As the next season approaches, here’s a handy guide for what to expect with the Penguins. Today we catch up with the group on the team that has the most uncertainty, at least from the outside perspective. The defensemen!
We enter season No. 8 of the Pens’ most important defenders being Brian Dumoulin and Kris Letang. It could also be the final one, with Dumoulin in a contract season and his performance being uneven as of late. But the Dumoulin-Letang combo, yet again, should make up the backbone of the Pens defense in 2022-23, as it has for the entirety of the Mike Sullivan era.
Beyond that, questions remain for most the returnees. Marcus Pettersson started out last season averaging 18:29 per game in eight October games, recording a goal and three assists. Then he got COVID and was injured soon after that and it was enough to somehow derail his whole season. Pettersson only averaged 15:19 in icetime for the rest of the season, with his number getting called less and less and even becoming a healthy scratch at points late in the year. Now, Pettersson presumably is the second most established left handed defender on the team. Which might not mean that he will play a large role on the team, but as is has been the case for a while, the team is needing Pettersson to “make the next step”. That hasn’t happened to date.
Pierre-Olivier Joseph isn’t much of a returnee, having only played four NHL games last season. The context is worse remembering Joseph was left in Wilkes-Barre last playoffs when Dumoulin got hurt and the Pens only had two healthy left shot defenders. This season Joseph now is out of eligibility to avoid waivers if he is sent to the AHL, and presumably finds himself in “fish or cut bait” territory with the Penguins.
Instead of Joseph last season, it was Mark Friedman who stepped into the void and played NHL playoff games on the left side. He is a right shot, but still did an admirable job in a very sheltered, low minute role. If the Pens need more on the left side, does Friedman somehow find a way to carve out an unexpected niche on the team? One would think the numbers to make the roster are stacked against Friedman just about no matter what. But his versatility and his edge does give Friedman a unique profile of what he can bring to the table.
Chad Ruhwedel acquitted himself well as a first-time every game player last year, and then the Pens turned around and added more right handed players then they needed to in the off-season. What gives there? And what does that say of Ruhwedel’s place within the team?
While the forward group did not experience a lot of turnover from the end of last year, general manager Ron Hextall made some sweeping moves on defense. Jan Rutta was signed to a three-year contract on the first day of free agency. Soon after, on the same frenetic day, the Pens jettisoned John Marino and Mike Matheson away in separate trades and brought Ty Smith and Jeff Petry into the organization in their place.
Petry is the big fish and the most significant add for Pittsburgh’s off-season. Petry has played 22-24 minutes in each of the last six seasons. He can bring the heat as an excellent puck mover, and has a great ability to get jump up in the play, showcased by recording 54 goals in the last five seasons. That ranks 10th among NHL defenders in this stretch. Finally, the Pens have a consistent point-producting offensive weapon on the blueline beyond Kris Letang for the first time since Justin Schultz was good in 2016-17.
At 34 years old, Petry is no spring chicken. Then again, that just means he will fit right in with the rest of the team that is also on the older side.
At the other end of the spectrum, Ty Smith at age-22 walked into the Pens’ organization and instantly became the top young player in the organization. There is a lot of focus on his very poor 2021-22 season with the Devils, however perspective should also be that he is a player good enough to make the NHL at an early age and already have 114 games under his belt. The Pens will have to refine and help him grow his game, but Smith’s skating and puck moving has brought him pretty far already, there is a good base to work with.
Organizational deep depth
Xavier Ouellet last played in the NHL for a handful of games with Montreal in 2020-21. Taylor Fedun, the Wilkes-Barre captain, hasn’t been in the NHL since 2019-20 appearing for Dallas. Nothing personal to those guys, but if their NHL status updates then something has gone very, very wrong with this season for the Pens.
There are questions everywhere on this blueline, it is difficult to narrow them all down. Every player in camp always has some sort of storyline, but the legitimate questions and answers that are unknown at this point make this the Pens’ most fascinating position group. By a mile.
- Letang is coming off of a career-best season in assists and points. He’s now 35, how much can he replicate as he starts a whopping six-year contract extension?
- Will Dumoulin’s contract year lead to a boost in his level of play, or are injuries limiting his effectiveness bound to slow him down even further?
- Is this finally the year Pettersson takes a step forward and turns impressive advanced stats into more confidence and a bigger role from the coaches?
- It’s seemingly Smith vs. Joseph for one lineup spot, and possibly just one roster spot. Which young player gets the best opportunity? Will either rise to the occasion? What happens if they both do? Or neither impress?
- Rutta has not played much on the left side in his career, but if the young players struggle, do the Pens intend to give Rutta a look there with Letang or Petry? Or could that be the plan anyways that perhaps Rutta and not Pettersson is going to be the fourth most important defender on the team? That would lead to an unbalance and rare abundance of right handed shots in the lineup, but this is also the team that was fine playing four RHD to two LHD in the playoffs...
- How does Petry adjust for his first season in Pittsburgh? Time and again, from Sergei Gonchar to Paul Martin to Zbynek Michalek and Jack Johnson, we’ve seen veteran d-men additions struggle their first year with the Pens. Some of them are able to improve. Others...well, don’t. Petry needs to be a “ready made” impact player from the jump.
- Is Ruhwedel the odd man out after all the additions on the right side? The guy quietly does a solid job when given the chance, but what are his opportunities going to look like during camp?
- The numbers say Friedman is on the outside looking in, barring a lot of unforeseen events and/or injuries...Is there any chance he can pester his way into staying on the roster or enough weird things happen? His ability to hang around almost makes one wonder if a Pettersson or Joseph gets traded, maybe someone else gets injured and somehow when camp breaks Friedman is right there in the depth position that he always is. It’s an unlikely scenario to be sure, but when it comes to Friedman he has usually been in unique situations that have broken his way in the past.
The Pens defense has been re-shaped in a major way, and a lot of the future depends on how Mike Sullivan chooses to answer the questions above. After not feeling it enough from the Matheson-Marino pairing comprising the middle of the lineup, Pittsburgh revamped the depth of their blueline this summer. It may be better, it may be worse — but it surely will be different in terms of the personnel involved.
Dumoulin-Letang has long been the team’s constant. After those two it will be incredibly interesting how Sullivan and Todd Reirden work with all the clay they have on hand in order to shape together what they hope will be a new and improved defensive group.
With nine players in the mix entering camp, there is no shortage of options or possibilities for the Pens, it will be more about what direction they are interested in trying to go.