Major offseason overhaul unlikely for Penguins defense corps
Judging by the reality of the salary cap, fans of the Pittsburgh Penguins can expect the team’s blue line to look a little different next season.
Judging by the comments of general manager Jim Rutherford, it probably won’t be too different, though.
The cap dictates the Penguins will have to shed at least a little bit of salary to put together a compliant roster for next season. With six players making more than $3 million on the blue line and $4 million player Olli Maatta spending the last three games of the year in the press box, it’s not hard to guess where that haircut will take place.
But a massive restyling? Rutherford didn’t sound like that was in the cards at his season-ending news conference.
“I think our defense is probably the best now that it’s been since I’ve been here, as a group,” he said.
Rutherford’s remarks were scoffed at for obvious reasons. No team that just got swept out of the first round of the playoffs by the New York Islanders should be in the running for many best-of awards.
There are a couple of ways to frame Rutherford’s comments that make them appear much more sensible, though.
The first is by looking at six defensemen the Penguins finished the playoffs with as they walk through an airport. It’s an impressive-looking group. They have size, strength and athleticism. There’s a puck mover (Kris Letang, Justin Schultz and Marcus Pettersson) and a stay-at-home presence (Brian Dumoulin, Jack Johnson and Erik Gudbranson) on every pair.
The second is by looking at the team’s results from March. During that month, the Penguins went 10-3-3 and allowed 2.19 goals per game. That’s an excellent number.
It doesn’t take a whole lot of number-crunching to poke holes in Rutherford’s take, however.
It’s generally accepted that the best hockey the Penguins played during Rutherford’s tenure as GM was down the stretch and into the playoffs in 2015-16.
In March of that year, the most common defense pairs saw Dumoulin with Letang, Maatta with Trevor Daley and Ian Cole with Schultz. They went 12-4-0 with a 2.19 goals-against average that was almost identical to this year’s team.
But here’s the difference, and it’s a huge one: In March of 2016, the Penguins’ defense didn’t come at the expenses of offense or puck possession. They scored 3.69 goals per game with a shot-attempt percentage of 57.4. In March of 2019, it did. The Penguins scored 2.94 goals per game with a 49.2 shot-attempt percentage.
As constructed, the Penguins appear to have a roster that is good at both scoring and preventing goals, but not at the same time, and that’s obviously a problem they need to fix.
Here’s a look at the team’s depth chart on defense:
The underrated Dumoulin had another outstanding season, flirting with the league lead in plus-minus. A torn PCL slowed him down in the playoffs.
Pettersson emerged as a smooth-skating, lanky defender in the Dumoulin mold. He’s a keeper.
Johnson led Penguins defensemen in hits, blocked shots and short-handed ice time, but when it came to scoring and preventing goals at even strength, few NHL defensemen, if any, had a worse season. When he was on the ice five on five, the Penguins were outscored 60-46.
A late-season shoulder injury and a rough showing in Game 1 against the Islanders left Maatta in a bad place. He’s only 24, so a bounce back is eminently possible, but it’s more likely to happen somewhere else.
Juuso Riikola is a capable depth defenseman.
A few ill-timed playoff mistakes put a damper on an otherwise brilliant season for Letang.
Schultz probably wasn’t in tip-top form after returning from a broken leg that cost him most of the season, and the fact he’s entering the last year of his contract makes him a trade candidate, but the Penguins have bigger problems than him.
Gudbranson was in Johnson territory when it came to scoring and preventing goals before he was traded to the Penguins. The change in scenery did him a massive amount of good. He not only showed the physical push-back Rutherford craves, he was better than expected with the puck.
Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jonathan by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .