After coming under scrutiny for a long time to begin the season, the Penguins defense corps came through in a big way as the season progressed and Mike Sullivan became head coach. Half of the reason is just the overall cohesiveness of the guys being employed in everyday blue line duty. The other half belongs to Jim Rutherford’s wizardry. I mean who knew he’d trade his best defensive defenseman to the team he’s the general manager of now?
I think instead of pointing out some of the flops the defense has provided throughout the season, it’s better to just praise the things that they’ve done to turn around their season. Hopefully I can bring some positivity and rationale to your thoughts.
Let’s start with the straw that stirs this drink, Kris Letang. He had a horrible start to the season, obviously. December 31 against the Detroit Red Wings came as he put a three point night on the board and never once again looked back. Letang played “Norris Caliber” hockey the second half of the season and looked pretty stout on the defensive end. It’s pretty easy to bash his horrible composure but instead I think it’s more feasible to see how his maturity on the defensive end of his game has improved.
In my opinion, Letang has always been an awful defender. That’s often going to be the mantra of a guy who has the offensive skill Letang does. Many suggested that he should’ve just become a forward. Now that Letang is fully healthy from his health scares throughout these last few years, he’s skating at full speed again. He’s defensive (and offensive) game look refined and better than ever. It’s a blessing that Letang is this type of defenseman for the Penguins and could finally add a Norris Trophy to his trophy case next season if he has a full season at this level of play in 2016-’17.
His newest “D” partner, Brian Dumoulin, has had himself a standout year. It’s pretty impressive that in his first full season at the NHL level, Dumoulin is playing with one of the NHL’s elite defenseman in Letang at the most critical point in the season. I’d love to call it a breakout year. But if you asked any hockey fan out there who Brian Dumoulin was, I’m 99% certain they’d tell you that name rings no familiarity whatsoever. And in Dumo’s case, he wouldn’t have it any other way.
Dumoulin finally buried his first goal of the season with less than a second left in the game five loss against the Lightning. But he doesn’t care about his minimal offensive contributions.
He’s been the savior Penguins fans don’t deserve on the blue line. He’s made countless defensive plays. He was a huge reason the Penguins were able to keep the purest goal scorer of his generation in Alex Ovechkin almost completely off the scoreboard in round two against the Capitals. His title is defenseman and he takes pride in that because it’s the thing he does best.
Interestingly enough, the Penguins acquired Brian Dumoulin in a deal that sent Jordan Staal to the Carolina Hurricanes on draft day in 2012. The GM of that team? Jim Rutherford.
If you take a look at the article below from 2012, you’ll find that it only mentions two of the three parts the Penguins acquired from the Hurricanes in the deal: Brandon Sutter and the number 8 pick in the draft which the Penguins spent on Derrick Pouliot.
I don’t think much more proof is needed that Brian Dumoulin is going to be a steeple in the Penguins defense for a while to come.
Does anyone remember that day Jim Rutherford called Stan Bowman and asked him to trade Rob Scuderi for Trevor Daley as a joke and Bowman actually said yes?
Good, because that trade solidified the Penguins defense in every way possible. We got a guy who was younger and more athletic in Daley. A guy who was almost a forgotten piece for not one, but two different teams in the last three years. The Dallas Stars traded him when they acquired Patrick Sharp from the Chicago Blackhawks. Daley watched as his name fell out of favor in Chicago and then was given a chance to play top-4 minutes in Pittsburgh and has earned them without a doubt.
Who can forget Daley’s masterpiece in game 4 of the Capitals series when Letang was suspended? I surely won’t. It gave the Penguins every bit of momentum they needed to win the series.
The best part about that trade? It was still only the second best deal Rutherford made all season (behind the Carl Hagelin deal). Or maybe the best part is that Rob Scuderi was traded out of Chicago just as quickly as he came? It doesn’t matter. Trevor Daley quickly became a fan favorite in Pittsburgh and for great reason.
Let’s take into account the growth that Ian Cole has faced this season.
After being the Penguins best defenseman last season after being acquired from the Blues for Robert Bortuzzo and a seventh round draft pick, Cole began this season on the top pair with Letang. It didn’t go well.
As Cole began sliding down the depth chart, he was eventually scratched for a few games. A seasonally myriad of injuries hit the Penguins roster and in came Cole again with a vengeance. He never looked back when he got in the lineup. Instead of the liability he became early on in the season, Cole was a rock playing on the third defense pair with Ben Lovejoy and doing it in a shutdown fashion. The Penguins couldn’t have asked for much more.
Lovejoy has enjoyed a treatment much the same.
He came under scrutiny from Penguins Twitter almost on a game-to-game basis. Coach Sullivan never gave up hope.
Lovejoy isn’t your prototypical defenseman you’d think of when you equate the formula that the Penguins have based their team around and that’s speed. But he’s able to make you a solid defensive play and move the puck with enough success that he’s enjoyed the succes of being the one Penguins defenseman who’s name hasn’t come under the negative spotlight. Reverend Lovejoy has done a great job keeping the peace in the building.
Now, it gets a little sketchy. The next three guys have spent more time rotating in and out of the lineup than Oskar Sundqvist did traveling for his daily string of call ups/send downs he endured for about a week in February.
Olli Maatta is example number one.
Everyone has bashed Maatta, including myself, for how poorly he’s looked since returning from yet another injury. But there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Maatta was a former number one pick and has the offensive talents to play on this team, or any team for that matter, when he’s playing good defense. Unfortunately his foot speed still hasn’t been regained so that’s what is holding him out.
The Penguins signed him to a six year deal earlier in the season and showed they have confidence in the young, Finnish defenseman and want him to be a piece of their team going forward.
With the injury to Daley, Maatta got the call to slot back into the lineup against the Lightning.
The Edmonton Oilers haven’t really been a great home for any player who hopes to have a career since Wayne Gretzky, but Justin Schultz’s potential was something the Penguins couldn’t pass up on when they sent a third round pick towards the Oilers at the trade deadline to acquire him.
Schultz has been pretty steady, but I think it’s evident that he doesn’t yet have the coaching staff’s full confidence as he isn’t getting a ton of ice time just yet.
He brings a lot of offensive upside and has been a plus player for the Penguins despite being a minus in Edmonton for his career. Schultz has taken Maatta’s spot in the lineup after being the odd man out when the blue line returned to full health. He’s trying to prove why the Penguins spent a mid round draft pick on him to bring him to Pittsburgh.
Last, and unfortunately the least, Derrick Pouliot. He was one of the most heralded defensive prospects to come entirely through Pittsburgh’s farm ranks. He’s made some splashy plays, including scoring on his first ever NHL shot in a game against the Florida Panthers last season. He’s been a disappointment, but who can forget his play when he stepped in during the injuries to both Letang and Maatta?
Pouliot was skating confidently with the puck, often times skating in from his own blue line and taking shots with the belief that he wouldn’t turn it over and would get a shot. The Penguins coaching staff it was the right move to bench him once the blue line was entirely healthy and he’s been pretty meh ever since.
So you’ve made it to the end of a pretty long article. Just remember this, some of the best things are long endeavors. The Penguins defensive transformation didn’t happen over night. It started out awfully ugly in last season’s Rangers playoff series when the Penguins had no cap space to call anyone up. It’s come to this point, a 3-2 series deficit against the Tampa Bay Lightning going back to Tampa Bay. The Pens are in trouble but aren’t done yet. So I must say in the famous words of a once wise man, what a difference a year makes.