It is starting to look like Jim Rutherford was right.
Not long after his Pittsburgh Penguins were swept out of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, he defiantly proclaimed that the defense he had assembled was probably the best one his team had since he arrived in Pittsburgh. It seemed to be a rather dubious claim not only because of how the Penguins performed for much of the season (including the playoffs), but because he had also been the general manager for a back-to-back Stanley Cup champion in Pittsburgh.
But nearly two months into the 2019-20 season the Penguins have been one of the league’s stingiest teams defensively and that play is one of the biggest reasons they have been able to overcome a seemingly unending list of injuries to keep piling up points.
Just look at the defensive performance so far this season compared to the same date a year ago, as well as their final numbers from the 2018-19 season.
All numbers via Natural Stat Trick. The numbers in parenthesis are their league-wide rank.
They also boast one of the league’s best penalty killing units, not only in terms of success rate, but also in their ability to also limit shots and chances against.
The Penguins always had one elite defense pair in Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin but everything after that was always a question.
So what all has changed?
The arrival of John Marino and development of Marcus Pettersson. One thing that should be pointed out about Rutherford’s “best defense” comment is that there have been some personnel changes on the blue line since then that helped the team get back closer to the winning identity it had lost. Erik Gudbranson and Olli Maatta were traded, while the team also made the under-the-radar acquisition of John Marino from the Edmonton Oilers in exchange for a sixth-round pick.
From the moment they acquired Marino, the Penguins seemed enamored with his potential. After watching him play for the past month-and-a-half it is not hard to see why. He has been a game-changer on the blue line and in his first pro season has already become a 20-minute per night player and has yet to look out of place. He brings some much-needed youth, mobility, and playmaking to a defense that badly needed all three.
Combine his presence with a full season of Marcus Pettersson (acquired in December of last year for Daniel Sprong) and suddenly the Penguins have two young, mobile defenders that can help drive play for what is currently a dirt cheap price against the salary cap. And both have the potential to continue getting better.
The forwards are helping more. One of the common themes throughout the Penguins’ offseason was that they needed to play “the right way,” and that the defensive deficiencies last season weren’t just about the defensemen themselves. They also needed more help from their forwards. They are getting that this season, and it’s not just because the returning players are playing smarter. The offseason additions of Brandon Tanev and Dominik Kahun, as well as getting a full season out of trade deadline acquisition Jared McCann, have brought three more fast, defensively responsible forwards to the lineup, and all are making significant contributions in every phase of the game.
Tanev’s signing drew harsh criticism (including from me) due to the term on the contract but so far he has proven to be everything the Penguins said he would be — a menace due to his speed and an always frustrating player for opponents to go up against. Combined with the arrival of young players Teddy Blueger and Sam Lafferty the Penguins injected a ton of speed, youth, and fresh blood into a lineup that the rest of the league had not only caught up to, but seemingly passed by the previous two years. With Phil Kessel and Arizona and Sidney Crosby currently sidelined the Penguins may not be as explosive offensively, but they are making up for that with their ability to shut teams down.
Better usage and a better identity. Mike Sullivan is turning in a Jack Adams level coaching performance this season and has pushed all of the right buttons so far. He has the team buying into how they need to play, they are back to play fast, and the personnel usage is far better (trusting Marino and Pettersson in big spots; playing Jack Johnson in the third-pairing/PK role he is best suited for).
One of the most positive things anyone around Pittsburgh could always say about Rutherford is he is quick to admit his mistakes and move on. He definitely did that by making the team faster and getting it back to what it does best. It may not have been the most direct route, but for the first time in two years the Penguins have the look of the team that was winning Stanley Cups instead of the one that was getting swept in the first round. Better late than never.
Let’s take a quick look around the league at some other notable injury situations on Thursday.
Penguins won’t have Kris Letang on Thursday. The Penguins were finally starting to get healthy and play up to their potential with a fully stocked roster, and then another injury situation developed. Letang, their No. 1 defenseman, exited their game against Boston on Monday night after two periods and will not be available on Thursday as they try to snap the New York Islanders’ 10-game winning streak.
Letang has been off to a great start this season and his absence will be a significant one. He will be replaced on the top defense pairing by rookie John Marino. Marino has been impressive so far this season and just scored his first NHL goal on Monday.
More injury problems for Avalanche. Already without two of their top-three forwards (Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog) the Avalanche announced on Thursday that starting goalie Philipp Grubauer will miss the next couple of games due to a lower-body injury. In 11 starts this season Grubauer has a .915 save percentage. The goaltending duties will now fall on Pavel Francouz in Grubauer’s absence.
When the Avalanche have been healthy this season they have looked every bit the Stanley Cup contender they were supposed to be but have cooled off in recent games as the injuries have piled up. They have dropped five in a row and six of their past seven, and things will not get any easier with their starting goalie out of the lineup.
The Avalanche are home on Thursday against the Nashville Predators.
An update on Bryan Little. Scary situation for the Jets when forward Bryan Little was hit in the head with a puck earlier this week, requiring 25 stitches.
On Thursday, coach Paul Maurice offered an update on Little and revealed that the forward is dealing with a perforated ear drum and is currently experiencing vertigo. That update comes via Jets analyst Mitchell Clinton. Little is expected to make a complete recovery but there is no timeline on when he will be able to return to the ice.
In seven games this season Little has two goals and three assists for the Jets.
Blues will be without Steen for several weeks. Here’s another big one for the defending Stanley Cup champion Blues.
The team announced on Thursday that Steen has been placed on injured serve with a high-ankle sprain and will be re-evaluated in four weeks. He was injured in the Stars’ win over the Edmonton Oilers on Wednesday night.
Almost every night, there can be fierce debate about who deserves the first star, and all the great players who couldn’t quite make it in the top three.
A lot of times, when Marchand is involved, it’s difficult to tell if there’s a single member of his line that deserves top billing, as David Pastrnak is off to a blistering start, and Patrice Bergeron is … well, Patrice Bergeron.
This was not one of those times. Pastrnak and Bergeron certainly contributed to the Bruins’ hard-fought, hard-skated win against the Penguins on Monday, but Marchand stood high above everyone on that ice surface — and on the night overall. He scored a ridiculous five points (two goals, three assists), giving him 28 points in 14 games this season. Pastrnak is one step ahead of Marchand overall in 2019-20 with 29 points, but Pastrnak “only” scored a goal and an assist on Monday (the slacker).
David Krejci is worth mentioning, as well, with two assists.
There will probably be instances of “Well, someone has to score” with the Senators top line, including when the constellation involves Pageau, Brady Tkachuk, and Anthony Duclair.
That trio didn’t really need such caveats on Monday against the up-and-down Rangers. Tkachuk had a two-point night of his own (1G, 1A), but the pesty Pageau scored both of his points on goals, and had a nice spread of stats overall: +3 rating, three shots on goal, 8-8 on faceoffs, two hits, three blocks, and, of course, a penalty.
Rangers fans can take solace, at least, in Kaapo Kakko being involved in both of their goals (1G, 1A).
Like Pageau, Duchene scored two goals on Monday. I’m giving JGP the slight edge because, well, one of Duchene’s goals probably shouldn’t have counted. Consider this error the blooper of the night:
Considering that Duchene was far offside on a controversial goal against the Predators that helped inspire a greater push for video reviews, it seems like the speedy center just seems to get these occasional breaks. Luckily, he’s good even when the goals and assists are beyond debate; despite a four-game pointless streak heading into Monday, Duchene has 13 points over his first 14 games as a member of the Predators.
The Marchand/Pastrnak stats are … pretty out of control. NHL.com’s Matt Kalman collected some of them. Marchand is the first Bruins player to collect two different five-point games through his first 14 games, and NHL PR notes that Marchand recorded just the 10th instance of doing so since 1986-87. Mario Lemieux had three five-point outings through such a span twice, Wayne Gretzky collected three five-point outings once, and everyone else did it twice. Marchand’s 13-game point streak is also rare for the Bruins.
NHL PR also notes that Pastrnak is the second Bruins player in history to post multiple 12+ game point streaks before their 24th birthday, joining Bobby Orr, who did it three times. Pastrnak’s done it twice, and his 24th birthday isn’t until May 25, so he at least has a chance to tie Number Four’s … three.
Fun #specificstat from NHL PR: John Marino of the Penguins is the second player in three seasons to score their first NHL goal in their home state. Ryan Donato, also of Massachusetts, was the most recent to do it.
Darcy Kuemper‘s more reliable than (insert the car you find most durable).
Most games with two or fewer goals allowed through first 10 appearances of a season, @ArizonaCoyotes / Jets history: