The Pittsburgh Penguins have had some issues recently, and a lot of them have revolved around some absences on defense (and in goal) that has left them very shorthanded in some key spots.
But those absences may have also helped them solve at least one problem and maybe given them a potential third defense pairing that can work when everybody gets back in the lineup.
It is Ty Smith and Brian Dumoulin.
Dumoulin has been one of the most talked about issues on the Penguins’ roster this season, and as harsh as it has been at times, a lot of it is justified. Not necessarily directed at him because he is only doing what he can, but more so at the coaching staff for continuing to play him like he is 27-year-old Brian Dumoulin.
There was a pretty significant stretch of the season where it seemed like every time something bad happened on the ice for the Penguins, Dumoulin was at the center of it and it did not matter who his defense partner was.
The usually reliable and dominant Kris Letang-Dumoulin pairing? Did not work.
Dumoulin with Jeff Petry? Did not work.
Dumoulin with Jan Rutta? Absolutely did not work.
Even though it is only a small sample size of around eight games and about 70 minutes of 5-on-5 hockey, the Smith-Dumoulin pairing has been one of the most productive defense pairings the Penguins have used all season.
They have great possession and scoring chance numbers with a better than 65 percent share across the board in terms of total shot attempts, scoring chances, high-danger scoring chances, and expected goals, and have also outscored opponents by a 4-0 margin when they have been on the ice.
It has been a very pleasant development, and one of the few we have seen over the past couple of weeks as every other defense pairing has badly struggled in the absence of Letang and Petry. Which should be expected.
I think the biggest development for the Smith-Dumoulin pairing is one of usage, and that the Penguins coaching staff has sheltered them a bit in the sense that they are getting the overwhelming majority of offensive zone starts on their shifts. Over the past eight games they have started close to 80 percent of their shifts in the offensive zone, which is by far the highest percentage of any defense pairing the team has used. Only one other pairing that has played at least 20 minutes together (Chad Ruhwedel and Pierre-Olivier Joseph) is over 43 percent during that time, and they have not played that much to begin with.
I think that is mostly to shelter Smith (whose defensive zone play is not his strength) but it has absolutely helped out Dumoulin as well.
This is a potentially nice development for the Penguins for a couple of reasons.
First of all, you want to see Smith be a productive player after John Marino (who has had a really good season in New Jersey) was traded for him. You want to get something out of that deal, and Smith is the type of young player the Penguins need to come along and be productive.
Second, as long as Dumoulin is on the roster he is going to play because it is very apparent that head coach Mike Sullivan has zero interest in healthy scratching a player that has been that important to the Penguins. So you need to put him into positions where he can still succeed. If you have found something that works here, stick with it.
Third, If it works out, I don’t hate the Penguins defense when everybody is healthy.
I still strongly believe that a lot of the Penguins issues are going to suddenly disappear when they get their two best defensemen (and their starting goalie) back in the lineup and are again playing them in the top-four. And I am not just talking about defensive play, either. They are going to help offensively and (in Letang’s case) the power play as well.
What would I like to see when everybody is back?
I would like to see Letang and Pettersson on the top pairing, Petry and Pierre-Olivier Joseph on the second pairing, and Smith stick with Dumoulin on the third pairing.
That can work, and it might allow the Penguins to focus all of their trade deadline efforts in improving their bottom-six forward group.