For lineup purposes, the news about Mike Matheson’s injury is in last night’s game is pretty big. It means the Penguins’ defense will be different in personnel for the first time since mid-November, a really long string of good fortune to play and build continuity with the same players in more or less the same roles for a large portion of the season.
And while Matheson has been playing well and certainly will be missed for his puck moving and carrying abilities, Pittsburgh recalled defender Pierre-Olivier Joseph from Wilkes-Barre today. That is really interesting for a few reasons.
First, Matheson has been deemed with the dreaded “week-to-week” tag. In Mike Sullivan parlance typically tends to mean a 3-6 week absence, give or take a little. That’s a lot of time, considering Pittsburgh plays 13 times in 28 days starting tomorrow, which gives something of a meaningful opportunity for Joseph to presumably be in the NHL lineup for a good chunk of games.
A second important aspect is Joseph’s impressive play at the AHL level so far this season. One of the knocks or concerns on every scouting report on Joseph is just how much production and offensive ability would translate to the NHL level. He wasn’t a hugely dynamic player in Junior, and his first year in the AHL (2019-20, in Wilkes) he only scored three goals and had 17 points in 52 games.
However, this year in the AHL, Joseph is up to 28 points (8G+20A) in just 40 games. It’s even better in recent games since January 29th, “POJ” has 12 points (5G+7A) in his last 12 games and has really stepped up his level of play.
As Joseph recently told Seth Rorabaugh of the Tribune-Review:
“Just being here with the team here [in WBS], it helps me in a different way,” Joseph said. “I feel like kind of an older guy here, even though I’m really young. It’s good to be able to help the younger guys and the guys just coming into the (AHL). At the same time, I can improve as well. The big word is ‘consistency’ this year.
“Whenever I have the chance to go up, I’ll just be ready.”
The coaches down there have harped on him to grow his game and compete more consistently and the results have been pleasing. Now as a real AHL point producer and top pair, all-situation player at 22-years old, it’s time for the Penguins to find out what they have in Joseph.
They should already have something of an idea, Joseph has 20 career NHL games under his belt. Only four have come this season, 16 were last year in 2020-21, including in some big roles at times when the team was crushed with injury.
With Matheson knocked out of the lineup temporarily, there might be a bigger hole on the left side defense than there appears.
Marcus Pettersson was on the ice today at practice with his usual partner John Marino, after a night where three Pettersson mistakes all happened to end up in his net. After the third goal against, Pettersson was stapled to the bench for well over a full period (from 10:36 remaining in the second period until 7:17 left in the third). He presumably only played a few shifts late in the game because the Pens were down 6-1 and had no reason to continue to handicap themselves by skating the other five defenders into the ground just to play out the stretch in a blowout.
Pettersson is down to an average of 15:37 per game this season, that’s only a few seconds more than Chad Ruhwedel! (Though Ruhwedel does have a penalty killing role, and Pettersson does not. Which is another issue that says something else, but isn’t for this topic).
That means for the left side, the Pens start as they always do with Brian Dumoulin. But even ol’ reliable Dumo has had an uneven season and is only about a 25% percentile WAR player this season, (but that too is a different topic for a different day). We know Pittsburgh does not have the services of Matheson, and won’t for a few weeks. Pettersson has been increasingly sheltered away and used less and less as the season has gone on. For what could be a deep or strong position on the team, currently the LD spot is not exactly at its finest moment.
Now enter P.O. Joseph to the mix. The Penguins really should be finding out what they have in Joseph, right away. It’s a bold move and Sullivan usually doesn’t shake up the roster more than he has to. But the left side dictates it at this time that they need support behind Dumoulin. Upon this further introspection, the Pens need Joseph to play and show he can play well more than it might appear on the surface or looked a few days or weeks ago.
Also, from a larger organizational purpose, it’s time to know if the Pens should count on Joseph, or move on from him while he holds value as a fairly young and promising player. As friend of the blog Justin Bourne wrote on Sportsnet:
Also, I wrote this on why NHL teams should be more willing to consider trading prospects, which almost never happens: https://t.co/WkkOKwEKVD— Justin Bourne (@jtbourne) February 25, 2022
As teams move towards the trade deadline, I’d argue that one of the most underutilized ways to improve would be by using their prospect capital to gain actual, realized NHL talent – guys who they know provide value on their current deals. Teams love the idea of trading for not just draft picks, but guys who are a little “closer.” You can get real players back.
Yes, when you trade a prospect, you open yourself up to that player taking a developmental leap and making you look foolish. There’s fear there. But I also think if you traded every player that made your organization close its doors and say “team, I don’t like the way this guy is trending,” I’d be willing to bet they’d come out on the right side of deals more often than not. As I said: these teams usually have some idea that things are off first.
It’s cold. It’s impersonal. But this is the business of professional sports, not house hockey.
It’s getting to be that time with Joseph, who was drafted in the first round of 2017 and has but those 20 games of NHL play. The same could be said for 2019 draft picks Sam Poulin and Nathan Legare. Either they’re going to help, or they might as well be sent out for something that can.
Which is another reason why Pittsburgh should almost certainly trade their 2022 first rounder in the next month in order to return instant NHL help for this spring, without digressing too much. Here we are in almost the spring of 2022, wondering when and waiting for first rounders from 2017 and 2019 to pay off at the NHL level. The Sidney Crosby era just doesn’t have this kind of time to wait around 3-5 more years for the 2022 pick to grow into an NHL asset, and drafting later in the first round is too inexact a science. What is exact is adding an NHL caliber player who will help the team be better right now.
Anyways — back on topic — one difference from Bourne’s main point is that the door of opportunity for Joseph has opened. Given his super-successful AHL campaign this year, Pittsburgh has no choice right now but to give him a look at the NHL level and see just what he might offer for the present...and the future.
It’s definitely not a great circumstance that it took Matheson getting hurt to make it happen, since he’s been playing well, but in the bigger, broader picture, figuring out more of the longer-term future and what Joseph has developed into could mean more down the line.
It’s time now to put Joseph in a spot with a player like John Marino, or even Kris Letang at times for some shifts, and see what the youngster has to offer.
There’s not too much to lose compared to what Pettersson (whispers, and even kinda Dumo) have been offering as of late, and there is potentially a lot to gain if it turns out that Pierre-Olivier Joseph in 2022 is right where Brian Dumoulin of 2016 was as a rookie that is ready to play a meaningful role for a high-end NHL team.