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Moving the puck should be a vastly improved area for the Penguins

Addition by subtraction and addition by addition will help the Penguins turn defense to offense next season

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Montreal Canadiens v San Jose Sharks Photo by Kavin Mistry/NHLI via Getty Images

Kyle Dubas mentioned it in his press conference this week.

“One of the things that I had felt, and talking with Sully about it, was we needed to continually improve our ability to move the puck from our own zone,” Dubas said. “Erik, I think, is one of the elite players in that regard in the NHL. Even though he’s in his early 30s, he continues to be one of the top skaters in the NHL, and obviously, his production is quite prolific.”

Mike Sullivan talked about it too when Josh Yohe from The Athletic went to Boston for an interview.

“They (Karlsson and Kris Letang) both have that special ability to move the puck,” Sullivan said. “They drive offense. They will help us break out of our own zone far more efficiently. That ability they have to move the puck, it will help us avoid having to defend on many occasions. I really think this is a very important element of our team game.”

That “it” being referenced is the importance of successfully moving the puck out of the defensive zone. In the modern day it’s one of the most critical tenets of being a defenseman. If players fail to get the puck out of the zone, they’re right back on their heels and have to defend against a forecheck or counter-attack and have to win the puck back and try to exit again.

The Penguins were not very good in that regard last year, and it has been an area of concern that has slipped for a while. This tracking of botched retrievals and failed zone exits reveals several familiar names of players that had major issues last season.

Sadly, that’s almost a who’s who grouping of the Pens’ bad defensive defensemen over the past few years. Erik Gudbranson! Jack Johnson!

Unfortunately, it wasn’t just fun for old names - a frightening amount of 2022-23 Penguin players appear here. There’s sadly Brian Dumoulin with his struggles compounding. Luckily for Dmitri Kulikov, his reputation in Pittsburgh might have been mostly spared by being injured for the majority of the time he was with the team and only able to appear in a handful of games. Jeff Petry and Pierre-Olivier Joseph also show up in their own rights on this listing.

Petry, Dumoulin and Kulikov have all departed Pittsburgh, trimming some of the weakest players at moving the puck out of the zone last year. After going through a full season in the NHL and getting the rookie treatment out of the way, it’s reasonable to hope Joseph can improve in that area at least enough not to be one in the NHL at it. Jan Rutta’s gone too, and while he didn’t make the list at the very bottom of the league at failing to exit no one has ever confused his passing abilities as a strong suit either.

Do you know who is absolutely elite at moving the puck out of the zone, as well as distributing the puck in general? Dubas and Sullivan already gave away the answer at the beginning, not that it should have been too difficult to see where this was going. It’s one area that the Erik Karlsson factor will make a difference. From NBC Sports Bay Area, via Sportlogiq’s tracking:

According to SPORTLOGiQ, per 20 minutes at 5-on-5, Karlsson was fifth among all NHL defensemen in Offensive Zone Possession Time, sixth in Total Possession Time, third in Slot Pass Completions, seventh in OZ Dekes, third in Zone Exits, fourth in Offense-Generating Plays, and second in Possession-Driving Plays.

Erik Karlsson is going to help a team out just about anywhere on the ice. That will be magnified going from how Petry performed in that area, with Karlsson taking his spot in the top-four, and likely have the ability to play even more than Petry did last season.

Ryan Graves, Pittsburgh’s other major defensive addition this summer, was completely average in the transition game, which again translate into an upgrade considering he’s essentially replacing Dumoulin’s spot in the lineup.

Erik Karlsson can score 100 points in a season. He will generate a ton of chances for himself and for his teammates once they get the puck in the zone, as we talked about earlier in the week. Before a team can get into the offensive zone, they often need to transition the puck out of their own end. Aside from realizing there have been some positive changes, it might be hard to quantify or realize two months before the season how improved the Pens should be in this area, but the results should be evident when the year gets started.

Dubas has been on the job with the Pens for just over two months and has reshaped the team’s depth forwards. Clearly his biggest change has been on the defense with some addition by subtraction via trades and granting free agency to weak links, followed by the addition of actual additions when it comes to what Graves and especially Karlsson will bring to the table as key players on a revamped blueline.