On Sunday night I asked my Twitter followers for some suggestions for a Pittsburgh Penguins topic today, and a lot of you had some good questions and ideas. Rather than deep dive into just one of them and ignore the rest, I am going to turn this into an impromptu mailbag session and hit on a few of them.
Let Us Start With The Defense, And Most Specifically, Brian Dumoulin.
Dumoulin. He seems to be struggling this season (@puckphantom)
Are we watching Mike Matheson become a star? This was a borderline unmovable contract as recently as this past offseason that might end up proving to be the catalyst for an extended playoff run. (@chuckclark85)
This is a fascinating one because it has implications beyond this season. Right now the Penguins have a lot of depth on defense, and the emergence of Mark Friedman this season has made it so somebody has to be the odd-man out. That odd-man out lately has been either Friedman or Marcus Petterrsson, and most recently, Pettersson.
There is an assumption that one of John Marino or Marcus Pettersson could be moved at some point in the future (there was certainly a lot of talk about it around the trade deadline), while Dumoulin is set to enter the final year of his contract.
The suggestion that Dumoulin is struggling this season definitely seems to pass the eye test. When he was at his peak he was the type of defender you did not ever notice in the best possible way. He did not really do much offensively, but he was never getting in trouble defensively and he always had enough skating and puck skills to get the play out of danger.
This season he seems to be a little more noticeable in his struggles. He is not making plays out of the zone as easily, he seems to be getting beat a little more one-on-one and around the net, and he seems to be showing some signs of slowing down. None of that is really promising because defenders like him do not typically have a slow decline. It tends to be sudden.
I have said before that I would consider trading him this offseason instead of Marino or Pettersson because A) I think his reputation might still make him valuable to somebody, B) while Marino and Pettersson are not perfect, they are younger and have played well together, and C) I do not know how well Dumoulin is going to age.
In the short-term, as long as Dumoulin is in the lineup he is going to be a regular. He just is. I really can not envision a scenario outside of injury where he is the odd man out. I also am not sure how comfortable I am with Friedman in an expanded role. He has been very good in a third-pairing role and brought a lot of energy to the lineup, but he could still get exposed if you ask him to do too much.
What I would do? Use these last 14 games as a time to do more experimenting. Give Dumoulin the occasional night off, not as a punishment or to make him the “odd man out” but as a load management sort of thing. Give him a couple of games off. Let him rest and stay fresher. I have not really liked the Matheson-Marino pairing lately and want to see more of Kris Letang and Matheson. They were outstanding together until they had that one screw-up in Nashville and we never saw them again. Letang-Matheson, Pettersson-Marino, Ruhwedel-Friedman. Try that on the occasional game to give Dumoulin a night off and see what you get out of it.
The Fourth Line
The Penguins had to reshuffle their fourth line a little bit with an injury to Brock McGinn and the trade of Zach Aston-Reese and Dominik Simon to Anaheim for Rickard Rakell. It is not a very haphazardly thrown together group around Teddy Blueger, Danton Heinen, Anthony Angello, Radim Zohorna, and anybody else that seems to be available.
While I love the Rakell trade and would make it every single time, it did break up a really good defensive line.
O’Connor is an interesting name to throw out there because, yes, I would like to see him get a chance to play down the stretch here. I liked the way he looked earlier this season, and maybe bringing in a young, fresh body could bring some life to the bottom-six, and especially the fourth line. Is Angello better than him? Danton Heinen has played 10 minutes and 15 shifts over the past two games. And I agree with the suggestion that McGinn should not be a lock when he returns because, while he has been okay this season, I think his defensive impacts have become a bit overstated and he has held back most lines he plays on offensively. O’Connor and Zohorna have great underlying numbers, have provided some offense when they have played, and could maybe bring that spark that we saw from young players like Bryan Rust, Conor Sheary, and Tom Kuhnhackl back in the 2015-16 season. Again. Why not try it now while you have the chance to experiment.
The Schedule And Expectations
The second one here seems to be a very common thing from what I can see on the ole Twitter machine. This is a good team. A VERY good team. The Penguins are on pace for 108 points, they have one of the top-10 best records in the league, and they have played very well against the rest of the best. Even with all of that there seems to be a sense of pessimism among a significant portion of the fan base. Is it because of those two losses to the New York Rangers? Or the way the past three postseasons have gone? Or just what happens when expectations get consistently put through the roof? When you win one championship, you expect a second championship. When you win a second championship, anything less than another championship is seen as a failure.
This is another tough week for the Penguins on the schedule as they play the Avalanche again, the Rangers again, the Washington Capitals, the Nashville Predators, two games against a New York Islanders team that is finishing strong, and then two games against the Boston Bruins.
Not an easy run.
The Pens went through the previous schedule gauntlet by going 6-2-1 against New York, Tampa Bay, Carolina, Carolina, Florida, Nashville, Columbus, Vegas, and St. Louis, which was very impressive.
Now they have to do it again.
If they go 4-3-0, or something equivalent, over these next seven games, I would be happy with that. They are not going to win them all. Good teams beat other good teams.
Still, nothing in my view has really changed. Even with those two losses to the Rangers. Because one of them very easily could have been a win (just as Saturday’s game in Colorado could have been). Have said it before, but the Penguins have actually played very well against the other Stanley Cup contenders in the NHL this season. The past two games against Minnesota and Colorado, both on the road, have probably been the two most entertaining games of the season, while the Penguins have a 9-6-3 record against the other top-10 teams in the league standings. They are also 3-1-1 against the 11th and 12th teams (St. Louis and Washington) the next two teams just outside of the top-10 in the league standings. That is a better record than teams like the Rangers, Bruins, Capitals, Blues, and Lightning have against similar competition. They are doing well in those games. Very well.
At the end of the day this is a good team that has some questions and things to figure out, which makes them like every other playoff team outside of maybe Colorado and Carolina. They could easily lose a very good Rangers team with an MVP goalie in the First Round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. They could also win a round or two and make a serious run at another championship. Nothing I have seen over the past couple of weeks has made my opinion on that move much in either direction.