NBCSN’s coverage of the 2020-21 NHL season continues with Monday’s matchup between the Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Rangers. Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.
When you see the Pittsburgh Penguins defense on Monday night against the New York Rangers their defense is going to look a lot different than you might expect. Because of injuries, they have already used 11 different defensemen this season (in only nine games!) after using only 10 for the entire 2019-20 season.
Brian Dumoulin, Marcus Pettersson, Mike Matheson, and Juuso Riikola are all sidelined long-term, while Kris Letang exited Saturday’s 4-3 overtime win against the Rangers in the first period and did not return.
That is five of their top-seven defenders and has left them scrambling to find people to fill out their blue line. Their depth has been stretched so thin that they had to sign Yannick Weber this past week just to help put a lineup on the ice.
For as tough as the injury situation has been, there has also been one significant bright spot to come from it. That is the emergence of top prospect Pierre-Olivier Joseph.
Originally a first-round draft pick by the Arizona Coyotes (No. 23 overall in 2017), Joseph was the primary piece of the trade that sent Phil Kessel out west before the 2019-20 season. Joseph was always going to be the player that determined the success of that trade from a Pittsburgh perspective, and they certainly had high expectations for him. They just were not expecting to have to rely on him so quickly. The current injury situation has altered those plans and opened the door for Joseph. He is wasting no time in walking right through it and staking his claim on a lineup spot. Permanently.
[Watch Live: Penguins vs. Rangers 6:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN]
Joseph has been one of the consistent bright spots for the Penguins over the past five games and has taken on an increasingly bigger role with each game. It reached a point on Saturday where he actually led the team in ice-time by logging more than 22 minutes. He earned every single one of them. Not only did he not look out of place as the Penguins’ minute leader, he finished the game with three assists (all of them the primary assist) to take over the team scoring lead among defensemen. He has only played in half of the team’s games.
At this point it is still only a five-game sampling, but the Penguins have to be ecstatic with what they have seen.
In his 74 minutes of 5-on-5 ice time the Penguins are…
- Controlling more than 54 percent of the total shot attempts
- Outscoring teams by a 4-1 margin
- Doing all of this without necessarily having to shelter him. He is not only playing more minutes each game, but they are giving him more defensive zone assignments than offensive zone assignments. He is still helping to push play in the right direction while also contributing to the team offensively.
He has played so well that if he keeps trending in this direction it is going to create a pretty big conversation when other players start to eventually get healthy.
That conversation, of course, will be which veteran takes a seat in the press box to allow Joseph to remain in the lineup. Because if he keeps playing at this level there is no way you can sit him.
[Related: Your 2020-21 NHL On NBC TV Schedule]
Joseph’s development is going to be significant for the Penguins because they simply do not have enough players like him in the organization right now. A young, talented, promising, and salary cap-friendly player that has a chance to not only make an impact in the short-term, but perhaps be a significant part of the team for years to come.
The win-now approach has stripped the team of draft picks and prospects and left a relatively empty prospect cupboard for the next general manager. They need players they can potentially build around in the future. They stumbled upon one such player a year ago when they landed John Marino in a trade from the Edmonton Oilers and watched him become one of their most reliable defenders. It seems possible that they have another one this season in Joseph. Even if they never intended for it to happen this quickly.
Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.