If we are to believe the preseason rumor mill the Pittsburgh Penguins were trying to find a taker for defenseman Pierre-Olivier Joseph. They had a roster crunch with an overflow of NHL caliber defensemen, and had to make a decision keeping him or Ty Smith on the opening night roster.
They did not find a taker or suitable return for Joseph, and since Smith was still waivers exempt they sent him back to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and kept Joseph on the big club.
It has worked out perfectly for both the Penguins and Joseph.
Not only has Joseph shown that he belongs in the NHL, he is making a pretty convincing case that his role should be expanded within the defense. Especially as some veteran players continue to struggle.
Joseph’s development is so intriguing for the Penguins because he represents the type of player they really do not have a lot of: A younger player with skill that might actually have a long-term future with the team.
His overall numbers for the season do not really jump off the page at this point, scoring just two goals with nine assists in 32 games. But he does not get a ton of power play time, and he has mostly been relegated to third-pairing duty without meaningful minutes.
But when you dig down into his underlying numbers, he is on the positive side of pretty much every possession category. The Penguins have a better than 50 percent share in total shot attempts, expected goals, scoring chances, high-danger scoring chances, and are outscoring teams by an almost 2:1 margin (27-14) when he is on the ice during 5-on-5 play. He also seems to be developing more and more confidence with the puck and is consistently making things happen. He has also seen a recent boost to his offensive production with two goals and four total points in his past eight games.
Now, it needs to be pointed out: He is doing this playing mostly sheltered minutes.
He is at the bottom of the usage chart when it comes to ice time (only about 15 minutes per game all situations; only about 13 minutes during 5-on-5 play) and zone start assignments, typically getting the call in offensive situations. Those are softer minutes, which is pretty typical for a young player with limited NHL experience.
The thing is, if you have a player in those minutes that is handling them well, it only makes sense to expand that role to see if he can handle more.
Especially when you have other players in bigger roles that are showing they can not handle those roles. This is not meant to be a continued pile on of Brian Dumoulin and Jan Ruuta, but at some point you have to adjust usages based on the results and what is happening.
Maybe Joseph gets an increased role and struggles. Maybe you find out he is just meant to be a third-pairing player. You still need those guys. But at least you know and some idea as to what you need. If you increase his role and he plays well, then you solidify an important spot in your lineup and potentially start to fill a long-term spot.
At this point there is little reason for Joseph to see less ice time than Dumoulin and Ruuta.
He has done everything that has been asked of him in his current role and at least earned the opportunity to see what else he can do with a bigger role. I have a hard time believing he is going to do worse in those minutes than the alternatives at this point, and there might even an improvement.