Marino Could Find Himself Out of the Pens’ Lineup

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It’s been a pedestrian last three games for the Pittsburgh Penguins. Sure, their losses against the Carolina Hurricanes and Toronto Maple Leafs came against playoff caliber teams, so those can be excused. It’s more the manner in which they played that’s scary.

Not withstanding, Thursday night’s performance against New Jersey was equally as ugly. The problem? The Devils aren’t going to be playing in the postseason this year. They’re a young team with some talent but they’re not quite ready for that next step.

Less than seven minutes into the game, the Penguins found themselves in a 3-0 deficit. Their superb goaltender, Tristan Jarry, was hung out to dry. Overall, he allowed 5 goals on 19 shots and was pulled in favor of Casey DeSmith around the mid-way point of the second period. It was the first time all season Jarry was pulled from a game.

Head coach Mike Sullivan was sure to absolve Jarry of most of the blame after the loss.  “I just think our team needed a change,” Sullivan said. “It wasn’t necessarily because he was playing poorly.”

The team as a whole has been playing rotten defense for a while now. I truly think they’re bored in the middle of the dog days of the season and are waiting for the games to really start to matter again. Sullivan demands a taxing style of hockey and the Penguins always seem to flip the switch when they need to. They should be fine.

One of my bigger concerns has been third-year defenseman John Marino.

Back in his rookie season of 2019-20’, it looked like the Penguins had found a steal of a hockey player. Marino was a sixth-round draft pick of the Edmonton Oilers who seemingly didn’t have any intention of signing with them.

The Penguins had been following his college career closely and made a trade with Edmonton, sending them a sixth-rounder for his services. Upon the Penguins signing Marino, it was assumed he’d head to Wilkes-Barre for seasoning before playing in the NHL.

Marino was so good in training camp that year he won a spot in the top-six and hasn’t really looked back.

All he did in year one was score six goals and 26 points in 56 games and received some attention for the Calder Trophy awarded to the league’s rookie of the year. While he didn’t win the award, his mark was certainly left on the team and his name became more recognizable among fans and around the league.

He spent that season looking like a potential future power-play quarterback and a guy capable of taking Kris Letang’s spot down the road as the Penguins’ number one defenseman. His gap control and defensive prowess at such a young age further emulated that point.

Just two years later, those thoughts have all but disappeared.

Marino has just 18 points in 53 games this season. He has one goal in that stretch and he currently sits at a -7 +/- rating after being a team-worst -4 against the Devils Thursday night.

Now I hate the +/- stat.  I find it equivalent to wins in baseball for pitchers. But this is the first time in Marino’s career that he’s been in the minus department this late into the season. He finished both of his first two seasons at +17 and +5 respectively. The only time I use that statistic is when there is such a drastic number in one direction or the other. With Marino having a minus this late into the season, it’s worth noting.

Marino’s average ice time per game, albeit very very slightly, is the highest it’s been his entire career. He’s averaging 20:56 of ice time per game. He’s been entrenched as one-half of the Pens’ middle defensive pairing all season long.

Typically when a player is struggling, he’ll be bumped down the defensive pairings. The issue is that the other two pairings aren’t really susceptible to being broke up.

When both are healthy, Letang and Brian Dumoulin have played together exclusively since the beginning of the Stanley Cup runs. Those guys won’t be broken up.

The bottom pairing of Mike Matheson and Chad Ruhwedel have been exceptional as a bottom-pairing tandem this season and don’t deserve to have their chemistry affected.

I think it’s fair to say the Penguins will be looking for defense depth at the trade deadline. That’s been the case for a month or so now. They’ve actually been very healthy on the backend this season, which is a rarity. Usually by now, we’ve seen every bottom-pairing AHL defenseman that we didn’t want to see ever playing for the parent club in Pittsburgh.

Having another solid NHL body on standby wouldn’t be a bad thing. Every contending team needs playoff depth.

Having Marino feel some pressure might not be a bad thing either. His play from his rookie season has certainly tailed off and I’m not sure we’ll ever see that player again. He is only 24-years old so I hope I’m wrong about that.

Marino has still been an average defenseman and deserves to have an NHL job but the Penguins are paying him $4.4 million a year through 2026-27’ and can’t be receiving just an average return on investment.