Puck moving defensemen series: Pittsburgh Penguins

The Pittsburgh Penguins finished 2nd in the East, racking up 111 points en route to their second consecutive Stanley Cup championship. Many had doubts about the Penguins’ ability to repeat as champs given the injury to top blue liner Kris Letang. Who stepped up in his absence? Let’s check it out.

24JUL2017 -- penguins v2.JPG

Rapid fire observations

+ The loss of Letang is not insignificant. He was clearly the Pens’ best puck mover (PMF +2.42) and an asset on the powerplay despite facing top opposing forwards. It’s also worth noting that he did start 34% of shifts in the offensive zone (vs just 27% in the defensive zone). Still, the loss of a player of Letang’s caliber is a tough pill for any team to swallow (which makes the Penguins’ championship even more impressive – more on this later)

+ Justin Schultz was a key acquisition at the 2015/16 trade deadline (they dealt a 3rd round pick to Edmonton). Schultz – although not on the same level as Letang – plays a similar game. He’s a solid puck mover (PMF +1.02 – equivalent to 2nd pairing 5v5) in a slightly sheltered role (35% of shifts began in the offensive zone vs 26% in the defensive zone; higher ratio than any Pens’ defender), and plays the quarterback role on the Powerplay

+ In Dumoulin and Maatta, the Pens’ have two solid improving defensemen. Although neither is an elite puck mover, they’re both capable and fit in nicely on 2nd/3rd pairing roles. Dumoulin in particular took a big step in his 2nd full season. His PMF of +0.50 was 2nd best on their team (excluding Letang). While Maatta’s PMF of -0.29 is not great, it’s respectable when considering he faced tough quality of competition and began as many shifts in the defensive zone (32%) as any Pens’ defender

+ Hainsey (36, PMF -1.54) and Daley (33, PMF -4.09) both struggled as puck movers, but brought leadership and experience to a young back-end. As both are set to become UFA’s this off-season, the Pens are best to move on

Back to Letang

The Penguins’ championship becomes even more impressive when you consider how strong a player Letang is and how important he is to the team. Looking at his past 3 seasons:

27JUN2017 -- Kris Letang.JPG

His PMF scores of +2.49, +1.85, and +2.42 are all on par with a top pairing defenseman who routinely drives possession and makes his teammates better. So why did the Penguins seem unfazed as they cruised to victory? While Schultz (as discussed earlier) and Dumoulin both did a solid job filling the void, the bigger reason might be how deep and strong they are up front. There isn’t a team in the league that can compete with the forward firepower that Pittsburgh brings to the table every game

Verdict

The Penguins have some challenges to sort through this off-season.  Letang is locked in at $7M per year through the 2021/22 season and Maatta at $4M per year over the same time frame. Schultz and Dumoulin, however, are both RFAs coming off their best seasons and impressive playoff runs. It will be interesting to see if Pittsburgh can lock them both down. With Letang’s injury history and the important roles both played, they would be wise to do so.

[UPDATE: Signed Schultz to 3-year, $16.5M and Dumoulin to 6-year, $24.6M]


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