Pens’ Defense Up to Early Season Challenge

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Four games in and the injury riddled Pittsburgh Penguins have accumulated six out of a possible eight points. Their record currently sits at 2-0-2 which means they have not lost a game in regulation yet this season. That’s a success in itself.

The Pens lost to the Dallas Stars at home Tuesday night in a shootout and I don’t know how yinz feel, but shootouts are the absolute worst way to decide a game in all of sports.  I digress.

Prior to play Tuesday, the Penguins led the NHL in goals with 15 through three games. They added one to that total against the Stars. The focal point of everyone’s praise has been offensively. When considering that Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are out and have yet to return it makes it all the more impressive.

While I’ve been encouraged by the Penguins as a whole early on this season, the blue liners have been a huge reason why the Penguins have started so hot despite missing a lot of their top players.

Top Tier

A group undisputedly led by Kris Letang, the Penguins’ defensive unit has done nothing but impress in the first few games.

Letang has been his typical self, playing great defense while also getting involved offensively. Letang has yet to score but he’s got four assists in the first four games and continues to be an offensive force on the blue line. Where he once lacked in defensive acumen, Letang has matured as a blue liner over the course of his career and has become much more sound on the opposite side of the puck.

However, it’s not just Letang that deserves credit. His longtime partner, Brian Dumoulin, has continued to be one of the most under appreciated defenseman in all of hockey. Dumo consistently provides the Penguins with an elite stay-at-home defenseman that compliments Letang’s game perfectly.

That doesn’t mean, however, that Dumoulin can’t hold his own offensively. He doesn’t add a ton of points on a yearly basis, his career high being 23 points in the 2018-19’ season, but he isn’t a minus on that side of the puck either. Dumo and Letang’s styles have proven to be perfect for each other ever since they became partners on the blue line.

Middle Depth

The depth doesn’t stop at Letang and Dumoulin either.

John Marino, the Pens’ lone goal scorer on Tuesday, could be one of the steals of the decade for the Penguins. The 24-year old had a rocky sophomore season following a rookie season that looked to be the blooming of a star.

Marino was acquired for a sixth-round pick prior to the 2019 season. He played so well in the preseason that year, the Penguins had no choice but to give him a spot on Opening Night.  The Pens have not regretted that decision. Now in his third season, Marino hopes to look more like the kid that played phenomenally in his rookie campaign than he did during his sophomore slump.

My biggest early season surprise on the entire team goes to this next guy, Marino’s current defensive partner, Marcus Pettersson.

I’ve been very harsh on Pettersson since the beginning of last season. He was acquired for failed prospect Daniel Sprong in December of 2018. He played well enough for Jim Rutherford to reward him with a five-year deal just over $4 million AAV. 

To this point, Pettersson hasn’t quite been able to live up to the deal. He hasn’t necessarily been a bad defensemen but his overall body of work isn’t quite what you’d want in someone getting paid like a top-4 defenseman. His name was prevalent in trade rumors over the summer.

So far in 2021, Pettersson looks like a brand new player. He looks a step quicker and isn’t getting tossed around like a rag doll, a problem he had not been able to shake so far in his career. His reads have been much better on the defensive end and he isn’t getting blown passed by opposing skaters. If he continues to show improved skating ability and defensive instincts, I’d expect him to grow on the fan base as a whole.

Bottom Pairings

The bottom pair duties have already been split up between a few players.

Mike Matheson, the defenseman the Penguins acquired through the Patric Hornqvist trade, made his season debut tonight after missing the first three games with an injury. Matheson is one of my favorite players to watch on this team. He skates so effortlessly and can fly when he’s got open space. His ability to create offense out of nothing into a scoring chance is wildly impressive.

When healthy, Matheson is certainly one of their top-six guys. He’s just got too much to offer offensively. He unfortunately isn’t a great defender but actually seemed to improve in that aspect last season. Another step in the right direction defensively and Matheson could become a sneaky good player in Pittsburgh.

Chad Ruhwedel has been with the Penguins for what feels like an eternity. Entering his sixth season in Pittsburgh, Ruhwedel serves as the perfect seventh defenseman. Without true playing time, it’s hard to get a real rhythm going but Ruhwedel doesn’t allow that to phase him. Any time he’s called upon, Ruhwedel always is up to the task.

Mark Friedman is a 25-year old defenseman that hasn’t played much at the NHL level over four seasons. He has 19 career games to be exact. Friedman provides some solid offensive prowess and enough defensive instinct to get by. His five points in 19 career games is pretty good for a sparingly used defenseman.

Concluding Thoughts

With a solid defense, Tristan Jarry has been sensational early on. Even if the defense briefly lapses, Jarry has made some phenomenal saves and showed that he is capable of putting that abysmal playoff performance behind him. That’s massive.

Regardless, this team is staying afloat among injuries because the defense has tightened up immensely early on. It’s a long season but they have showed no signs of relenting in the early going.