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John Marino’s ‘sophomore slump’: Fact and fiction

The second year defender has had some struggles, but it may not be as bad as it has seemed.

Philadelphia Flyers v Pittsburgh Penguins Photo by Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images

John Marino is probably one of the more important members of the 2020-21 Pittsburgh Penguins.

Based on the way he played a year ago as a rookie, when he came out of nowhere to become one of the team’s most reliable and impactful defenders, he should be considered one of the best young players in the organization. The Penguins do not really have a lot of young impact players to build around long-term, but you would hope that Marino would be one of them.

He is also one of the many defenders on the roster signed to a long-term contract that carries a sizable salary cap hit for the next several years. For that reason alone the Penguins need him to play well to justify the investment. It was a bold move by former general manager Jim Rutherford to sign him to such a significant contract after just one season, but if he builds on that rookie season and becomes a top-pairing defender (or even a consistent top-four defender) that contract could be a bargain for the team. But he has to actually become that player for that to become a reality.

So far this season, he does not seem to be improving from his rookie season. Some might even say he is playing through the common sophomore slump that carries a significant regression. The eye test has not always been pretty, and some of the numbers (especially offensively) paint an ugly picture. His offensive numbers have significantly regressed, going from a nine-goal, 40-point pace over 82 games to a three-goal, 12-point pace over 82 games. As of Monday he only has four points (one goal, three assists) this season in 27 games this season. That is not great.

Having said that, is his performance this season as bad as it might seem? There is an argument to be made that no, it is not.

For starters, there are a lot of variables at play here.

He has been asked to take on a more defensive role this season in terms of where his shifts are starting (high defensive zone start percentage) and he spent a lot of time playing on his off side.

He has also had three different primary defense partners (Marcus Pettersson, Cody Ceci, and Mike Matheson) that have all produced very different results defensively.

If you break the Penguins’ defensive numbers with Marino on the ice down to defense partner, you can kind of start to see where the issue has been.

To put it simply: When Marino has been paired with Pettersson or Ceci, the defensive performance is very similar to what we saw a year ago. When he is paired next to Matheson, things significantly change.

Just look at the defensive numbers in the table below, looking at shot attempts against, shots on goal against, scoring chances against, expected goals against, and goals against per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 play. We are looking at his 2019-20 numbers, as well as his numbers with each defense partner.

John Marino Defense Performance By Season And Defense Partner

Player TOI TOI/GP CA/60 CF% SA/60 GA/60 GF% xGF/60 xGA/60 xGF% SCA/60 HDCA/60
Player TOI TOI/GP CA/60 CF% SA/60 GA/60 GF% xGF/60 xGA/60 xGF% SCA/60 HDCA/60
John Marino 2019-20 929.14 16.35 50.3 50.1 27.3 2.2 56.4 2.16 1.8 54.4 22.99 8.39
Marcus Pettersson 116.92 6.15 42.08 50.6 24.12 2.57 54.55 2.03 1.79 53.14 21.04 11.29
Cody Ceci 72.77 2.91 46.17 50.88 28.03 2.47 57.14 2.17 2.12 50.52 23.91 8.25
Mike Matheson 227.50 11.38 56.44 47.16 33.23 3.43 45.83 1.81 2.58 41.2 26.11 12.66

Some pretty telling numbers here, specifically the difference in performance between the Pettersson/Ceci minutes and the Matheson minutes.

When Marino is paired next to Pettersson and Ceci, his numbers are almost identical to what he did during his rookie season, and in some cases they are actually better. The Penguins are allowed fewer shot attempts and shots on goals in those minutes this season, while the scoring chances and expected goals numbers are pretty much the same. That is a positive sign! Sure, the offensive numbers are worse, but defensively things are right where they should be.

It is not until he plays next to Matheson (his most common defense partner this season) that his defensive numbers start to go in the opposite direction. In some cases significantly. Is this really a surprise? Matheson has a lot of positive traits as a player (skating, skill with the puck, etc.) but he has some obvious shortcomings defensively. The only partner that has really seemed to work alongside of him is Ceci.

So when you look at Marino’s overall performance there are definitely some things you would like to see improve, especially offensively. Just as long as he gets the right defense partner there is still a lot to like about his overall performance, especially given the context of a tougher role, playing on the offside, and having different defense partners.

Overall there are some encouraging signs here that Marino’s play has not really slipped all that much and that he can and will still be significant and important player for the Penguins moving forward.

Data In This Post Via Natural Stat Trick