The Pittsburgh Penguins entered the week in control of their destiny, but now exit it in pursuit of the Carolina Hurricanes, Montreal Canadiens and Columbus Blue Jackets. I mentioned in last week’s Penguins Pulpit that they’d likely need to earn at least five of a possible six points this week to stay ahead of the pack, so predictably, they end up gaining just three of a possible six.
The Penguins started strong on Tuesday night with a 4-3 victory over their kryptonite, the New Jersey Devils, in what was a complete team effort. However, things quickly fell off the rails over their final two games of the week.
Thursday night saw them get blasted by the San Jose Sharks for the second time this season by a score of 4-0. A late-game brawl sparked by the Sharks’ Evander Kane looking at the Penguins’ bench during a timeout resulted in Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and head coach Mike Sullivan being ejected.
It didn’t get any easier on Saturday night against the Philadelphia Flyers at Lincoln Financial Field for the Stadium Series game. The Penguins lost their two best defensemen, Brian Dumoulin and Kris Letang, after a hit delivered to Dumoulin’s head by Wayne Simmonds sparked a brawl. As Letang attempted to defend his injured teammate, he was taken down by Shayne Gostisbehere in a wrestling-style move.
Neither returned to the game, and it left the Penguins down to four defensemen. Despite this, the team managed to hold onto a 3-1 lead late into the game before a meltdown from goaltender Matt Murray, and an overtime goal from Claude Giroux drove a dagger through the Penguins’ hearts in a 4-3 final.
The events of the last week have put the Penguins in unfamiliar territory this late into a season for the first time in a while, but they are by no means out of the postseason picture. Their road to getting there for the 13th consecutive season just got a bit more difficult.
The focuses of this week’s Penguins Pulpit are the impact of the injuries to Letang and Dumoulin, potential trade targets to strengthen the blue line and a young Penguin finding his place in the league.
2018-19 Record: 32-22-8, 72 points (5th in Metropolitan Division, 9th in Eastern Conference, 13th in League Standings)
The Impact of Letang and Dumoulin’s Injuries
More often than not when a Penguins defenseman gets injured in-game, it’s not seen as a huge deal because of Letang and Dumoulin’s ability to eat minutes while playing at a high level; so what do you do when both of them get injured on the same play?
You can’t do much except hope the remaining players you have left band together and play a high-level of hockey.
Their injuries left the Penguins with Justin Schultz, Jack Johnson, Marcus Pettersson and Chad Ruhwedel for the final 44 minutes of the game. All four were outstanding considering the circumstances; Johnson played 31:08, Schultz played 30:02, Ruhwedel played 24:38 and Pettersson played 22:41 in the loss. Unfortunately, they were let down by Murray who gave up two horrible goals allowing the Flyers to tie it at three with 20 seconds left, and then win it in overtime.
For those who were hoping that their exits were for precautionary reasons, Sullivan announced after the game that Dumoulin had been diagnosed with a concussion while Letang is being evaluated for an upper-body injury. It’s the second concussion since Jan. 2018 for Dumoulin, who’s had another standout season as Letang’s shutdown partner. In 62 games this season, the 27-year-old has two goals and 21 points while averaging 20:51 per night.
Dumoulin might be the most underrated defenseman in hockey. His lack of offense often leaves him out of the conversation of top-tier blueliners, but he shuts down top lines on a nightly basis, closes off passing and shooting lanes, drives play to the outside consistently and uses every inch of his 6-foot-4, 207-pound frame to his advantage.
If there’s any silver lining, Dumoulin didn’t look overly woozy when he got up and skated off the ice under his own power. So while it may seem like good news, you can’t put a timetable on concussion recovery because everybody’s brain recovers differently from trauma.
As for Letang, “upper-body” could mean anything, but it’s believed he may have hurt his surgically-repaired neck after the tackle by Gostisbehere. This would be the worst possible outcome for the Penguins, and Letang, who’s been the team MVP and a Norris Trophy candidate. In 60 games this season, the 31-year-old has 15 goals and 53 points while averaging 25:55 per night.
Letang’s also been the Penguins’ best possession driver on the blue line. His Corsi for percentage (CF%) of 53.6, Fenwick for percentage (FF%) of 53.9 and shots for percentage (SF%) of 54.7 rank first on the team, while his scoring chances for percentage (SCF%) 54.8 ranks second. As for relative stats, Letang’s CF% Rel of 7.5, FF% Rel of 7.5 and SF% Rel of 8.8 don’t just rank tops among Penguins defensemen, they’re the best of any blueliner in the league who’s played more than 500 minutes at five-on-five this season.
It’s clear how valuable Letang is to the Penguins. He’s their general on the back end; the offense runs through him, he eats between 25-29 minutes a game while maintaining an elite level of play and can change the outcome of a game with his play. Any long-term absence for Letang is going to cripple the team’s blue line and make a 13th consecutive playoff berth challenging to obtain.
Few teams who could survive the loss of their top two blueliners and the Penguins aren’t one of them. They actually might be the last team in the league who can afford to lose one, let alone both, for any period of time. The Penguins haven’t called anybody up yet, so it could be a sign that Letang is okay, but it could also just be them buying an extra day of some available cap space with the trade deadline.
Martinez Should Be The Penguins’ Number One Target
As mentioned earlier, any potential long-term absence for Letang or Dumoulin, or both, will decimate the Penguins’ defense and likely end any shot they have at the playoffs. Unless general manager Jim Rutherford gets bold and makes a big move on the blue line.
There are serviceable defensemen on the market like Adam McQuaid, Cody Ceci and Alec Petrovic, but the Penguins need to aim higher than a third-pairing defender. Of course, they won’t find a Letang or Dumoulin replacement; you can’t. However, what you can find is a player who’s going to make a legitimate impact on the roster, and will make the team better overall when both players return.
This is what makes Alec Martinez of the Los Angeles Kings a perfect fit. In 43 games this season, the 31-year-old Martinez has four goals and 11 points while averaging 21:00 minutes of ice-time per night. He’s currently out with an upper-body injury but is expected back within the next week.
While he’s most famous for clinching the Kings’ second Stanley Cup in three years with his goal in double overtime in Game 5 of the 2014 Cup Final, Martinez has also been a top-four defender for a majority of his career. He can also play a top-two role for periods when called upon, though he fits best on the second pairing long-term.
Martinez doesn’t put up a ton of points, but he has a good first pass that allows his forwards to get the puck with ease. He also plays well in his defensive zone, something the Penguins could use to make life easier for their netminders.
It’s easy to look at his advanced where he holds a CF% of 49.3, FF% of 49.6, SF% of 49.3 and SCF% of 49.4 and balk at the thought of acquiring him. But context is important. The Kings are a bad team with bad players on both sides of the puck, so it’s going to have a drag on his numbers. If you go back to when the Kings were in a better position roster-wise before last season, these were the worst numbers Martinez had posted in any season.
- CF%: 52.9, 2015-16 season
- FF%: 52.8, 2014-15 season
- SF%: 50.8, 2014-15 season
- SCF%: 49.1, 2014-15 season
It’s clear that he’s been consistently good, but has fallen victim to a bad roster around him. Goals Above Replacement models also agree that Martinez’s possession shortcomings have more to do with his quality of team rather than his quality of play, as he ranks as the most valuable defenseman on the Kings by a significant margin.
The Penguins, while maddeningly inconsistent, are a better team with better players. So adding another good player to a roster with a number of them will likely lead to an improvement of those numbers in short order.
Making a move for Martinez would be improving the Penguins’ defense now and for the future. He’s not a rental. He’s signed through the 2020-21 season at a cap hit of $4 million, which isn’t a big number, but the team would have to pull off another move to make it work financially.
The cap-ceiling Penguins can make it work this season by placing Olli Maatta on long-term injured reserve as Martinez’s ($4 million) and Maatta’s ($4.083 million) cap hits are almost identical. Although, with just a projected $4.1 million in cap space, if the expected cap increase to $83 million happens, for seven roster spots for next season, the team would have to move somebody like Tanner Pearson (two years remaining, $3.75 million) to have some breathing room.
It likely won’t come cheap to acquire him, but it’s not going to break the Penguins’ bank to do it, either. A reasonable cost for a soon-to-be 32-year-old should be a first-round pick and a mid-level prospect, similar to what the Kings got back in January for fellow blueliner Jake Muzzin in a trade with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Rutherford has stated his preference is to keep the Penguins’ 2019 first-round pick, but he may have no choice but to move it if he wants to keep his team in a playoff race. If he does move it for Martinez, he could lottery protect the pick and defer the pick to the 2020 Draft. The Penguins aren’t in danger of becoming the Ottawa Senators, at least in the short-term, so if the 2020 pick were to get anywhere close to Alexis Lafrenière territory, the team has more significant problems on their hands.
As for a prospect the Penguins could send, one of three names come to mind; Filip Hållander, Calen Addison or Justin Almeida.
All three were 2018 Penguins draft picks; Addison and Hållander were second-round picks, while Almeida was a fifth-round pick. All three have also had standout post-draft seasons with their respective teams; Hållander with Timrå IK of the SHL, Addison with the Lethbridge Hurricanes of the WHL and Almeida with the Moose Jaw Warriors of the WHL.
Related: Revisiting the Penguins 2018 Draft
If Rutherford can manage it, it’s likely he’ll keep Hållander and Addison over any other prospects in the system, and he’d be wise to do so. Neither are franchise building blocks, but they’re solid prospects who may be able to contribute a fair amount at the highest level.
A potential deal could look something like this:
Penguins Receive: Alec Martinez
Kings Receive: Lottery protected 2019 First-Round pick and forward Justin Almeida
Which would leave a healthy Penguins defense looking like this:
Any potential acquisition of Martinez doesn’t make them an instant favorite, but it would provide the Penguins with a much-needed upgrade on the blue line that would help them get closer to becoming a threat in the Eastern Conference once again.
Of course, the Kings hold the leverage and don’t have to trade Martinez right now. So it makes a deal unlikely if Rutherford won’t cave to their demands, but it’s something that needs to be explored before 3 p.m. Monday afternoon if the Penguins want to stop nickel and diming themselves around an issue which has long plagued them.
Zach Aston-Reese Is Finding His Place in the NHL
Need some positive news after a rough week of hockey? Here it is. Just under two years after signing with the franchise as an undrafted free agent out of Northeastern University, Zach Aston-Reese has found his full-time role on the NHL roster. And it’s as the Penguins’ Swiss army knife.
Since he made his NHL debut on Feb. 3, 2018, Aston-Reese has played on all four lines, the power play and the penalty kill. Anywhere you can think of, the Penguins have played him there. As for right now, the 24-year-old is thriving on a line with Malkin and Phil Kessel. Aston-Reese’s job is to be the distributor and to play sound defense in lieu of his linemates’ shortcomings, and he’s done it to perfection.
He brings a physical element every shift; he gets into the rough areas to get his teammates the puck and has no problem dropping the gloves if the times call for it. Although the Penguins would likely benefit more if he were to avoid fights as he just returned from a month-long absence due to a broken hand he suffered in a game against the Florida Panthers on Jan. 8.
Injuries have been a common theme for Aston-Reese in his brief career. Shortly after his debut last season, he suffered an upper-body injury, then broke his jaw and was concussed after a hit to the head from Washington Capitals forward Tom Wilson during Game 3 of the second round last spring, and then the broken hand.
Each time Aston-Reese has returned, he’s quickly readjusted, and Sullivan praised him for his return to form following Monday’s game.
“It seems like, ever since he’s been a Penguin, he gets to the point where he gets comfortable, gets some traction, and his game really starts to take off.” (From Zach Aston-Reese has arrived: “He knows he belongs.” — The Athletic — 2/19/19)
It’s clear the Penguins value Aston-Reese, and his strong play is going to be vital to the Penguins as they head into the stretch run. If he can improve upon his 15 points in 36 games while continuing to be a key cog in the second line, this team gets that much stronger up front.
A restricted free agent this offseason, Aston-Reese could be playing his way to a slight raise, and if his recent play has been any indication, the Penguins would be smart to get him under contract with an inexpensive, short-term extension. Hitting on college free agent signings has become a common theme for the Penguins over the years, and Aston-Reese is another name the Penguins can add to the list.
For as gloomy as things seem right now, everything could be drastically different this time next week. As of Feb. 25, the Penguins sit one point out of a playoff spot but enter the week just a point behind the Blue Jackets, whom they face on Tuesday night, for third place in the Metropolitan Division. They’re also only five points back of the Capitals for second place. If they win all three games this week, they could be chasing the New York Islanders for the division lead by week’s end.
It’s another critical week for the Penguins. Every game from here on out carries major playoff implications.
What’s up Next
2/26/19 @ Columbus
3/1/19 @ Buffalo Sabres
3/2/19 @ Montreal
Conner McTague is a recent graduate of the Journalism program at Durham College. He covers the Pittsburgh Penguins for The Hockey Writers. He hopes to make a career out of sports reporting.