The Pittsburgh Penguins underwent massive changes on their blue line this offseason. Two trades and a free agent signing have brought in fresh new faces to the defense core, but the question remains, how do they all fit?
With nine NHL caliber defensemen under contract and the Penguins currently over the salary cap at $1.48 million, there is still a possibility that one of them gets traded before the beginning of the 2022-23 season. The most likely candidates would be Brian Dumoulin, Marcus Pettersson, and PO Joseph. With that in mind, let’s try and map out a starting six for the Penguins to start the season.
The top spot on the right side is the simplest spot to predict, with Kris Letang set to take back his position in the lineup after signing a six-year extension. The 35-year-old defenseman scored a career-high 68 points last season, playing over 75 games for the first time since 2018. The biggest question becomes, who will be his partner?
The easy answer is Brian Dumoulin, but that is also the player with the most question marks. Coming off a torn MCL in the playoffs, the 30-year-old blue liner has already faced deterioration in his once tremendous skating ability. Before his injury, it was apparent that Dumoulin had lost a step, getting beat to the front of the net on numerous occasions last season.
However, with all the changes happening to the Penguin’s defense core, starting with a top pairing with proven chemistry and a track record of lifting each other is not the worst way to start building a roster.
Now here’s where things get interesting. Expensive right-hander Jeff Petry is destined for the second spot on the right side behind Letang. Besides Letang, Petry instantly becomes the best number two defenseman the Penguins have had since the pre-2019 injury of Brian Dumoulin.
Petry was exposed a bit last season with the Montreal Canadiens when he got thrust into the top spot due to the injury of Shea Weber. Petry finished the year with his lowest possession numbers in seven years (49.1 CF%) and collected only 27 points on the season. He should produce at a better rate in a lesser role with the Penguins and could potentially thrive in the aggressive Todd Reirden defensive system.
Marcus Pettersson is the most equipped defenseman to partner with Petry. Pettersson’s stay-at-home style will compliment Petry’s offensive game well. Meanwhile, Petry’s big-bodied aggressive net-front defense will help Pettersson, who has struggled in that area the past few seasons.
While many are looking for Pettersson to be traded, primarily due to his $4.02 million cap hit, he remains a solid defensive option for the Penguin’s top four.
The Penguins could go in one of many directions with their third pairing. They have almost half a dozen solid options, which is never a bad situation. However, both players acquired this offseason, Jan Rutta and Ty Smith, should make up the bottom pair.
Rutta could become a defensive Swiss army knife for the Penguins. Playing on both sides and moving up and down the lineup, I expect Rutta will see action in every corner of the Penguin’s defense this season. Rutta also brings capable puck moving abilities to the table. However, Rutta was brought to Pittsburgh to play defense.
That’s where Ty Smith comes in. The Penguins thrive on their transition game to get their defensemen involved in the offense as much as possible. Smith brings that pure offensive talent to the back end of the defense while being aided in the defensive zone by the stout play of Rutta.
After playing a season with the mercurial PK Subban, lining up next to a reliable defensive force like Rutta could revitalize what we saw from Smith during his rookie season in 2019-20.
That leaves Chad Ruhwedel, Mark Friedman, and PO Joseph as alternates or injury replacements. Ruhwedel has proven his ability to step in effectively after months of not playing on countless occasions. Friedman is a talented defenseman that brings an edge that not many others do on this roster. He becomes a very capable eighth defenseman and an injury replacement.
PO Joseph is in a weird spot entering the season. With such a busy blue line and him entering camp with the least experience, Joseph may be looking at another AHL start to his season. Who knows how the trade market will shake out and if the Penguins can stay healthy? Joseph will likely leave a mark on this season, but not until later in the year.
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