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Tim Benz: Time for Penguins forwards to help defense |
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Tim Benz: Time for Penguins forwards to help defense

Tim Benz
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Penguins forward Phil Kessel hasn’t scored a goal since Jan. 30 vs. Tampa Bay.

On Monday, Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford did what he could to help his defensive corps.

Now maybe the forwards can help a little, too.

With the Olli Maatta injury and Jamie Oleksiak trade, the Penguins defensive group was already stretched thin approaching Monday’s trade deadline. Then Saturday’s injuries to Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin in Philadelphia made matters worse.

Much, much worse. Those two players lead the team in average ice time. They are the top two defensemen when it comes to points and plus-minus.

Dumoulin is out with a concussion. A timetable for his return is anyone’s guess. Although we know it won’t be Tuesday in Columbus.

The same is true for Letang. He is being evaluated for some type of upper-body injury.

Head coach Mike Sullivan said he didn’t consider Letang to be “out indefinitely.” He also agreed with a line of questioning that described the prognosis as “encouraging” as opposed to what the initial concerns were after he fell to the ice in the Stadium Series game against the Flyers.

But Rutherford still felt the need to acquire two defensemen as insurance against the prospect of an extended absence by either player or even just to get through the next few games as they rest.

So Rutherford traded for physical 6-foot-5, 217-pound defenseman Erik Gudbranson from Vancouver. Gudbranson has just two goals and eight points in 57 games. The right-hander is a league-worst minus-27. And his more in-depth analytics are terrible.

But Gudbranson is a defenseman. He is right-handed. He’ll fight.

And he has a pulse. Tanner Pearson does not.

Yet, Pearson is all it cost to get Gudbranson from the Canucks. So Rutherford made the deal. He also nabbed another right-handed-shooting blueliner in Chris Wideman for oft-traveled forward Jean-Sebastien Dea.

Wideman is more of a puck-moving type from Florida who was assigned to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton right away.

That’s what Rutherford attempted to do to help his defense with numbers. With minutes. With depth.

Hopefully, his forwards can do more to tangibly help once the lineups are announced and the puck drops.

“Simplify,” winger Bryan Rust said an hour before the deadline. “(The forwards) have got to spend more time in the O-zone. The quicker we can get out of our end, the more we can play north and play in (the opponent’s) end, that’s going to give us the best chance.

“Work as a unit defensively. Backcheck. Focus on those details.”

Theoretically, the Penguins forwards should’ve been doing that all along.

“I think that’s when our team is at our best, regardless of whether (Letang and Dumoulin) are in our lineup or not,” Sullivan said. “When we hang onto pucks in the offensive zone. Put pucks in behind defensemen and force turnovers.”

Here’s another way for the forwards to help the defensemen: score. How about that?

Phil Kessel has no goals in 12 games this month. Patric Hornqvist’s last goal was Jan. 6 before his injury. Dominik Simon last put one in Jan. 19, yet he keeps playing. Jake Guentzel has one goal in his past six games.

The more the Penguins play with the lead, the more their blueliners can focus on playing a simple defensive game and get the puck out of the zone. The more they are thinking about that, the less they have to worry about joining the rush and creating offense. That’s something many of the remaining defensemen — Justin Schultz aside — aren’t necessarily adept at doing.

“I’m going to play the same way I do,” said Marcus Pettersson, who has two goals and 11 points since being traded to the Penguins on Dec. 3. “Just do it better. I don’t think anybody needs to change just because those guys are out. We all want to contribute offensively. But I don’t think we are going to change anything in our game.”

They shouldn’t. Because they can’t. Meanwhile, the Penguins forwards are capable of doing more.

In all three zones.

Forget asking more of defensemen that may have been over-leveraged even before Letang and Dumoulin got hurt. We can no longer ask the general manager to radio for more backup.

It’s time for the troops up front to hit the target more often and carry the flag for the rest of the team.

Oh, and the goalies making a few extra saves wouldn’t hurt either.

Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tim at [email protected] or via Twitter. All tweets could be reposted. All emails are subject to publication unless specified otherwise.

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