The Pittsburgh Penguins began the week riding a three-game winning streak, that rose to five games before their loss to the Vegas Golden Knights on Saturday. They were 5-2-0 during a seven-game stretch against Western Conference opponents, putting them second in the Metropolitan Division with 12 points.
Jim Rutherford is (Still) Shopping Defensemen
Before the regular season kicked off, rumors swirled that general manager Jim Rutherford had finally found a trade partner for Jack Johnson. Of course, that never materialized and the Penguins are still carrying nine defensemen on their active roster. It’s also the worst-kept secret in the NHL that Rutherford is still shopping Johnson, Erik Gudbranson, or potentially Juuso Riikola. Last week, Pierre Lebrun of The Athletic confirmed these rumors:
For the time being, it takes a bit of pressure off veteran GM Jim Rutherford to rush out and acquire a forward. On the other hand, he’s still carrying nine NHL defensemen and sources around the league confirmed again over the past few days that Rutherford is still trying to move a defenseman,(from ‘LeBrun’s observations: Quality coaching, Sandin’s demotion and Penguins shopping D-man,’ The Athletic – 10/14/19).
The obvious choice is Johnson but his $3.25 million cap hit for the next four seasons is understandably unattractive to potential suitors. As Lebrun mentioned, Gudbranson is a more reasonable and likely option. He’s splitting time between a bottom-four role and watching games from the press box this season. The 27-year-old won’t provide a ton of offense but he’s a physical presence that many contenders could use in a depth role.
Riikola is the youngest, cheapest, and probably the best of this group. His flexibility has been invaluable this season and there’s no doubt that teams are would acquire him over the other two. There are enough blueliners on the Penguins roster for Rutherford to trade Riikola, but they haven’t really shown a need to move him just yet. However, with several players coming off injured reserve in the near future, the 25-year-old Finn might be the odd man out.
More Injuries Cause Lineup Shuffling
With Evgeni Malkin, Nick Bjugstad, Alex Galchenyuk, and Bryan Rust already on injured reserve, the Penguins don’t have much wiggle room in the forward department. It didn’t get easier with Jared McCann missing two of three games last week with a lower-body issue. His absence promoted rookie breakout performer Sam Lafferty to be the team’s new second-line center. Naturally, this had a ripple effect through the lineup.
As mentioned, Riikola’s flexibility has been put to the test. He slid into a fourth-line role twice over the last three games on the wing next to Adam Johnson and Joseph Blandisi. Due to the Penguins’ defensive depth, those are Riikola’s only two games of the season and, if McCann is ready to play again this week, he will likely be a healthy scratch again.
As for the upper half of the forward group, Lafferty has looked pretty solid in his bigger role (mostly) next to Patric Hornqvist and Dominik Kahun. That trio registered a 63 Corsi percentage and 69.4 expected goals-for percentage over the last three games. Hornqvist also played on the top line with Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel again; he could continue splitting time between those two lines until a few forwards return healthy.
On the blue line, Brian Dumoulin was a late scratch for Saturday’s game against the Golden Knights and it’s unclear how serious his injury is. This caused John Marino to get some time on the top pair with Kris Letang and it worked out quite well for the up-and-coming defenseman. He posted a team-high 73.1 Corsi percentage in that contest. Marino’s 43.3 Corsi percentage for the season is more telling of what life is like on a pair with Jack Johnson.
Penguins Successful Against Western Powerhouses
Through nine games, the Penguins have faced just one Metropolitan opponent while seven have been against west coast teams. A few of the matchups were perfect timing; the Minnesota Wild and Dallas Stars are in the Central Division basement and the Winnipeg Jets have a terrific offensive attack but a banged up defensive corps has them struggling out of the gate.
The Penguins also had to face the conference-leading Colorado Avalanche and ended their 5-0-0 start with a thrilling overtime win. They’re one of the NHL’s most complete teams and remain the only squad without a regulation loss this season. A week before that, the Penguins won a tight, low-scoring contest against John Gibson and the Anaheim Ducks. Gibson is the league’s best goaltender this season and the Ducks are still among the Pacific Division leaders.
The 3-0 loss to the Golden Knights looks worse than it was. Marc-Andre Fleury put on a show in front of his former die-hard fans in Pittsburgh and Tristan Jarry matched him for most of the night. Vegas took a 1-0 lead on a Paul Stastny power-play tally early in the second period but they didn’t score again until the final moments, when they notched a pair of empty-net goals.
Of course, it’s fun to see the Penguins hang seven goals on the Wild, Jets, and Columbus Blue Jackets and it’s something we’ll see more of as the team gets some of its star contributors back. What’s more important, the Penguins are competing at a high level against some of the league’s most dangerous teams.
Murray and Jarry Taking Care of Business
With the Penguins playing back-to-back games on Friday and Saturday last week, Jarry was again leaned on to take care of the goaltending duties one night. While he was hit with a loss, the 24-year-old stopped 21 of 22 shots against a tough Vegas squad. While it’s a small sample size, Jarry has registered a 1.51 goals-against average and .941 save percentage in two appearances this season.
Meanwhile, Matt Murray is riding a personal four-game winning streak. During that stretch, he’s recorded a 2.21 GAA and .923 SV% and allowed two or fewer goals in three of those contests. He’s still not getting many favors from his defense and the Penguins’ up-tempo style of play naturally forces their goaltender to face more shots and quality looks. Murray is tied for the league-lead with 50 high-danger shots faced at 5-on-5 play. Fortunately, his .860 SV% on those shots is better than anyone that’s faced over 40 this season.
Jarry will get another start this week as the Penguins play the Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning on back-to-back nights. After that, they won’t see another back-to-back set until mid-November. It’s hard to imagine Jarry sitting out for that long, especially if he turns in another strong performance this week. Look for head coach Mike Sullivan to try and get his backup netminder some action at some point in early November.
Three Stars of the Week
Third Star – Kris Letang: 2 goals, 13 shots on goal
Second Star – Matt Murray: 2-0-0, .923 save percentage, 1.94 GAA
First Star – Patric Hornqvist: 1 goal, 3 points, 12 shots on goal, plus-2
This Week’s Schedule
Tuesday, Oct. 22 – @ Florida Panthers
Wednesday, Oct. 23 – @ Tampa Bay Lightning
Saturday, Oct. 26 – @ Dallas Stars
Tyler Bowen is a University of South Florida graduate and lifelong hockey fan. Tyler covers the Pittsburgh Penguins for thehockeywriters.com. You can usually find him obsessing over his fantasy teams and looking for his next gambling tip.