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Penguins' blue line getting reshuffled with Maatta 'week to week'

| Friday, March 25, 2016, 12:15 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Penguins' Olli Maatta rides the Islanders' Travis Harmonic off the puck in the second period Tuesday, March 15, 2016, at Consol Energy Center.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Penguins' Kris Letang skates against the Capitals on Sunday, March 20, 2016, at Consol Energy Center.

When Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford acquired defenseman Justin Schultz from Edmonton two days before the Feb. 29 trade deadline, both he and coach Mike Sullivan insisted ice time awaited each of the team's blue liners down the stretch.

A lower-body injury suffered by Olli Maatta in Thursday's loss to New Jersey ensures new developments in the Penguins' defensive deployment before the end of the regular season.

Maatta, described by Sullivan as “week to week” after Friday's practice, served as the cautious half of the Penguins' top defensive pairing during the past several months. Kris Letang thrived after his carousel of partners finally stopped for good on Maatta in December, and the rest of the defensemen on the roster fell into logical places over the weeks that followed. Trevor Daley and Brian Dumoulin became a dynamic duo, while Schultz, Ian Cole, Derrick Pouliot and Ben Lovejoy left the Penguins with a wealth of third-pairing options, something Sullivan and Rutherford considered a good problem.

Among the Penguins' defensemen, Maatta ranks third in time on ice this season, and his 19 points is second most.

“I think he's had a nice chemistry with Tanger,” Sullivan said of Maatta, 21, who signed a six-year contract extension worth $24.4 million in late February. “He's a guy that we're going to miss. Having said that, it's a great opportunity for some other guys to step in here and fill the void and step up and help this team win. We believe we have some depth at defense. We've got capable people that we're going to move into the lineup.”

When Maatta's injury happened in Thursday's loss remains unclear. As late as 15 minutes into the third period, he continued to take shifts according to the NHL's play-by-play log.

Maatta missed practice Friday, so Letang instead skated with Daley during drills. Lovejoy and Dumoulin reunited, and Pouliot, Cole and Schultz took turns as pairs.

“We had some defense pairs out there (Friday) that we explored,” Sullivan said. “We have some ideas on how we're going to use people.”

Letang is, by most metrics, one of the top defensemen in hockey, and his resurgence this season has been a big reason why the Penguins moved up the standings since late December.

But finding a partner he has chemistry with isn't as easy a task as it sounds.

While with Rob Scuderi and Cole, Letang was on the ice for more even-strength goals against than goals for. A favorable ratio emerged when Letang and Maatta partnered.

Each appreciated the other's ability to weigh risk and reward.

“Olli is a guy that jumps in the rush and is in the offense,” Letang said. “I think it's just the way we've been able to read each other.”

Rutherford credited the improvement in Letang's play to more than just combination tweaks, though.

“He'll be able to adjust to who he's playing with,” the general manager said of Letang. “You can't just compare what players did in the first two months to the last two months because they're playing in a little different of a system now, and the team is playing in a little bit of a different way. I see it more as an adjustment for the defensemen who will go in and play the necessary minutes that we're going to need and that Olli could handle.”

Daley has averaged 30 seconds less per game than Maatta according to hockey-reference.com, and he's second among the team's defensemen in scoring since his arrival via trade Dec. 14 with 18 points (six goals, 12 assists).

Handedness complicates the consideration. Daley, a left-hander, and Letang, a right-hander, each prefer to roam the right side.

“I've played the right for the last five, six years,” Daley said. “To go to the left, I have taken shifts there and I played a little bit there, but it is a little bit of an adjustment. I find it hard to switch back and forth.”

Either Lovejoy or Pouliot will re-enter the lineup after significant time on the shelf. Lovejoy rejoined practice in recent weeks but has not played since Feb. 20, when he suffered an upper-body injury. Pouliot, displaced by Schultz, sat out each of the Penguins' past nine games as a healthy scratch.

Neither is a carbon copy of Maatta, but each is capable of matching how the ailing Finn operated in at least one end of the rink.

“When you look at the two guys that haven't played much lately, Pouliot and Lovejoy, they bring two different dimensions,” Rutherford said. “One is an offensive guy. The other is a defensive guy. So it does give options to the coach.”

Bill West and Jonathan Bombulie are Tribune-Review staff writers. Reach them at wwest@tribweb.com and jbombulie@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BWest_Trib and @BombulieTrib.

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