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Pens Blueline: Patience is Key

Letang and the rest of the Pens blueline have strong possession numbers Photo by Charles LeClaire/USA Today Sports

Letang and the rest of the Pens blueline have strong possession numbers
Photo by Charles LeClaire/USA Today Sports

Breaking news — the Pittsburgh Penguins aren’t perfect. They’re a work in progress. They have some issues and plenty of gaps. Alright, now that we have said that lets also say this: Stop acting like the sky is falling every time they lose a game. A loss is not a fatal blow until it is in an elimination game. Please, stop acting like it.  Now, onto the polarizing Penguins defense…

Olli Maatta is 21 years old. He is not washed up, he is not a worry and no a bad stretch is not akin to a bad career.

“Olli Maatta was…” I saw that phrase multiple times during and after the Penguins 5-1 drubbing against the heavy Boston Bruins on Feb 24 to describe how good he “used to be”. And yes this was a game in which the Finn had perhaps his worst professional game of his career, where Maatta was directly at fault for the game winner. This is also coming in the last week of what very well may be the worst month of his young pro career. Well here’s a news flash. “Olli Maatta was” is the wrong phrase because Olli Maatta is still developing, believe it or not. He probably has at least three years before he will be mostly done developing, perhaps even longer. And the crazy part is that he’s not the only one in that situation on the team’s blueline. The Penguins defense has multiple guys burgeoning with potential that sometimes you just have to be patient with.

Brian Dumoulin was the best of the Penguins defensemen in the incredibly forgettable Boston game. And why would he not be? He went to college in Boston, grew up in Maine and probably had plenty of family in the crowd – he had plenty to play for. Brian Dumoulin is also nearly 25 years old and in his first full NHL season after almost being over-developed in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. Remember all the pre-season projections when people called him a question mark? Remember when people cringed at him in a top four role? He has been this team’s best defender and one of its best players all year.

Brian Dumoulin also happens to be four years older than Olli Maatta (not to mention he plays a very different kind of game). And what a difference those four years make. Dumoulin is much closer than Maatta to peak of his NHL career. He’s the fastest he will ever be while also carrying experiences. He’s smart and he’s seen a lot. He’s not intimidated, for the most part, and he’s not gonna get caught watching.

Don’t even get me started on Derrick Pouliot. I’m not sure what people want from him but I think it would help to remember Kris Letang didn’t just wake up one morning magically a Norris-level defenseman. Sometimes he still wakes up and seemingly forgets he’s a Norris-level defenseman if we’re being honest.

It’s called growing pains. They happen.

There’s a quote from a Macklemore song (just go with me) that I’m always reminded of when talking about the Penguins blueline: “the greats weren’t great because at birth they could paint; the greats were great because they paint a lot.”

Okay, grammatical miscue aside its a valid point. Essentially, practice makes perfect.

Brian Dumoulin was underestimated. Lots of players have something like this happen. They’re not highly touted so they’re automatically mediocre. Well, just because you don’t know what you’re getting doesn’t mean it can’t be good. Sometimes, you have to trust the process.

Plenty of people are upset about Maatta’s perceived drop-off from his stellar rookie campaign. In his first full season, the youngster played mostly sheltered minutes though and mostly did so with a player not named Kris Letang. He was matching against lower lines and starting his shifts in the offensive zone more. As he adjusts to the increase in quality of competition and playing with Letang regularly there will be bumps.

As for Pouliot? The kid has yet to appear in 50 NHL contests. Judging him at this point would be the definition of premature. Does his defense need work? Yes it does. But he’s actively working with Sergei Gonchar (who really helped a young Letang) on taking his game to that next level.

Then there are the other guys. First there is Ian Cole. Cole is the definition of an X-factor right now because no one truly knows what they’re getting with him. One night he’s smart and plays the body well and is a serviceable stay at home defenseman. Another night he’s all over the place and making plays he doesn’t even seem to understand as he makes them.

The issue there is that he’s 27. He’s not David Warsofsky (the Penguins seventh defender on his way back from concussion) who is still a mere 25. Cole has reached the point in his career where he probably won’t get too much better. He could, but it’s more likely he is what he is just like Ben Lovejoy who is what he is. Meanwhile, Warsofky still has a little time. He is still trending slightly up and seems to play the Penguins new system more astutely. Cole, on the other hand, seemed more at ease in the old Johnston system.

There’s also Trevor Daley who has reached the latter stages of his career and is definitely one of those “he is who is he is” guys. But Daley is still a serviceable bottom pairing guy. His issue is that he’s been playing second line minutes. It isn’t bad most of the time because he’s been playing with Brian “the next Paul Martin” Dumoulin, but he’s not really in the right spot.

The Penguins eventual plan, it would seem, is to put Maatta and Letang up top, Dumoulin and Pouliot as the second pairing in a top four that would match skill with defensive play. The issue is getting there. There’s a real chance Pouliot isn’t ready for the top four this year or next year, even if he is NHL ready (and I believe he is, just not for that much ice time yet). In that case do you keep moving Daley up and hope for the best? Do you get a top four guy for a year? Or do you just wait it out?

Take a look at this compiled graphic from about the eight main defensemen that have suited up for the Pens this year, including the departed Rob Scuderi.  The CF% column is the Corsi For of each player, essentially a possession metric.  As you can see, all of the current Pens defensemen (aside from Ian Cole being slightly below 50%) are above 50% possession.  Rob Scuderi had a dismal 46% CF, so it has been addition by subtraction with him.

Dumoulin, Pouliot, and Lovejoy all start much more in the defensive zone than their compatriots, as shown by the ZSO%Rel column (Zone Starts Offensive Relative).  Coupled with their strong possession numbers, these three are being trusted with these defensive zone starts precisely because of their skillsets.

war on ice

Being patient isn’t fun but sometimes, when the upside to your players is as high as this team’s, that’s the best bet – just wait and see.

About Leah Blasko (52 Articles)
Leah is a hockey and city life contributor to The Point of Pittsburgh. She is a 2013 graduate from the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism at Penn State University.
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