Penguins Have Defensive Dilemma

The Pittsburgh Penguins have a dilemma. Due to injuries to the forward group, they currently have three players on their NHL roster that started the season in the AHL. As a result, there are nine defensemen on the roster. Generally, teams run with 12 forwards and six defensemen every game. However, the Penguins have dressed 11 forwards and seven defensemen multiple times, including having a natural defenseman play left wing against the Colorado Avalanche. What is the solution for the Penguins and what options do they have in order to fix their defensive dilemma?

Simple Solution: Trade a Defenseman

The simple way to go about addressing this issue is trading a defenseman for a forward. Teams like the Arizona Coyotes and Anaheim Ducks both could use a veteran defenseman and have been trade partners with the Penguins recently. Not trying to speculate what a possible trade would look like, it is assumed that a similar amount of salary would come back in return. The Penguins should not expect to get a lot of salary cap relief in this scenario.

Jack Johnson #73 of the Pittsburgh Penguins
CHICAGO, IL – DECEMBER 12: Jack Johnson #73 of the Pittsburgh Penguins and John Hayden #40 of the Chicago Blackhawks battle for the puck in the second period at the United Center on December 12, 2018 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Chase Agnello-Dean/NHLI via Getty Images)

The most likely names to be traded are Jack Johnson and Erik Gudbranson. Both have been third-line defensemen this season and head coach Mike Sullivan has been rotating them on a nightly basis it seems. He could be playing both to keep them fresh. He also could be trying to showcase them in a limited role in order to work a trade for them. If either can play well in a role where they can be protected and their ice time limited, a team that needs defensive help could take a chance on them, just like the Penguins did last season with Gudbranson.

Pittsburgh Penguins Erik Gudbranson
Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Erik Gudbranson (Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)

It has been reported by multiple outlets that general manager Jim Rutherford is looking to move a defenseman. With nine defensemen dressed on a nightly basis, it’s only a matter of time until a move is made. The more likely is probably Gudbranson. Even though his cap hit is higher than Johnson’s, his contract is only for this season and next. Johnson has this season and the next three left on his deal. Gudbranson has also played better than Johnson has. On top of that, he shoots right-handed, which is at a bit of a premium in the NHL. Ultimately, one of these two is probably on the way out. It is just a matter of when – not if.

The Rise of John Marino

The Penguins acquired John Marino in a trade with the Edmonton Oilers before the season started. He was entering his senior year at Harvard and it was obvious he did not want to sign with the Oilers. He was traded for a sixth-round draft pick on the condition he signed his entry-level contract with the Penguins. He did and he has done nothing but impress since his arrival in Pittsburgh.

John Marino Penguins
Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman John Marino (Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)

He was initially sent down but was immediately called up before the season started and has firmly established himself on the third defensive pairing on the right side and has played the last five games. Sullivan has been really impressed with his play.

“He’s a big strong kid. He’s got a good stick. He is mobile, defends hard and he’s got a little edge to his game… And he’s got poise with the puck.”

Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan

The rise of Marino has led to the Penguins looking to trade a defenseman as mentioned above. The former sixth-round pick still has some growing to do but he has all the qualities the Penguins look for. Prior to leaving Harvard before his senior year, he had been named team captain so he has some leadership qualities. At just 22 years old, Marino looks like someone who could be a top-four defenseman for the foreseeable future.

What About the Healthy Scratches?

Juuso Riikola and Chad Ruhwedel came into the season as depth defensemen. Ruhwedel has been scratched every game so far as expected, but the Penguins like the depth he provides and he can fill in when necessary. They liked that so much they re-signed him to a two-year deal with an average annual value of $700,000. Ruhwedel being sent down does not seem like an option as it didn’t happen last season and there is no indication that there’s a thought of it happening now.

Penguins defenseman Chad Ruhwedel
Penguins defenseman Chad Ruhwedel (Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)

Riikola is the interesting one. He started last season on fire. He was impressive in the preseason and earned a spot on opening night. As the season went along, his play went down and he was eventually sent down to the AHL. He was re-signed this offseason and made the roster to start the season. His first action of the year however came at left wing against the Avalanche.

Juuso Riikola
Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Juuso Riikola (Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)

Forward Jared McCann sustained an injury and instead of calling up yet another forward, Riikola filled in and got six shifts on that left side. It is safe to say that he will not do what former Penguin and current radio announcer Phil Bourque did by playing both defense and the wing. While Riikola could be sent down and probably clear waivers, I think he stays up and continues to be a depth option.

Looking Forward

The Penguins are riding a four-game win streak as of this writing. Things are always easier when you are winning so the Penguins aren’t in a hurry to make a move. One more injury to a forward will put the Penguins in a bind. At some point, a defenseman will go. Whether that is by trade or being sent down it remains to be seen. At this point, a trade seems inevitable. Will it be some sort of package deal with a goalie for a forward or just a one for one swap? Time will tell but if the Penguins keep winning, they will be content with what they have – for now.