Mark Madden: Penguins have tough decisions to make with defensemen | TribLIVE.com
Penguins/NHL

Mark Madden: Penguins have tough decisions to make with defensemen

Mark Madden
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Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Penguins’ Jack Johnson during the first day of camp Friday, Sept. 13, 2019 at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex.

For those who pin all of the Penguins’ woes last season on Jack Johnson and bludgeon everyone who disagrees with a club fashioned out of fancy stats, I feel you. That’s absurd simplification dipped in illogical scapegoating, but the numbers don’t lie.

Unless they do.

If you’d like to deal with the reality of the NHL, it’s not exactly a league flush with great defensemen. Johnson played as much as he did last season because somebody had to, and coach Mike Sullivan did not see Juuso Riikola as a superior option.

This year, he might.

The Penguins have better defensemen than most. They have a legitimate top four, anyway. Not every NHL team does.

But decisions still have to be made at training camp, one having to deal with the deployment of Marcus Pettersson.

Pettersson has been a revelation since his acquisition from Anaheim last Dec. 3. He’s a bit light at 177 pounds. But at 6-foot-3, Pettersson’s wingspan and positioning make travelling around him a long, difficult journey. He isn’t strong, but he’s not weak. His height and reach give him leverage he utilizes well.

Pettersson’s puck skills are good enough to rate power-play time. Last year was his first full NHL season, but he rarely made rookie mistakes. He’s durable: Witness 84 games played (two more than the 82 each team plays) because of his trade’s timing.

Pettersson’s good enough to play top four. That would partner him with Justin Schultz, whose puck-moving ability would nicely complement Pettersson.

But would the Penguins be better served by keeping Pettersson in a “Twin Towers” bottom pair with 6-5 Erik Gudbranson? That duo served the Penguins and its components well last year. Their combined length gave foes a look rarely seen otherwise.

The Kris Letang-Brian Dumoulin pair seems written in stone.

So whoever Pettersson doesn’t skate with gets paired with Johnson (or Riikola).

Johnson would do better with Schultz. Gudbranson would do better with Pettersson. Schultz would do better with Pettersson. Even though Schultz would get the more difficult assignment, the answer seems obvious.

Except it isn’t.

Most coaches worry about their top four first, then whoever’s left falls together on the bottom pair. That suits the division of labor better.

To wit, few would dispute that Pettersson and Gudbranson outplayed Johnson last season. But Johnson was top four, so he averaged more minutes. (Better was expected from Johnson and less from Pettersson and Gudbranson, at least initially.)

Stirring Riikola into the mix heightens speculation.

An undrafted free agent, Riikola signed with the Penguins last off-season after six years in the Finnish Elite League. The citizens unwisely expected more after Riikola sparkled at training camp, but he was no better than average in his 37 NHL games. His puck skills were OK, but he struggled in traffic and with adjusting to playing in smaller rinks. Riikola packs a hard shot and makes old-time fans nostalgic with the odd hip check.

As poorly as analytics say Johnson played, Riikola couldn’t dislodge him.

Will this season be any different?

Riikola’s versatility should keep him on the team. He can play either side, giving him an edge over Chad Ruhwedel if it’s down to one or the other.

But cracking the top six may be harder.

Even though the Penguins take analytics seriously, the coaches see Johnson as better than his metrics. Johnson struggled mightily early last season, perhaps because he played the right side where he’s weaker. Once he moved to the left side, he was decent from December through season’s end (if you trust your eyes and believe in mundane things like plus/minus). Johnson was plus-8 after December 1.

But, after playing all 82 regular-season contests, Johnson was a healthy scratch in the first game of the playoffs.

The hockey staff’s emotions are likely still mixed about Johnson.

It’s three weeks ‘til season’s start. Here’s betting it begins with pairs of Letang-Dumoulin, Pettersson-Schultz and Johnson-Gudbranson. If Johnson falters, Riikola replaces him. (Riikola’s mobility makes him a potential good fit for Gudbranson.)

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