Last week, the Pittsburgh Penguins defensive corps suffered a major blow. They were decimated by injuries last season and the 2015-16 season is seemingly starting the same way. Third-year defender Olli Maatta was hit and it was initially believed to be either a knee or shoulder injury. However, a brief amount of time passed and there was some concern that Maatta’s internal organs were damaged, but these worries proved to be a grave overreaction by many.
Some people believe that the hit was dirty, but the NHL has stated they will not be punishing Nino Niederreiter for delivering it.
There is a problem that Maatta’s injury has revealed and it’s just how thin the Penguins defense is. If you’ve watched them play this season, it’s no secret that the unit has struggled as a whole. Losing a player as talented as Maatta will hurt the team more than anyone realizes.
Kris Letang Hurt The Most By Maatta’s Injury
This season has not been one of Kris Letang’s finest. In fact, it’s has been one of his worst as a member of the Penguins. The problem that Letang is facing is that he’s essentially all the Penguins are left with. Ian Cole was used in a top-pairing role and was clearly over his head, Maatta stepped in beautifully but has durability problems and Rob Scuderi, Ben Lovejoy, Brian Dumoulin and Adam Clendening all are not top pairing defenders.
In 352:20 played this season, Letang has a 48.1 corsi for percentage and the team scores .6 goals per sixty minutes and allows 2.72 when he’s on the ice. However, that is considering all of Letang’s partners and what’s interesting is that despite Maatta’s perceived slow start he and Letang were playing very well together. The duo has played 54.2% corsi for and the Penguins have scored 2.46 goals for per sixty and allowed 1.23 goals for per sixty.
The point is that Letang has only played well with Maatta this season and now he’s out of the lineup for three to four weeks.
Remember Paul Martin anyone? When everything was falling apart last year, when the team was missing most of their defensive corps, Martin stood tall and was playing nearly 30 minutes a night. There were obvious reasons that the Penguins decided to let him walk as a free agent, most notably contract price and duration, but we’re finally seeing just how important he was. Letang publicly said he felt most comfortable playing alongside Martin and it’s clear there is no replacement currently on the roster. Maybe at some point Brian Dumoulin can fill a similar role, but he’s no where near the safety valve that Martin was during his five years in Pittsburgh.
The Penguins defensive system is not working and goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury has masked many flaws of this team. I voiced support for Martin months ago and knew that his departure would have an impact like this, but there was no realistic way the Penguins could keep him. Just imagine how horrendous his contract will look in a few years when he starts slowing down, Pittsburgh does not want another Rob Scuderi situation.
It’s clear that the Penguins could not keep Martin, but they never even made an attempt at replacing him. Remember when Cody Franson, a legitimate top-four defender, signed a bargain two-year contract with the Buffalo Sabres? I remember it well and here’s the fundamental problem, he could have been acquired without giving up any assets. Now Pittsburgh is in a similar situation to previous years and it looks like they’ll be forced to make a trade to address their defensive woes.
When asked about his plans, Jim Rutherford had this to say.
At some point, I think we’re going to have to add a top-three or top-four defenseman. It’s something that we’d like to do. Do we have the right top-six guys right now? We might have to make a change there.
It’s painfully obvious that Rutherford is planning on making a move, the question is when will it happen. Additionally, it’s clear to the rest of the league that Pittsburgh will be dealing from a position of weakness and might have to overpay.
A popular name in trade rumors is St. Louis Blues defenseman Alex Pietrangelo. If Rutherford wants a top-three, or four, defender then Pietrangelo is a perfect candidate to come in and try to help Letang while Maatta is sidelined.
Is it time to start the Pietrangelo watch in Pittsburgh?
— Kevin Kurz (@KKurzNHL) November 22, 2015
I think it’s a bit premature, but it is worth noting that general manager Doug Armstrong has been looking at the Penguins system closely recently. Pittsburgh and St. Louis also have an extensive history of making trades and something could easily come together in coming weeks.