Penguins defenseman Dumoulin striving for more consistency
When the topic of Kris Letang's defensive partner arises, Penguins coach Mike Sullivan rarely passes up a chance to emphasize the team's star blue liner skates beside just about everyone at some point in a game.
Letang, who averages more than 26 minutes of ice time this season and contributes to the penalty kill and power play, goes over the boards often enough to snag a few shifts with each skater wearing a Penguins jersey.
No defensemen served as the conservative complement to Letang's high-pace style over the past year more frequently than Olli Maatta and Brian Dumoulin, though.
When the Penguins visit Brooklyn on Wednesday to meet the New York Islanders, Letang likely will share most of his five-on-five ice time with Maatta. They reunited after Letang spent the 2016 playoffs and much of this season's first quarter at Dumoulin's side.
The word used most frequently to explain Maatta's departure from the top pair last season, “consistency,” emerged again during the past few days in regards to Dumoulin, who was a healthy scratch Saturday against New Jersey and skated beside Trevor Daley again at practice Tuesday.
“Obviously, both of those guys are very important to our defense core,” Sullivan said. “We're trying to find ways to help them continue to grow and develop.
“I think Brian is a guy who, when he's at his best, he's using his skating ability and his mobility to help us get out of our end zone. I think he has the ability to shake a forecheck because he can skate extremely well. We're trying to encourage him to use his mobility to not only help us get out of our end zone with the puck but also when he's defending without the puck, where he can close on people, take time and space, get into peoples' bodies, make it hard for them to make plays.
“Olli is a different type of player. He's very positionally sound. I think he sees the ice well. He has good puck poise. He has very good hockey sense.”
Dumoulin's perch in the press box against the Devils gave him a prime view of the situations where Sullivan wants to see improvement. The 25-year-old Maine native also studied film of his play to recognize the errors, which tarnished the reputation he established in 2015-16 as one of the Penguins' top shot and goal suppressors.
“I'm a guy that it seems like sometimes I've got to learn from my mistakes, and when you do that, you're going to make mistakes,” Dumoulin said. “I know my game. I'm the type of guy that breaks pucks out quickly and makes good tape-to-tape passes and puts the forwards in good positions and moves the puck up well to them. I just need to get back to that.
“There's still a lot of games to be played. Hopefully this little blip can just be a ... short-term thing that'll hopefully help a big way in the long term.”
Maatta, whose stall in the dressing room at the Penguins' practice facility sits next to Dumoulin's, understands his teammate's plight from experience.
He went through a similar period of introspection during the playoffs last spring. Maatta served as a healthy scratch in Games 2, 3 and 4 of the Eastern Conference finals and delivered some of his best performances of the postseason when he returned to the lineup.
Another string of inconsistency followed at the start of this season for Maatta, who moved around the depth chart but never out of the top six.
“It's been better lately, but personally, I think I still can play better,” Maatta said. “You know there's going to be off games. It's going to go that way. That's when we need the next man to step up, and that's pretty much what it's been with us all year.”