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The Penguins & Their Expensive Defense Corps Moving Forward

Justin Schultz hasn’t been as dynamic as last year for the Penguins.
Photo via AP

It’s been a real chore to watch the Penguins at times this year. Phil Kessel has pretty much been excellent all year, but for the rest of the team it seems that they’ve been going through the motions for large swathes of the year. That lethargic play is reflected in their very pedestrian record of 17-15-3 that sees them currently on the outside of the playoff hunt.

Kris Letang has been awful for most of the season and looks completely out of sorts in the defensive end of the rink. We’ve already discussed how his accumulation of injuries may be catching up to him in a previous article. However, virtually the entire defensive corps has been sub-par this season, not just Letang.

In one respect, it’s good that five of the Penguins’ current top six defensemen are signed long-term, with Ian Cole the only pending free agent. But that’s only a good thing if you have the right players signed long-term. For the 2017-18 season, the Penguins have committed quite a bit of money to their top six defensemen of Letang, Justin Schultz, Olli Maatta, Matt Hunwick, Ian Cole, and Brian Dumoulin. The $25.3M cap hit for these six is the 2nd highest in the league, behind only the Winnipeg Jets at $27.4M. Unfortunately, the Penguins aren’t receiving a whole lot of return on investment.

Through the Avalanche game on Monday, the Penguins’ top six d-men have a combined 13 goals, 48 assists, and a cumulative -28 in plus/minus. To put that in perspective, the 13 combined goals by these six guys are just three more than defenseman Zach Werenski (10) has scored by himself for the Blue Jackets. While Letang is 6th among defensemen with 24 points, 22 of those points are assists. Furthermore, both of Letang’s goals and 13 of his 24 points have come on the power play, which is indicative of the Penguins’ struggles as a whole in 5-on-5 play. Both Matt Hunwick and Olli Maatta have scored more goals (3) than Letang to date.

Lost in all the noise of this somnambulant season for the Pens is the fact that Olli Maatta appears to be back in fine form, perhaps the best form since his rookie season. His 14 points through 35 games would put him on pace to eclipse his career high of 29 points set in his rookie year. His skating will never be his greatest asset, but his play overall in the defensive end is much crisper than in past seasons while he was struggling with and recovering from injuries.

Not only are five of the six signed for next year, the same five are signed through the 2019-20 season, as well. The Penguins have made sizeable commitments to this corps of defensemen, as evidenced by this chart from [link].

If changes are coming to try and kickstart the Penguins, it wouldn’t surprise me to see either a Brian Dumoulin or Olli Maatta heading out. Kris Letang’s performance and injury history are too cumbersome to move right now, Justin Schultz is currently hurt, and Matt Hunwick doesn’t move the needle. The move to get Jamie Oleksiak on Tuesday sure seems like insurance for a future move coming in the near future and not just if currently-in-the-doghouse Ian Cole is shipped out.

The Penguins bought themselves peace of mind by signing their defensemen up to long-term deals, but that only works out if they all keep producing at the same level. It’s a real problem when all of them crater out at the same time, as is the case with the 2017-18 Penguins right now.

An ill wind is blowing through Pittsburgh. There’s a chance that someone on the Pens’ defense gets swept out with it.

Nerd engineer by day, nerd writer at night. Kevin is the co-founder of The Point of Pittsburgh. He is the author of Creating Christ, a sci-fi novel available on Amazon.