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Additions, subtractions won't help Penguins defense in ways some might have expected

Jonathan Bombulie
| Wednesday, July 4, 2018, 6:27 p.m.
Jack Johnson (right) won't be slugging it out in front of the net too much for the Penguins. He will be expected to help mostly in the transition game.
Jack Johnson (right) won't be slugging it out in front of the net too much for the Penguins. He will be expected to help mostly in the transition game.
The Penguins' Kris Letang moves the puck up ice during their game against the Capitals inside of PPG Paints Arena on May 3, 2018.
Nate Smallwood | Tribune-Review
The Penguins' Kris Letang moves the puck up ice during their game against the Capitals inside of PPG Paints Arena on May 3, 2018.

On the surface, the alterations the Penguins have made to their roster this summer seem like a case of simple arithmetic.

Last year, they gave up a bunch of goals: 248 in the regular season, 12th-worst in the league.

When free agency opened Sunday, they promptly went out and signed a workhorse defenseman in Jack Johnson and a veteran center who can handle himself in his own zone, Matt Cullen.

The players they traded away to open up cap space for the additions, winger Conor Sheary and defenseman Matt Hunwick, weren't exactly defensive stalwarts last season.

A plus B minus C equals fewer goals allowed. Simple.

The only problem with that equation is it isn't what general manager Jim Rutherford had in mind.

Johnson is a solid 6-foot-1, 227 pounds, but the Penguins didn't give him $16.5 million to slug it out in the front of the net. That's not how defense is played in the modern NHL, especially not in Pittsburgh, where speed is prized above all other skills.

Johnson's addition is more about the transition game. His career shot-attempt stats cast doubt about whether he's the ideal man for the job, but the idea is to have one defenseman on each pair whose skating and puck-moving ability make him a one-man breakout when the situation calls for it. Johnson, Kris Letang and Justin Schultz fit that profile.

Johnson's addition is also about giving coach Mike Sullivan the option to hand out ice time more evenly on the blue line. That won't turn the team's defensemen into crease-clearing bulldozers, of course, but it should help limit mistakes with the puck.

“The coaches talked before games. ‘Let's try to use Kris 23, 24 minutes tonight.' ‘Yep, we're going to do that,' ” Rutherford said. “Of course, you know how it works. You get in the game, you have certain situations and you gotta throw him out there. By the end of the game, he's 28 minutes, and he has some shifts where he's not himself. Getting him to 24 minutes would not only help him but help the team and help his longevity.”

So if the addition of Johnson probably won't help the Penguins defend in a traditional, stay-at-home way, how are they going to go about fixing that ugly goals-against total?

“It needs to get better. It will get better. It has to,” assistant GM Bill Guerin said. “But you look at our year last year, and from the start of the year to the end of the year, we were two different teams. I think a lot of the goals against probably happened in the first half when we weren't necessarily ourselves.”

The numbers back up Guerin's theory. Last season, the Penguins gave up 3.12 goals per game in the first half of the year and 2.93 in the second half.

This year, when the season starts, the Penguins will be free of some burdens that plagued them early last season. They won't be coming off a consecutive short summer, and Letang won't be five months removed from serious neck surgery.

Also, their schedule won't be so brutal. Last season, the Penguins played a league-high 19 back-to-backs. Before the end of October, they had been pasted by a combined score of 29-7 in four tail-end road games at Chicago, Winnipeg and Tampa Bay twice. This year, they will have just 11 back-to-backs, and the first won't come until the end of November.

“It's never just, ‘Oh, we need better defensemen.' That's not it,” Guerin said. “When a goal is scored, you can always trace it back to how responsible we were with the puck at a certain time, decisions made. I'm pretty confident that will get better.”

Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at or via Twitter @BombulieTrib.

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