Instead the coaching staff opted to use John Marino, a right handed rookie at the time, with the right handed Letang. When that proved to be the natural awkward fit, they moved onto using Jack Johnson with Letang, a move that torpedoed all the metrics of every first line player.

All the while, the team had Marcus Pettersson plugging away providing quality second pairing play.

That 42% percentile of QoC really tells the tale about staying sheltered. Pettersson has only played 149 total minutes at 5v5 with Letang in the 133 career games the young Swede has played with the Penguins. Given penalties expiring and staggered shifts that’s basically a rounding error and small accumulations adding up over time.

Given how many times the Pens have had to finish games with five defensemen due to injuries suffered in the middle of games, one would think Pettersson+Letang would have played more together simply out of necessity, but that hasn’t been the case. Pettersson has played with five Pittsburgh defensemen teammates more than Letang.

For whatever reason, a Pettersson-Letang pairing has just not been a priority for Mike Sullivan. It’s quite a shame because Pettersson has shown an ability to suppress offense and play solid hockey for the Pens. Here’s some metrics from his season in review last year as a reminder:

(Ranks are out of the 8 highest TOI defenseman this season at 5v5 with 300 minutes played, thanks to Natural Stat Trick)

Corsi For%: 51.8% (4th)
Goals For%: 54.1% (4th)
xGF%: 53.1 (4th)
Scoring Chance %: 52.6% (3rd)
High Danger Scoring Chance%: 50.9% (4th)
On-ice shooting%: 8.8% (4th)
On-ice save%: .916 (5th)

Despite Pettersson helping the Pens’ expected goals compared to when he’s not on the ice (as shown in the chart above), he’s just never been tabbed for the opportunity to play up with Letang.

Now looks like a perfect time to reverse such thinking or give it a try: Joseph hasn’t been able to maintain a first pair performance (which, probably is to be expected for a 21-year old with 12 career NHL games). A second pair of Mike Matheson and John Marino is starting to gel together and generate positive results. That presents the perfect chance to flip the lineup.

After all, in some ways Pettersson is style-wise a very similar defensive defenseman mold to Dumoulin. And the Dumoulin-Letang pair has crushed it for years for the Pens to help the Pens control the majority of the play. Pettersson even compared as well or better than Dumoulin in ways:

It remains unknown why Sullivan has never wanted to utilize Pettersson in a bigger role. Does he feel Pettersson would just be too overmatched against elite competition? Or have some other reason to limit the competition Pettersson faces? Perhaps the coaches simply don’t like the mesh or elements of Pettersson and Letang together as individual players? It’s strange that a player who has performed has never been given a bigger opportunity, especially when the Pens have certainly experienced their share of injuries to open the doors for it.

Will the current climate of the Pens change Sullivan’s mind to give Pettersson a boost in the lineup? Joseph isn’t really getting it done and Dumoulin will be back soon but isn’t ready just yet. The unexplored option of pairing Pettersson with Letang seems likely to provide a better performance than what the first pair has been giving recently. But will the Pens break their tendencies and actually put more on Pettersson’s plate? With Joseph’s play fading a bit as of late, it should be worth seriously considering.