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The Penguins need John Marino to take step forward

He is the future of the defense.

Boston Bruins v Pittsburgh Penguins Photo by Emilee Chinn/Getty Images

John Marino is one of the more intriguing players on the 2021-22 Pittsburgh Penguins roster.

For starters, he is going to be expected to play a prominent role and be a major cog in the defense. He is also one of the few players on the team that is still relatively young, has his best years ahead of him, and should be a long-term building block player.

The latter point is what makes this season seem so important for Marino and the Penguins, because it might help us determine just what sort of future he has with the team. Is he going to be a solid second-pair defender? Or does he have the potential to make a big jump and eventually take over as the leader of the defense and be a bonafide top-pairing defender?

His contract extension was one of the last major moves by former general manager Jim Rutherford before he left the team, and it is one of those deals that could really go either way. If Marino progresses into the defenseman everyone thought he would be after his rookie season, the contract is an absolute steal.

If he does not become that player on a consistent basis, it’s probablly just an okay deal and nothing special.

So that leads us to this: What is Marino right now and what is his ultimate potential?

The funny thing about Marino right now is that I feel like there is a perception that he took a significant step backwards from year one to year two in terms of his play. In some areas, he did. Specifically offensively where his production really took a hit. His total assist, and especially his primary assist, numbers significantly regressed, his shot volume declined, and it made him look more like a poor-man’s Brian Dumoulin than a No. 1 defender on a Stanley Cup contender. And honestly, there is nothing wrong with that.

While his offensive numbers took a significant step backward, his defensive metrics stayed mostly steady.

The Penguins allowed fewer shot attempts with him on the ice in 2020-21 (46.5 vs. 50.3) while the scoring chance and expected goal numbers against were nearly identical. His defensive impact was the most noteworthy and impressive thing about his rookie season, and that mostly remained the same this past season. Especially when he was paired alongside Marcus Pettersson to form a really solid second pairing.

There is little reason to believe that is going to suddenly change in his third season.

The key is going to be whether or nor the offensive game returns for him. And I think there is some reason to believe that it can.

When you look at the Penguins’ offensive performance with Marino on the ice this past season it wasn’t necessarily a shots or chances issue. While Marino’s individual shot numbers declined, the Penguins as a team were still generating a similar number of shots and chances with him on the ice. There was little change in the Penguins’ shots, scoring chances, and expected goals. The biggest change came in a nearly two percent drop in shooting percentage with him on the ice during 5-on-5 play, going from over 10 percent in his rookie season to 8 percent this past season. Some poor shooting luck? Maybe. A 2 percent change in shooting percentage with Marino on the ice would have resulted in quite a few additional goals for his pairing, which could have easily helped make up for the 10 assists he lost between seasons. That changes a lot of the perception of his season.

With Kris Letang an unrestricted free agent after this season and another year older, and Brian Dumoulin being a free agent after next season the Penguins are going to have to eventually start looking ahead at their blue line and who is going to lead it. Even if Letang and Dumoulim get re-signed before they have a chance to go elsewhere they are still getting to a point where the time as the leaders of the defense start to reach their end.

Marino, Pettersson, and Pierre-Olivier Joseph will be the keys to the future of it.