Trevor Daley

Getty

Penguins redefining defense by committee

5 Comments

When the Pittsburgh Penguins lost defenseman Kris Letang for the entire postseason it was thought be a crushing blow to their chances to repeat as Stanley Cup champions. Especially with a path that was likely to include two of the NHL’s best teams in the first two rounds of the playoffs.

Not only is Letang one of the best defensemen in the world, he is one of the most important cogs in the Penguins’ machine. During last year’s Stanley Cup run he played close to 29 minutes per game and did so at an incredibly high level. Losing that sort of workhorse is nearly impossible to replace.

But even with Letang’s absence (and even additional injuries to defensemen Trevor Daley and Justin Schultz) the Penguins find themselves one win away from returning to the Stanley Cup Final without really having a true No. 1 defenseman to turn to.

This is almost unheard of in today’s NHL.

Every team that goes on a deep run in the playoffs has a minute-eating defenseman that can be counted on to play a significant portion of the game. Letang. Drew Doughty. Duncan Keith. Erik Karlsson. Zdeno Chara. Players like that.

When it comes to the playoffs, teams tend to roll with their top-four defensemen the most and do their best to hide or shelter their third pairing by limiting their minutes as much as they can. The Penguins have not had that luxury without Letang.

That means everybody has had to step up and take on an expanded role. Just about everybody is playing more than they are used to while there is virtually no difference between each role.

First, consider that every team (22 of them) that has reached the Stanley Cup Final since the 2005-06 season has had at least one defensemen average more than 22 minutes of ice-time per game. Twenty-one of those 22 teams have had at least two players log more than 22 minutes, while 18 of them have had at least one player average more than 25 minutes of ice-time per game.

The 2016-17 Penguins currently have none.

Brian Dumoulin is currently their ice-time leader, playing just over 21 minutes per game.

Let’s take a look at what that looks like from a usage perspective.

The table here looks at this year’s Penguins, the remaining final four teams this season, and every Stanley Cup Finalist dating back to 2011-12 and what percentage of a 60-minute game each of their top-six defensemen played on an average night. This year’s Penguins should stick out as a massive outlier.

 

Other than the 2014-15 Lightning and 2011-12 Devils every other team on here had a No. 1 defenseman that was on the ice for more than 40 percent of the game on a given night. And the Lightning and Devils were very close to it.

All of them had a No. 2 defenseman that played more than 36 percent of the game on a given night.

Again, the Penguins currently have nobody taking on that sort of a workload in either spot.

Every team on there was able to limit their playing time of their third pairing (some more than others) while there was a significant gap between the ice-time for their No. 1 and No. 6 defenseman.

For Pittsburgh, their third pairing plays almost as much as their second pairing, while there is minimal difference between the workload for their top pairing and their third pairing. Last year, as an example, Letang averaged more than 13 additional minutes per game than their No. 6 defenseman.

This year Dumoulin is only averaging three more minutes than their No. 6.

It really is a defense by committee approach and it has been kind of fascinating to watch.

They are clearly lacking the elite puck-moving presence that a player like Letang can provide, and at times their ability to smoothly and efficiently exit the defensive zone has been a struggle.

It is also a situation where a lot of players are being thrust into roles they are not used to playing.  This has at times led to extended zone time for their opponents and put them in a situation where they are giving up way more shots per game than they want. They are also fortunate to have two outstanding goalies in Matt Murray and Marc-Andre Fleury that have been fantastic this postseason to keep pucks out of the net. But overall it is a unit that has seemingly taken on a whatever it takes approach to get the job done.

It runs counter to everything we have seen from contending teams in recent years when it comes to the makeup of a defense, but they have somehow found a way to make this patchwork unit work. Now here they are, just one win away from getting back to the Stanley Cup Final.

Sullivan: Chad Ruhwedel has a concussion

15 Comments

The Pittsburgh Penguins are dealing with yet another injury on defense.

Chad Ruhwedel left Friday’s Game 4 against the Ottawa Senators after getting hit into the boards by Bobby Ryan. The hit occurred in the final minute of the first period. Ruhwedel didn’t return and Pittsburgh played the rest of the game with five defensemen.

Following his team’s 3-2 victory to even the Eastern Conference Final at two games apiece, head coach Mike Sullivan announced that Ruhwedel has a concussion and will be evaluated when the team returns to Pittsburgh.

Sullivan also didn’t want to offer his opinion of the hit, which officials didn’t penalize.

“It’s not my job to evaluate how the call was made or not made,” said Sullivan. “You know, the referees are going to see it the way they see it, and they do the best job they can. We’re just going to play the game.”

The Penguins have been without Kris Letang for the entire post-season, and Justin Schultz has missed the last two games of this series due to injury. In Game 3, Trevor Daley returned to the lineup, as Pittsburgh went with seven defensemen, including Ruhwedel and Mark Streit.

Penguins – Senators Game 3 lineups: Daley, Streit give Pittsburgh 7 D

Leave a comment

One can debate how voluntary the decision really is, but it turns out the Pittsburgh Penguins are dressing seven defensemen in Game 3, as expected.

Mark Streit and Trevor Daley are drawing into the mix for the Penguins, who lost Justin Schultz to an awkward fall into the boards against the Ottawa Senators in Game 2.

Pittsburgh essentially rolls with the same forwards they deployed for most of that 1-0 win, as Dion Phaneuf‘s big hit on Bryan Rust limited them to 11 forwards for almost the entire contest.

Mike Sullivan said all the right things about Streit, yet the way he’s used him, it might actually be more important that Daley can play.

Meanwhile, Viktor Stalberg replaces Tommy Wingels in Ottawa’s lineup. Stalberg had missed the last two games with an undisclosed injury.

Penguins could dress seven defensemen tonight in Ottawa

Getty
5 Comments

There’s reason to believe the Pittsburgh Penguins may go with seven defensemen in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Final tonight at Ottawa.

Justin Schultz will not be one of those seven, after getting hurt in Game 2.

But Trevor Daley was a possibility to return for Game 3, and at this morning’s skate he was paired with Olli Maatta. The other two pairs were Brian Dumoulin with Ron Hainsey and Chad Ruhwedel with Ian Cole.

Mark Streit, meanwhile, worked on the Penguins’ top power play, which is now minus Schultz. Streit has yet to make an appearance in these playoffs, but head coach Mike Sullivan hinted yesterday that that could change tonight.

“He’s a really savvy player,” Sullivan said. “I think he could help us on our power play. He could help us get out of our end zone. I think he’s got great puck skills.”

Read more: Penguins defense holding together, somehow

To make room for a seventh d-man, the Penguins wouldn’t have to scratch a forward. They simply wouldn’t insert a winger for Bryan Rust, who was also hurt in Game 2. Rust did not take line rushes this morning.

If the Penguins go with six defensemen, expect to see Tom Kuhnhackl enter the lineup.

Update:

Time for Streit? Penguins coach ponders using ‘savvy player’

Leave a comment

Even with a staggering array of injuries to the Pittsburgh Penguins, Mark Streit hasn’t been able to crack Mike Sullivan’s lineup. Streit might finally get his call in Game 3 against the Ottawa Senators, however.

With the wave of injuries reaching Justin Schultz (added to a mix that includes Trevor Daley and Kris Letang), Sullivan acknowledged the possibility that Streit may get his chance.

The way Sullivan describes him, you almost wonder why Streit hasn’t received a shot sooner.

“Mark’s a guy that has invaluable experience. He’s a really savvy player,” Sullivan said. “I think he could help us on our power play. He could help us get out of our end zone. I think he’s got great puck skills. So that was one of the main reasons why we acquired him when we did … So if Mark’s the guy we go to, we know he can continue to help us win games.”

Fair enough, but the playoffs are an especially useful time to weigh a coach’s words vs. his actions. That gives us an idea of what Sullivan really thinks about a player.

Truth in deployment

In the case of Streit, we don’t have any data there. He’s been a scratch – healthy or unhealthy – throughout this postseason.

Even with the regular season in mind, it doesn’t seem like the 39-year-old’s truly gained Sullivan’s trust.

In 49 games with the Flyers, Streit scored 21 points and averaged 19:23 TOI. In 19 contests with Pittsburgh, he generated six points and averaged just 17:06.

The veteran blueliner’s impact is diminished at this point, yet with Schultz out, it indeed makes sense to bring him in. The Penguins power play clearly struggled in Game 2, with the likes of Olli Maatta seemingly unable to keep up with an elevated role on special teams.

With all the hard minutes going around, Streit can theoretically be protected (if Sullivan doesn’t trust him) while perhaps giving the Penguins a little extra “oomph” on the power play.

Of course, with the way things have been going for the Penguins, Streit could rapidly go from “possibly in the lineup as a specialist” to “suddenly crucial.” It’s been that kind of year, yet the Pens keep plugging along.

Game 3 takes place on NBCSN at 8 p.m. ET on Wednesday. You can watch online and via the NBC Sports App. (Stream online here)

More on how the Penguins are managing injuries here.