To have a top defenseman who manages both the role of a power-play quarterback and the role of a player who shuts down the opposing team’s best attackers is a luxury not many NHL organizations have.
Although, when we look at recent history, such players are vital pieces of Stanley Cup-winning rosters. In last season’s playoffs, the St. Louis Blues relied on Alex Pietrangelo, the year before, the Washington Capitals had had John Carlson, and in the 2016-17 playoffs, the Pittsburgh Penguins‘ defense corps was led by Kris Letang.
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However, the Penguins are slowly getting to the point where Letang will not be able to carry the team the way he used to. The 33-year-old Canadian still has some gas left in the tank and is under contract until the end of the 2021-22 season. At that time, he will be 35 and thus most likely well past his prime.
What the future holds, though, might be more optimistic than many fans would think. The reason for that was caused by one seemingly minor trade general manager Jim Rutherford made at the end of June 2019. The Penguins gave up a conditional sixth-round pick and received at that time not very well-known college defenseman John Marino.
When the training camp before the 2019-20 season started, Marino, a defenseman with no professional hockey experience, wasn’t among the hottest candidates to crack the opening night roster. Yet, the young American exceeded expectations.
“I just kept telling Jimmy we had to get this kid. He was unbelievable. He could just do everything. You could see it every night, how special he was and how much better he was going to get.”Kevin Stevens (from ‘John Marino didn’t come out of nowhere, and here’s the dented dryer to prove it,’ The Athletic, 01/14/2020)
I think it’s now safe to say, that Marino seized the opportunity without hesitation. It seemed like his confidence was growing with every game and he quickly established himself as a Penguins top-six defenseman. Before the injury the 23-year-old sustained during a game against the Tampa Bay Lightning in February, he also got to play alongside both Marcus Pettersson and Letang in the top-four.
Head coach Mike Sullivan was even confident enough to give Marino a fair share of minutes with their second power play unit, which already says a lot about him considering that the Penguins have two great puck-moving blueliners in Letang and Justin Schultz. And thus, before the regular season was canceled by the Coronavirus pandemic, he managed to put up a very solid record of 6 goals and 20 assists in 56 games.
The main asset to Marino’s game, though, isn‘t the offensive upside. According to a graph Jason Paul shared on Twitter, Marino ranks among the league’s most impactful players. His total points per 60 are at 1.4 while also maintaining top-notch record of expected 5v5 goals against per 60.
In goals against per 60 minutes (GA/60), Marino ranks third among the Penguins’ defensemen behind Juuso Riikola and Chad Ruhwedel, who both played fewer games. For comparison, Brian Dumoulin, also known as a reliable shutdown defenseman, registered 2.8 GA/60, Schultz 3.3 and finally, Letang ended the season with 3.3. Although, we have to take into consideration that Letang skated 5 more minutes on average per game than Marino.
The Next Penguins’ No.1?
Also, an important question is, do the Penguins have any other defensemen that could potentially replace Letang in the future? After Calen Addison left Pittsburgh as a part of the Jason Zucker trade, Pierre-Olivier Joseph became their best blueliner in the system. Before the 2019-20 season started, the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins general manager and head coach Mike Vellucci saw Joseph as someone who has what it takes to grow into an outstanding player. And even though defensemen might take some time to develop, he ranked last in the AHL in rookie scoring from a defender.
The other young Penguins’ blueliner, Pettersson, is one year older than Marino and already an established NHL player. While their offensive stats look rather similar, again, it is the defensive aspect of the game that sets these two apart.
For his age, the way Marino plays seems to be effortless no matter the situation on the ice. Whether it’s the power play or the penalty kill, he has been handling it with grace so far. He can move the puck as well as he can prevent the other team from scoring. It seems like the sky is the limit for the young American. After all, Rutherford himself believes that one day, Marino will take over as the Penguins’ No. 1 defenseman.