5 things we’ve learned about the Penguins since the NHL trade deadline
If trade-deadline acquisition Erik Gudbranson is going to make a positive contribution to the Pittsburgh Penguins’ injury-depleted blue line, he’ll have to improve on his performance in Vancouver, where he had a league-worst minus-27 rating.
While it might be a risky strategy that is bound to backfire at some point, the Penguins have every reason to believe he will.
In the Mike Sullivan era, every defenseman the Penguins have acquired in a midseason trade has had better results after joining the team. With the usual caveat that plus-minus rating is a flawed metric that lacks context, the numbers are remarkable.
Justin Schultz was a minus-22 with Edmonton and a plus-7 with the Penguins. Ron Hainsey was a minus-16 in Carolina and a plus-8 with the Penguins. Jamie Oleksiak was a minus-6 in Dallas and a plus-13 with the Penguins.
The improvement wasn’t as dramatic for Trevor Daley, Mark Streit or Marcus Pettersson, but all had better plus-minus ratings with the Penguins than with their previous teams.
It would be arrogant for the Penguins to assume they can take any old defenseman and turn him into a plus machine, but they have done a pretty good job of identifying players stuck in bad situations and putting them in better ones.
Evidence is mounting. The change-of-scenery effect could be real.
“Sometimes it’s just not working for players. They just need a fresh start almost,” Schultz said. “I know that was the case for me. Coming here was a new start. Got to reset my game, and obviously it was pretty easy coming to a talented team like this.”
Here are five other things we learned about the Penguins since Monday’s trade deadline.
1. Stock up for Johnson
Since Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin went down with injuries in the outdoor game last Saturday, Jack Johnson has played some of his best hockey of the season.
That’s a continuation of a trend for Johnson, who was a minus-13 in his first 25 games with the Penguins and a plus-10 in 38 games since.
2. Changing attitudes
When Gudbranson makes his Penguins debut Friday night in Buffalo, the Penguins will have two No. 3 overall draft picks on their blue line. He was taken third in 2010, and Johnson was picked third in 2005.
Letang, Schultz and Dumoulin, meanwhile, were chosen between picks 43 and 62 in their draft years.
It’s a stark illustration of how much scouts and general managers still favored size and strength over finesse and puck-moving ability as recently as a few years ago.
3. Tied together
Friday night’s game will be the first Gudbranson and Jared McCann play as teammates, but they already were linked inexorably. Florida traded Gudbranson to Vancouver for McCann in a 2016 deal.
“It’s going to be cool, but I knew him from before, like in the summertime,” McCann said. “We trained at the same place last summer. We’re very excited to have him.”
4. Replacing Rust
While surviving their injuries on the blue line might be a priority for the Penguins these days, replacing Bryan Rust, out “longer term” with a lower-body injury, could prove just as difficult.
Since a Dec. 12 hat trick in Chicago, Rust is tied with Jake Guentzel for the team lead in even-strength goals with 14. That’s double the third and fourth players on the list, Sidney Crosby and Letang, who have seven apiece.
5. Small changes
Ultimately, the Penguins made only minor alterations to their roster at the deadline, sending out a role player on the wing in Tanner Pearson and adding a role player on defense in Gudbranson. Crosby takes that as a compliment, in a way.
“It means they believe in what they’ve seen when we’re at our best,” Crosby said, referring to management. “That’s the way I would take it.”
Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jonathan by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .