Penguins in Trouble on the Blue Line

Another Pittsburgh Penguins injury. With the way their season has gone so far, is it really any surprise that another key player is sidelined? Most recently, Brian Dumoulin was injured in the game against the St. Louis Blues. The good news is that Kris Letang has returned to the lineup, giving the team half of their top pairing, and it feels like they’ve only had half a top pairing for most of the season anyway.

The injury to Dumoulin opens up an opportunity for the others — not that they’ve been lacking in chances given the Penguins’ injury-prone season — but is worrisome for the team’s trajectory. The Penguins have lost 100 man-games right now and have had an entirely healthy roster for all of two periods.

Here’s a quick recap of what the Penguins’ injuries currently look like; with all the players who have been and are now out, it’s easy to get it mixed up. Currently out: Sidney Crosby (underwent surgery for core muscles), Nick Bjugstad (also underwent surgery for core muscles), Bryan Rust (lower body), Justin Schultz (undisclosed). It’s a lot, especially when most of these injuries appear to be longer-term.

Letang and Defense Need to Step Up

Of course with Dumoulin out, Letang (who was out for three weeks and has only just returned) will be expected to step up in a major way. He is the Penguins’ leading defenseman and is currently at seven goals and nine assists for a total of 16 points. He’s played 19 of the Penguins’ 27 games so far this season. That’s almost a point per game, which is what the team needs from him right now.

Penguins Defenseman Kris Letang
Pittsburgh Penguins Defenseman Kris Letang (Photo by Jeanine Leech/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Juuso Riikola was back in the lineup playing as a wing against the Columbus Blue Jackets after Rust went down during the morning skate. Joseph Blandisi was called up from the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, and with the injuries to Dumoulin and Schultz, it makes more sense for Riikola to be slotted in on the blue line where he normally plays. He’s also a left-handed shot just like Dumoulin, and that might open up some opportunities for him.

Riikola, who’s only playing in his second NHL season, has not yet proven himself as a player like Dumoulin, but he has not taken the heat that other Penguins blueliners (like Jack Johnson) have taken. Mostly, it’s because he’s only played 11 games thus far this season and has been shielded from scrutiny by the top pairing and his shift to play wing a few times. Things are about to change.

Speaking of Johnson, now’s the time for him to really prove he’s worth his salt. He’s had a decent season so far, but decent isn’t going to cut it when there are two key defensemen out and the Penguins’ main goalie (Matt Murray) is not having a stellar season (we’ll talk about that later). Johnson is currently at four points and a plus-seven. Yes, yes, you read that right.

Now, over the course of his career, he is a minus-106, which is one reason why he takes such a beating from sportswriters and fans alike. At the start of the season, his name kept cropping up in trade rumors, despite general manager Jim Rutherford saying that he wasn’t looking to trade Johnson. Well, now Rutherford really can’t. So, Johnson can’t get himself caught behind the net, can’t turn the puck over, and can’t leave his partner out to dry. We’ll see.

Jack Johnson #73 of the Pittsburgh Penguins
Jack Johnson (Photo by Chase Agnello-Dean/NHLI via Getty Images)

John Marino (who’s played with Johnson) has been a steadying presence for the Penguins. He began inconsistently, scoring goals but turning pucks over, but has progressed now to be exactly what the Penguins need: cheap against the salary cap, young, and capable of filling holes left by injuries. Mainly, his best quality is that he hasn’t been much of a liability and has 11 points and a plus-nine to show for his efforts. He’s still new and has a lot of potential, but the rookie mistakes we’ve seen from him need to end. There’s no room for error, especially with the goaltending we’ve seen.

Goaltending Woes Add Uncertainty

So far this season, the Penguins have weathered their injuries fairly well. They’ve managed to win by coming from behind, slightly repairing their power play, and integrating new players into their system. In addition to needing the less experienced defensemen to step up, with these injuries, the burden is going to fall heavily on the goaltenders.

Unfortunately, the goaltenders don’t inspire much confidence. Murray has played most of the games so far (as expected) at 20, but he’s at a .879 save percentage (SV%). On the other hand, Tristan Jarry has won five of the nine games he’s played for a .929 SV%, and he has been great, even earning extra starts. But how many starts will he take from Murray? Likely, not many.

Tristan Jarry Pittsburgh Penguins
Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender Tristan Jarry (Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)

Murray is in another slump, which means that the burden is back on the defensemen, who, again, are down two key players. What the Penguins will look like for the next couple of months is uncertain. They’ve fared decently considering the injuries they’ve been plagued by all season and have proven themselves a passionate, scrappy team able to eke out wins.

But how long can a lot of heart and a lot of scrap win games? With their star goalie in a slump, their captain, and multiple key players — especially defensive players — out with injuries, their future (and playoff potential) is uncertain.