The Pittsburgh Penguins are at an interesting crossroad when it comes to their team, specifically on defense. The team has invested a lot of money into a defense core that needs to improve if this team wants to make the playoffs. Can the Penguins ride their stars on offense and be just good enough on defense in order to make the playoffs in the 2019-20 season? It is not a question of whether or not this unit can be one of the best defensive cores in the league. They just have to be good enough to get into the playoffs. Are they, though? Let’s break down the projected D-lines below and find out if they really are “good enough.”
First Pair: Brian Dumoulin- Kris Letang
No surprises here. Brian Dumoulin and Kris Letang are the first pair and they certainly belong here. Letang is a five-time All-Star and has been a top-10 Norris Trophy finalist six times. He is arguably the best defenseman in Penguins history and the leader of this defensive unit. That being said, he does struggle with inconsistent play at times. When he is on, he is one of the best in the world. But when he is off, like he was in the playoff series against the New York Islanders, it is glaringly obvious.
On the other side of the ice is his partner in crime, Dumoulin. Dumoulin and Letang have been paired together for the last few seasons and, thankfully, the coaching staff hasn’t tinkered with their pairing unless someone is injured. Dumoulin last season set a career high in points, assists, hits, and ice time. His 21:02 minutes per game was second on the team and his ice time has gone up every season he has been in the league. All of that is nice but what he provides is some defensive stability to a Penguins team (especially his partner Letang) that loves to play fast and get up the ice quick and score.
His defensive mindset allows Letang to be a little more offensive minded, knowing that Dumoulin is going to cover for him when necessary. This top pair is here to stay for the next few years as both are under contract for the foreseeable future. As long as both are healthy, expect 21-23 minutes on a nightly basis from these two and the Penguins leaning on their top pairing.
Second Pair: Marcus Pettersson- Justin Schultz
The Penguins have a second pair that presumably would be made up of Marcus Pettersson and Justin Schultz. Pettersson was acquired from the Anaheim Ducks in a trade that saw forward Daniel Sprong go the other way and what a trade that turned out to be for the Penguins. Although Pettersson was mainly used on the third unit and paired with such guys as Jack Johnson and Erik Gudbranson (more on them in a minute), he was a productive defenseman and played on the second power-play unit.
But, as of this writing, Pettersson is still a restricted free agent and remains unsigned. I fully expect him to be signed by the time training camp rolls around, but every day that passes I get slightly worried that another team will sign him to an offer sheet and force the Penguins to manage their ugly cap situation by trading someone in a short time in order to sign Pettersson. The Penguins could really benefit themselves by getting that deal done as soon as possible considering he averaged just over 20 minutes per game in the month of March last season when Letang and Dumoulin were injured at the same time. He is a guy that the Penguins can plan around for their future should he continue to develop as expected.
Schultz is paired up with Pettersson and since general manager Jim Rutherford traded for him back in 2016, he has revitalized his career. He stepped up big in the 2017 Stanley Cup run when Letang was hurt and anchored the power play with his slap shot. Schultz, though, had to spend most of the first half of the season on the Long-Term Injured Reserve due to a broken leg in the early stages of the season. Injuries have been a problem for him, but when he plays, he is a more than capable second pair d-man and can be the point man on the potent Penguins power play. As long as he is not paired with Johnson, Schultz should be just fine in what is a contract year for him.
Third Pair: Jack Johnson- Erik Gudbranson
Oh boy. Where to start with this pair. Let’s start with Johnson. In the 2018 offseason, he was signed to a five-year deal with an average annual value (AAV) of $3.25 million. What on earth was Rutherford thinking? A five-year deal with that AAV for a guy who was scratched during the playoffs his last season with the Columbus Blue Jackets ? It didn’t make sense then and it still doesn’t make sense today. Let’s look at some numbers, though. Per 60 minutes, when Johnson was on the ice, the Penguins allowed 2.72 goals against. If a goal was scored and he was on the ice, only 43.3% of the time was the goal scored by the Penguins. If he was on the bench and a goal was scored, the Penguins scored the goal just over 60% of the time. Those are all 5v5 stats, too. Johnson was continually on the penalty kill and was just as atrocious there. If the Penguins can offload him, the city of Pittsburgh might just throw a parade that he is gone.
Next to Johnson is Gudbranson. Gudbranson was a panic trade with the Vancouver Canucks for Tanner Pearson when the Penguins lost Letang and Dumoulin in the same game and Schultz was still not 100% up to game speed. Gudbranson is due $4 million the next two seasons as well. So that’s $7.25 million tied up to two of the worst defensemen in the league. Gudbranson is a big and strong bodied player who will fight guys when absolutely necessary. That’s it. He is slow. He doesn’t move the puck well. His shot is average at best.
The Penguins could have gotten more for less if they had just kept Jamie Oleksiak, who has a similar body build to Gudbranson but was quicker, younger, and significantly cheaper. All that being said, he did a fine job in his sheltered role alongside Pettersson for Pens fans to not totally write him off this season. Gudbranson is absolutely the better of the two defensemen on this pair, but Pens fans should close their eyes and pray that whenever these two are on the ice together, the opponent doesn’t score.
Healthy Scratches: Chad Ruhwedel and Juuso Riikola
Chad Ruhwedel has been a loyal servant to the Penguins the last few seasons. He doesn’t complain when he is scratched. He does his job in practice and waits for his turn on the ice. He appeared in 18 games last season, mostly due to injury and filled in quite nicely. I think he will have a similar role this season and be there when needed.
Same for Juuso Riikola. After impressing in training camp last season and starting the season with the Penguins, he was sent down after playing 37 games and finished the year in the AHL. They will be good depth options for the Penguins defense who can fill in and provide a boost when needed. It would not surprise me if one of these guys is eventually put on the third pairing when Johnson or Gudbranson just don’t cut it.
So, Are They “Good Enough?”
All this defense needs to be is good enough. Not good. Not great. Not elite. Just simply good enough. I truly believe they are good enough. That third pairing is going to be tough to watch, but if the top four stay healthy, there is every reason to believe the Penguins will be playing hockey in April and vying for the Stanley Cup. But injuries to the wrong players and this could get ugly quick for the Penguins. If they manage to trade Johnson, there is even more optimism to believe the Penguins will be contending for a top three spot in the division. If this unit stays the exact same, I would expect the Penguins to be a wild card team. But is this defense good enough? Yes, but with absolutely no margin for error.