It's Time Pierre-Olivier Joseph Stays in Pittsburgh

Photo acquired from Penguins Official Twitter account

It’s not hockey season if the Penguins aren’t dealing with a plethora of injuries. They kicked off the season without Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Also to this point, they’ve already had Bryan Rust, Kris Letang, Jeff Carter, Jake Guentzel, Zach Aston-Reese, and Mike Matheson miss games for them.

Defensemen Marcus Pettersson and Chad Ruhwedel were placed on the COVID protocol list on Sunday afternoon. Since the Penguins don’t play again until Thursday, negative test results would likely give both players a chance to play on Thursday, however, the team is still short-staffed.

Those roster moves forced the Penguins to call up top defensive prospect Pierre-Olivier Joseph from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. I hope my using the word 'forced' does not convey it as a bad thing.

Roster Moves Dissolve Defensive Log Jam

Joseph seems to be NHL-ready from most accounts. He played solid hockey in his cup of coffee in the league last season.  Also, in most situations, Joseph likely gets the start on Opening Night. However, the Penguins had a log jam on defense to start the season.

Dumoulin, Pettersson, and Matheson currently lock down the left side on the top two pairings. Joseph, a left-handed shot, would give the Penguins an added boost of talent to the blue line but would continue to complicate matters as to who plays the off-handed side.

Matheson seems like the best candidate to do so if the Penguins ever get to full strength. We know, at this point, Dumoulin and Letang are a set pairing. Also, Pettersson and John Marino have found some chemistry together. Joseph has never played on the right side so logistically asking your best defensive prospect to play on his off-handed side isn’t a great idea.  

Also, the two guys currently above Joseph on the organizational depth chart haven’t exactly made strong cases to stay there.

Who Could Joseph Replace?

I’ll start with Ruhwedel.  Ruhwedel has been with the Penguins since their second of back-to-back titles in 2017, but it feels like forever. Since that time, he’s filled one of the hardest roles to fill in hockey: seventh defenseman.  

Truthfully, he’s done it to the most professional level possible. Ruhwedel knows his role and doesn’t ever publicly talk about being disgruntled or anything of the sort. There’s times he won’t play for a month or two and then be asked to log 16 minutes of solid, defensive hockey. Oftentimes he’s been awesome at it.

This year, however, it seems Ruhwedel has struggled to hit the ground running. Ruhwedel doesn’t have a point through eight games. He’s been objectively mediocre so far this season with his worst game coming in the loss Saturday night to the Devils.

Prior to this season, Ruhwedel’s been a blessing of a seventh defenseman. His role is a tough one to play and I’m not suggesting the Penguins getting rid of him by any means. But maybe he should sit in favor of the 22-year old kid who’s eager to make a difference in the lineup. 

The former first-round pick would love to be a staple on the Penguins blue line for the next decade. Joseph over Ruhwedel should be the call. Allow Ruhwedel some practice time and use him the next time a defenseman gets hurt, which could happen by the time you finish reading this article.

Another guy that currently sits above Joseph on the depth chart is Mark Friedman.  Friedman, 25, is still a younger defenseman that was waived by the Philadelphia Flyers last season. He was actually Ron Hextall’s first acquisition as Penguins' general manager upon his arrival last season. Friedman was actually drafted by Hextall in 2014 when he was the Flyers' general manager.

Clearly Hextall likes Friedman and there’s certainly reason why. Friedman has good offensive instincts and plays a meaner-type of hockey. He’s not a bruiser by any means but he plays an in-your-face style of hockey that the Penguins lack.

Considering the Penguins lack that style of play and Friedman still can’t crack the lineup tells me more about him than it doesn’t. Maybe Mike Sullivan doesn’t like him. Sullivan has been accustomed to liking players with more talent than physicality. While Hextall and Burke like those types of players, Sullivan has lineup jurisdiction. Sullivan may opt for the more talented player in P.O. Joseph.

Concluding Thoughts

Personally, I would like to see more of Joseph. If it means Matheson has to play on his off side, so be it. Joseph should get regular playing time in Pittsburgh. However, f he isn’t going to play, keeping him in Wilkes-Barre would be the better call at this point in his career. But even at full strength, it feels like the Pens should give him a chance.

Being a third-pairing defenseman, he wouldn’t get mega minutes but he’d get enough to acquire valuable NHL experience and continue to develop against major league players.  Joseph is an impressive skater with offensive upside at a young age. It feels like the Penguins are missing out and doing themselves an injustice by leaving him in the AHL. Maybe this time he’ll get a chance to prove why he should be in Pittsburgh full-time.