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Can the Penguins rebuild Ty Smith?

Pittsburgh has made a big gamble on a talented player

NHL: DEC 19 Penguins at Devils Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Usually the Pittsburgh Penguins are the one moving the 22-year old with upside and a draft pick in order to acquire a better player to feed their machine as a yearly playoff team. But the roles were reversed on Saturday, when it was the Pens who took the lesser player at the time of the trade and got an extra draft pick for it and traded out a better (but more expensive) player away.

John Marino could be seen as having plateaued in Pittsburgh, certainly offensively. After bursting on the scene, almost literally out of nowhere in 2019-20, Marino was never truly able to recapture the magic as a rookie, where he scored six goals and had 26 points in 56 games — all while putting up some of the best advanced defensive metrics in the entire league. Last season, Marino only scored one goal and had 25 points in 81 games.

Despite not being able to continue to make steps in his progression, Marino was very much still a good NHL defender, an all-around type player who could log 20+ minutes per game and help a team win.

The player that Pittsburgh received in a trade for Marino is not such a player right now, which makes the move curious from the Penguins’ perspective. Ron Hextall and company are banking that Ty Smith, only 22, can live up to his first round pedigree and shake off what was a disappointing and poor performance in his sophomore NHL season in 2021-22.

Shayna Goldman from The Athletic did a really comprehensive deep dive in March about Smith’s struggles but also why considering trading a promising young player who does have intriguing skills would be a big risk for New Jersey.

In a nutshell, Smith played just over 20 minutes per game in 2020-21, his rookie season where he was mostly just 20 years old. He also put up 23 points (2G+21A) in just 48 games as was looking like a potential big time player in the NHL.

Then 2021-22 did not go Smith’s way, at all. With new players like Ryan Graves and Dougie Hamilton in, Smith’s ice-time and role went down to the 17ish minute range. His power play time took a big hit. Accordingly, it’s no shock his offense went down as well (5G+15A in 66 games). In perhaps a silver lining, however, some of Smith’s best work came in March and April, and he at least finished the season strong and didn’t punt on the year. Four of his five goals were scored in the last 21 games in March+April.

His play also suffered, and there’s little doubt based on chances, shots and goals against that NJ was performing worse overall when Smith was on the ice, compared to when he was on the bench.

As Goldman wrote in a very enlightening piece that’s very much worth the read now with an eye to the Penguins’ perspective:

The Devils tend to rely on their forwards to enter the zone at a high rate, with possession. Compared just to the position, Smith’s above average in how many of his entries are with control, but he’s not bringing it in at the same pace as say, Hamilton — though he’s one of the better defenders in New Jersey when looking at both rate of entries and possession plays. Once in the zone, he can either fire the puck toward the goal or set his teammates up with primary passes. The drawback of those shots is just how many don’t reach the goal — finding a way to get them through traffic would help generate offense more off those initial attempts. Overall, the team’s offensive generation is below average with him deployed and they generate more when he’s on the bench.

Flip to the other end of the ice. At five-on-five, the Devils expected goal rate against is just above league-average, even though their goaltending hasn’t always backed that up. When Smith is on the ice, the Devils see quite a few point shots, and even worse, a lot of quality chances right up the slot line as the heat map helps depict in red. That relates to an expected goal against of 2.78 per 60. That’s nine percent worse than league average. When he’s not on the ice, there’s an upswing in strength by 15 percent.

That does not paint a pretty picture, but keep in mind the context of the 2021-22 New Jersey Devils. As our sister blog All About the Jersey pointed out back in January, there were other issues out of Smith’s control. Under the tutelage of former NJD coach John Hynes and assistant Alain Nasreddeine even established and veteran “good” players like Hamilton and Damon Severson had difficulties and did not always look good in a system that just wasn’t either working or executed properly.

If they can make Hamilton, a long-time analytics darling, look poor or drag down his numbers, what chance does a young player in his second NHL season and still trying to figure it all out like Smith really have?

Smith can skate, and at times has been good in transition and ought to be the classic “puck mover” archetype of what is becoming the norm for the modern NHL defenseman. He has tools to work with, but putting it together will be a challenge for Todd Reirden and Mike Sullivan to master.

Smith’s acquisition raises a lot of doubt about just how the Pens will be built next season. He’s a player who is a lot like Mike Matheson in being offensively capable, so what does that say for Matheson’s place in Pittsburgh? Is a blueline big enough to have that same style of player duplicated? Or what of Marcus Pettersson, perpetually in the trade rumors anyways? Or even Brian Dumoulin, who has only one year remaining on his contract and has battled injuries lately?

Bringing in Ty Smith opens up a lot of questions in Pittsburgh for how the team will look next season. The biggest question of all will be whether or not the Pens made a good gamble or bad bet on shipping out a steadier defender in Marino for a riskier option with potentially a big reward in Smith.