Penguins Trying Out New Defensive Strategies Ahead of Playoffs

It’s been a busy month for the Pittsburgh Penguins. So far in March, the team has played 12 games and won seven, thanks to the help of their defense. They brought in Nathan Beaulieu at the trade deadline and signed Mark Friedman to a two-year contract. Head coach Mike Sullivan has also been trying new defensive pairings as the team prepares for the playoffs.

Defensive Pairs

The Brian Dumoulin and Kris Letang pairing has stood the test of time. Dumoulin and Letang have been playing together since 2017, and in January, they played their 250th game together. They work so well together because of the chemistry and the trust they have built over the last few years. Dumoulin has great instincts with the puck, and his skating ability complements Letang perfectly. 

Sullivan recently tried a different combination, pairing Letang with Mike Matheson. The team won two of the three games that the duo were paired together, and also finished on more chances, which has been an area of concern for the Penguins.

However, on March 15, the Penguins fell to the Nashville Predators, 4-1. Fans saw some uncertainty between Matheson and Letang, which summed up why the duo is not comparable to Dumoulin and Letang. At one point, the puck slid between the two defenders and crossed the Predators’ blue line. Neither Matheson nor Letang went for the puck because they were not sure if the other one was going to get it, which led to the Predators’ goal. 

Brian Dumoulin, Pittsburgh Penguins
Brian Dumoulin, Pittsburgh Penguins (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

One of the main reasons Dumoulin and Letang have found so much success is because they know each other’s playing styles so well and can anticipate what the other will do. That kind of bond does not form overnight, and the Penguins should think twice before breaking up their top defensive pair. 

Nathan Beaulieu

The Penguins made an interesting move on March 21 when they traded their seventh-round draft pick in this year’s draft to the Winnipeg Jets for defenseman Beaulieu. Beaulieu was placed on long-term injured reserve by the Jets on March 9, and according to the Penguins, that is exactly where he will stay for now. He brings a level of physicality to the game that the Penguins need, which is why they will likely activate him for the postseason.

Mark Friedman

Friedman certainly is not the biggest defenseman on the ice, but he might be one of the toughest. Penguins general manager (GM) Ron Hextall made him his first order of business after he was hired ⁠— he was the Philadelphia Flyers’ GM when Friedman was drafted in 2014⁠ — and Friedman joined the Penguins in February 2021 when he was acquired off waivers from the Flyers.

Mark Friedman Pittsburgh Penguins
Mark Friedman, Pittsburgh Penguins (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Last week, the Penguins signed Friedman to a two-year contract. Hextall sees something special in him, and the fans are starting to see it as well. He has one goal on the season (scored against the Vegas Golden Knights on March 11), but his game has continued to evolve, and he’s become one of the most effective players at drawing penalties. Friedman has often replaced Marcus Pettersson in the lineup, including in the 4-2 victory over the Carolina Hurricanes on March 13. 

Related: NHL Talk: Wild, Jets, Maple Leafs, Penguins, Predators & More

The team is excited about Friedman’s development, and fans should expect to see him in the top six more often, especially as the Penguins head into the postseason. 

Playoff Plans

With only one month left until the playoffs, the Penguins are doing everything they can to ensure that they will be successful. Sullivan knows the road to the Stanley Cup Final will not be an easy one, which is why he will continue to experiment with his line combinations and put his team in the best possible position to bring another championship to Pittsburgh. 

Sign up for our regular 'Penguins Newsletter' for all the latest.

Latest News & Highlights