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Finding the Penguins best defense pairings for the playoffs

The Pittsburgh Penguins seem to be going back to the defense pairings that they have used for most of the season.

NHL: Philadelphia Flyers at Pittsburgh Penguins Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The Pittsburgh Penguins changed their defense pairings at practice this week going back to the old standards that we have seen time and time again this season. Kris Letang with Brian Dumoulin, Marcus Pettersson with John Marino, and Mike Matheson with Chad Ruhwedel.

This is a bit of a switch from recent games where the Penguins experimented with some different looks that included Letang with Matheson and Dumoulin with Marino.

Some of the worked better than others. Some of them did not work at all.

With the Stanley Cup Playoffs just around the corner (and the Penguins trying to get things right before they begin) it is going to be important to get these pairings figured out. Now that the regular season has just five games remaining (think I counted that right this time) and the Penguins have rotated through multiple defense pairings we do have some idea as to which ones work and which ones do not work.

The end of the John Marino-Brian Dumoulin pairing

Not a moment too soon, either.

That is the one big change we have seen recently with Dumoulin being dropped from the top pairing and taking a spot next to John Marino. It was not a change for the better.

The Marino-Dumoulin pairing has statistically been the worst of the Penguins’ most regular defense pairings this season, and by a fairly significant margin.

This season the Penguins have used eight different defense pairings for more than 100 minutes of 5-on-5 hockey. The Marino-Dumoulin pairing is the only one that failed to top a 50 percent shot attempt share or a 50 percent expected goal share.

They checked in at 40 percent shot attempt and 43 percent expected goals. By far — by far!! — the lowest of the defense pairings. They have also been doubled up on the scoreboard by a 6-12 margin. The biggest defense of this duo is that they were deployed almost exclusively in defensive situations, starting the bulk of their shifts in the defensive zone. Those are more challenging minutes for sure. But it does not necessarily mean that you HAVE to get so badly outplayed. This pairing is the combination of one veteran player slowing down and one young player that has not really progressed into somebody that can carry his own pairing. We do not need to see anymore of it.

The old standby of Letang and Dumoulin

This pairing was broken up, in part because head coach Mike Sullivan was unhappy with their play. The funny thing about it is the numbers have been mostly fine recently when they have played together.

Let’s look at the past 10 games, the most recent sampling of games.

Letang and Dumoulin spent 104 minutes together during that stretch, and while they were outscored 6-7, their possession and expected goal numbers have been the best of any defensive pairing on the team during that stretch, while playing top-pairing minutes against top opponents and not getting overly sheltered with offensive zone starts.

Is it possible that part of the problem has been we are just focussing on the handful of mistakes that just so happened to end up in the back of the net and not on the overall body of work?

I still think these two would benefit from some relaxed minutes and even a game or two off here down the stretch.

This has traditionally been the Penguins’ best defensive pairs (as well as one of the best in the entire league) and the overall numbers have not been as bad as they have seemed lately. It was only a matter of time until they got another chance on the top pairing.

The Mike Matheson situation

Matheson’s season has been one of the biggest surprises on this team. He has cut down on the mistakes, he does not stand out as negatively in the defensive zone as he did a year ago, and his production has been outstanding. He has also been a part of some of the Penguins’ most successful defense pairings this season.

He and Letang? Excellent, even though they always seem to wait for that pairing to make a mistake so they can break it up.

Matheson and Ruhwedel? Statistically the best pairing by shot attempts and expected goals, with the asterisk of playing the most sheltered minutes.

Matheson and Marino has also been very productive.

Basically, whatever role and pairing the Penguins have put him on this season has worked. It is really good flexibility to have because it gives them a lot of options to tinker with other pairings to find something that works.

Pettersson and Marino again

Such a confounding pair.

Individually, neither one is anything special. Together, their numbers are fine. But they never actually look fine. In the end, the Penguins have three defenders next season each making more than $4 million in Dumoulin, Pettersson, and Marino and I am not sure any of them are capable of being what the Penguins need them to be. Add in Matheson (can he repeat this performance? Is he capable of a bigger role? History says probably not) and that is a lot of question marks.

In the short-term it seems the Penguins are going to go back to the defense pairings they used for most of the season, and it is probably for the best because they all seem to work in their own way. They used some time here over the past few weeks to experiment with some differnt things (as they should have) and seemed to have settled on the fact they probably are not going to do better than what they used for most of the season.

Now just give Letang and Dumoulin some rest and some breaks before the start of the playoffs.