Mark Madden: Penguins need to ride out struggles with injury-depleted defense | TribLIVE.com
Mark Madden, Columnist

Mark Madden: Penguins need to ride out struggles with injury-depleted defense

Mark Madden
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Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Penguins’ the Juuso Riikola fights for position with the Islanders’ Leo Komarov in the second period Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2019 at PPG Paints Arena.
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AP
Pittsburgh Penguins’ Chad Ruhwedel (2) checks New Jersey Devils’ P.K. Subban (76) along the boards as he goes for the puck during the third period of an NHL hockey game, Friday, Nov. 22, 2019, in Pittsburgh. The Penguins won 4-1.

Brian Dumoulin is out eight weeks after ankle surgery. Justin Schultz is sidelined by a lower-body injury. That leaves two big holes on defense.

The Penguins also are decimated up front in the absences of Sidney Crosby, Nick Bjugstad and Bryan Rust. (Just when Rust got red-hot, too.)

But the Penguins still have a superstar center in Evgeni Malkin. Jake Guentzel eclipses Malkin’s level on some nights. Alternate offensive sources like Jared McCann and Dominik Kahun are stepping forward. Patric Hornqvist is a force in front of goal. (But he left practice early Monday.) Kris Letang gets offense started from the back.

The Penguins still should be able to eke out enough goals.


But on defense, the alternatives are few and depressing.

Jack Johnson is having a much better season, even if his critics refuse to acknowledge. Rookie John Marino is a revelation. Marcus Pettersson is stumbling a bit, but he’s the goods. Letang is Letang: lots of minutes, offense, skating, breakout and physicality.

After that, however …

Jusso Riikola seems to have squandered whatever confidence the coaching staff once had in him. Zach Trotman and Chad Ruhwedel are borderline NHL defenseman, at best, and perhaps not even that.

Should GM Jim Rutherford make a trade for a defenseman? (Schultz may soon be ready to practice with the team, but his return date is unknown.)

Rutherford certainly doesn’t mind making deals: He’s made 41 since taking the job as Penguins GM on June 6, 2014.

Rutherford’s forte is solving problems, including those he’s created. He’s got no ego.

But the Penguins’ cap space is minimal ($1.5 million). Anyway, what could Rutherford trade to get a defenseman?

The Penguins don’t own their second-round pick in 2020 and, with the end of the Crosby/Malkin era on the horizon, Rutherford should be loath to trade first-round choices moving forward. When you’re tortured by injury, there isn’t much main-roster depth to trade from.

The amateur GMs see backup goalie Tristan Jarry as a trade chip now that he’s played a handful of good games.

But what NHL team would see Jarry as a starter given his meager resume? The return for Jarry would be minimal.

Besides, the Penguins need Jarry.

Jarry has compiled excellent stats in his limited role (2.27 goals-against average, .929 save percentage). He’s better this season than Casey DeSmith was last season.

It helps to have two goalies you trust, as the Penguins proved in 2017.

Matt Murray has had his share of injuries. This season, he’s had his share of struggles.

Murray’s numbers (2.84 GAA, .897%) are subpar, especially since the Penguins have tightened their defense. They have allowed just 29.4 shots per game, the NHL’s fifth-best mark.

Murray’s detractors say his glove is deficient, but it’s not. That’s just a place where it’s easy to spot mistakes.

Murray has leaked in some bad goals. He also has failed to steal the odd game. When a team is damaged by injury, the No. 1 goalie needs to step up more than Murray has.

Murray is a talent and a winner. He has played better and will. But it would help if it happens soon.

The best thing the Penguins can do is give Jarry a bigger share of the workload until Murray finds himself. If Murray feels a bit challenged, that’s good. He was at his best when he was pushed by Marc-Andre Fleury.

There probably is no trade that can be made to fix the defense. Unless Riikola, Trotman and Ruhwedel are so bad Rutherford simply has to finagle something, the roster should be in a holding pattern for a few weeks. Hopefully, Schultz returns soon.

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