With Penguins defense in flux, Brian Dumoulin could be leaning right
With Kris Letang still out with an upper-body injury, Olli Maatta very close to returning from a shoulder injury and left-handed Brian Dumoulin potentially switching to the right side, the blue line is in a state of flux at the moment for the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Letang was on the ice in full uniform Thursday morning at PPG Paints Arena, but that was only for a team picture. He is not skating and will miss his second consecutive game when the Penguins play host to the Nashville Predators on Friday night.
Evgeni Malkin, meanwhile, skated before practice with defenseman Chad Ruhwedel (upper body) and skills coach Ty Hennes, but he has not yet been cleared for contact as he recovers from an upper-body injury.
After practice, coach Mike Sullivan expressed optimism that Letang and Malkin will be ready for the start of the playoffs.
“Our expectation is that these guys are making significant progress,” Sullivan said. “We’re encouraged by the way they’re tracking.”
Maatta was a full participant in Thursday’s practice. He’s been out since Feb. 11, but he routinely took contact at morning skate during the team’s recently completed four-game road trip.
“Olli had a strong practice today, full contact,” Sullivan said. “We’ll see how he responds, but I would envision him being a game-time decision tomorrow.”
Maatta’s return would bump Zach Trotman from the lineup and give the Penguins four lefties and two righties among their top six defensemen.
During practice, Sullivan left two defense pairs that have been wildly successful over the past month or so – Jack Johnson with Justin Schultz and Marcus Pettersson with Erik Gudbranson – intact.
That meant Dumoulin, who has only played on the right occasionally during his seven-year pro career, was manning his off side on a pair with Olli Maatta.
“If we choose to use him there, it’s because we believe he’s capable of doing the job,” Sullivan said. “He’s a mobile guy. He’s a good player. He has good puck skills. He has some familiarity with playing the right side.”
Dumoulin wasn’t exactly jumping up and down after practice at the prospect of switching sides, but he wasn’t complaining, either.
“It’s something I don’t mind,” he said. “It’s something that, obviously, the more you play, the better you get at it. If I have to play it, I’ll try to do my best.”
For Dumoulin, the hardest part of playing his off side might be remembering that’s where he’s supposed to be.
“Everything is a little bit different, being on the right side in the offensive zone, picking up pucks on my backhand and going in for breakouts and also remembering I’m on the right side. Sometimes I forget a little bit,” he said with a laugh. “But for the most part, I’m still going to try to play my game and keep it simple.”
The Penguins have had their greatest defensive success this season after Schultz returned from a broken leg and Gudbranson was acquired at the trade deadline. That gave Sullivan the ability to use a righty and a lefty on each defense pair.
Ultimately, when Letang comes back, Sullivan will almost certainly return to that set-up with Maatta and Pettersson competing for the third spot on the left side.
In the interim, though, Sullivan seems to have decided getting an accomplished player like Maatta back in the lineup trumps the lefty-righty dynamic.
“We have liked the lefty-right combinations that we’ve had,” Sullivan said. “We think that’s been beneficial for all of us as a group for obvious reasons. When you’re under pressure, more often than not you’re on your forehand when you’re playing on your strong side. Most guys are better on their forehand than they are on their backhand. That’s the benefit of having guys on their strong sides, playing their natural sides.
“When we have a complement of defensemen that are healthy, we’ll try to make the best decisions and put the six guys in the lineup that we think are going to give us the best chance to win.”
Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review assistant sports editor. You can contact Jonathan by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .