Penguins Newfound Defensive Depth Paying Dividends

It has been a rocky season for the Pittsburgh Penguins. It’s been a season of frustration, injuries and the departure of a head coach. But the team rallied around their new coach and they’ve played their best hockey of the season within the last few weeks.

This season, the Penguins have had 25 different forwards, 11 defensemen and 3 goaltenders suit up for them. Some were traded to other clubs like David Perron, Sergei Plotnikov and Rob Scuderi and then others have been sent up and down countless times due to the Penguins usual plethora of injuries.

Currently, the Penguins have eight defenders on their NHL roster. They have a good problem here as well, all eight are NHL caliber defenders, although they all thrive in unique roles.

Their top six currently looks like this:

  1. Olli Maatta – Kris Letang
  2. Brian Dumoulin – Trevor Daley
  3. Ian Cole – Ben Lovejoy
  4. Derrick Pouliot – Justin Schultz

The Penguins aren’t using the combination of Pouliot in Schultz due to their offensive abilities, and let me explain. That combination features two offensively focused defenders who are known to have defensive lapses in their game. However, I think the argument can be made to give Schultz a spot in the lineup, but the question becomes who comes out?

The Case to Scratch Olli Maatta

This season has not been easy for the Penguins 21 year-old defender. He’s already battled cancer, had two shoulder surgeries and has not had a proper NHL training camp since his rookie year. Yet despite all of this adversity, Maatta thrived during his rookie season, was a standout in the Sochi Olympics and has been one of the Penguins best defenders since.

But there’s something wrong with him.

Call it a hunch, but he’s not skating the same way he was last year, or even earlier in the season. He doesn’t have the speed to keep up with Letang and he’s been burned quite a few times during the year.

Here’s what Maatta has had to say recently.

It takes a little bit of time to get back to your game, it’s just a timing thing. I’ve got a couple games under my belt after the injury so I should be fine.

(In game 2) I think you make your own luck, there was a bit of a 6-7 minute hiccup there in the second period with a couple errors and it cost the game.

(On his foot speed) That’s definitely something I need to work on, it’s not one of my strengths, but I don’t think it’s terrible. I’m telling you, I’m fine. For real.

Even if Maatta won’t admit it, there is something wrong with the way he’s played and it might be time for Pittsburgh to look at other options to skate with Letang for a few games.

Penguins Have Defensive Depth to Rest Maatta

Remember the five defensemen fiasco? Well the Penguins have too many defenders to get into the lineup, a complete 180 from the end of last season. But who would replace Maatta alongside Letang?

Here’s the defensive pairings I’d suggest based on experience and play style.

1)Daley – Letang

Here you’re pairing two defenders who both skate very well together. Daley does have some defensive deficiencies in his game and he doesn’t always make the best decisions with the puck, but at least he has the foot speed to recover from errors and he’s played well with Letang this season.

2) Brian Dumoulin – Ben Lovejoy

I’m not a huge fan of having Lovejoy in the Penguins top-four, but alongside Dumoulin there aren’t any valid concerns. Dumoulin has elevated the play of every defender he’s played with this season, including Lovejoy.

And while the above graphic might be a little old, the statistics have not changed much, Lovejoy has struggled playing alongside anyone but Dumoulin.

3) Ian Cole – Justin Schutlz

In a limited role, Cole has been one of the Penguins best defenders since Mike Sullivan became head coach. He’s played a solid defensive game, nothing flashy, but hasn’t been guilty of making many bad plays. Schultz was a gamble the Penguins took at the trade deadline, he’s had all the tools to be a great NHL defender, but was stuck in Edmonton in an over-deployed role. Since joining the Penguins he’s played great and did not do anything to deserve being removed from the lineup when he did.

Penguins Defensive Options

Last night the Penguins beat the Rangers 3-1 in game three and it was not all smooth sailing for the defense. Early in the first period, Maatta looked slow, was caught out of position and committed some turnovers.

However, as the game went on he continued to improve and had a great third period. But from where I stand, I still believe he could use a few games off, let another defender get back into the lineup and see how the team plays. Letang hasn’t played his best against the Rangers, and was guilty of a high stick last night.

And I think a lot of Letang’s struggles are due to playing with Maatta. I know what they’ve both said on the record, they love to play together, but if Letang isn’t confident in Maatta’s foot speed and positioning, he’s going to alter his game some to compensate.

Even if the Penguins choose to continue playing Maatta, they’re in a very good situation on the blue line. For the first time in quite a few years, they have legitimate options on the blue line.