It looks like the Penguins are about to get their top defenseman back. Kris Letang was a full go at the morning skate, skating on the top pair and also working with the first power play.
Letang is taking rushes with Dumoulin. Here is the Penguins workflow...— Pens Inside Scoop (@PensInsideScoop) January 24, 2023
After the skate, Letang said he still needed to talk to doctors and coaches to get the final plan about playing tonight set, but also that his body feels like it’s a go after being out since December 28th with an undisclosed lower body injury.
The power play might be the area where Letang’s return is most noticeable. That group is 30th in the NHL since the defender left the lineup, converting only 12.8% of their chances (six out of 47) since Letang has been out. The Penguins’ power play ranked 10th in the NHL and was almost doubly more effective (24.4%) from the start of the season up through Letang’s injury.
Another notable area is that Letang is paired again with frequent partner Brian Dumoulin. Dumoulin has struggled mightily this season, but as the narrative goes has found a little bit of footing and improved play in recent weeks, working mostly with Ty Smith.
And as Money Puck shows, for expected goal results this season the way the Penguins setup their defensive pairs is about as optimal as it gets.
If you have to put Dumoulin somewhere in the lineup in 2023, using him with Letang is probably the best bet, based on the players that will be in the lineup.
The good news is that move triggers a positive consequence - it frees Pittsburgh up to keep the very successful Marcus Pettersson - Jeff Petry combination together. Pettersson and Letang have either been kept apart or rarely found much chemistry and success when playing together, but Pettersson has performed really well with Petry. It’s a positive for the team to see them kept together, from what they have done so far they can be a 1B/2A type of pair that plays a lot of minutes and drives excellent results.
Of lesser importance, this setup also keeps the highly-shielded but also effective P.O Joseph and Chad Ruhwedel duo intact as well to play as a third pair. Based on their results, they can also be counted on to do exactly what the team wants and needs with limited usage.
The big key will be if Dumoulin can hold up his end of the bargain and not make costly defensive errors in his own zone. If he can, this personnel usage will work out really well. If Dumoulin struggles, the team will likely have to adjust.
There are also salary cap considerations in play that need to be addressed by Letang’s return as well. Letang is currently on the long term injured reserve, which allows the Pens to use his full salary for replacement players. The easiest and most simple move would be to change one of Jan Rutta or Kasperi Kapanen’s status to the long term IR in order to have the space to activate Letang for tonight’s game and also keep the rest of the roster how it is right now.