Checking in on Pittsburgh Penguins Defence Corps

PITTSBURGH, PA - OCTOBER 08: Erik Gudbranson #44 of the Pittsburgh Penguins skates with the puck in the first period during the game against the Winnipeg Jets at PPG PAINTS Arena on October 8, 2019 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images)

The Pittsburgh Penguins defence corps have already gone through some changes and we’re not even five games into the season. At the start, Jack Johnson was paired with Justin Schultz. However, that was quickly scratched in favour of putting Marcus Pettersson up there. Johson was then moved down to the third pairing where he played with Erik Gudbranson. The rookie John Marino then took the latter’s place.

This is all because the Penguins kept nine defensemen to start the season. The Pittsburgh Penguins’ defence was so filled because Gudbranson and Johnson have looked poor. The Pens wanted to get a look at some of their younger defensemen. Let’s take a look at the bottom two pairings and what is likely to happen throughout the season as the Pittsburgh Penguins defence is currently made up of 9 defensemen.

Pittsburgh Penguins Defence Corps

Marcus Pettersson-Justin Schultz

This is the second pairing and it needs to stay that way for the rest of the season. Pittsburgh tried to put Johnson with Schultz on that pairing last season when Schultz was healthy. This turned out to be a disaster. Schultz was well below 50% CF% and was getting caved in his own zone almost every shift. It was time to get away from that and it looks like the Penguins are finally doing it. Pettersson was very good on the bottom pairing last season. He deserved a shot in the top four with an increase in minutes. He hasn’t looked out of place so far as he’s been defending well to start the season. Also, he’s been moving the puck up the ice very smoothly.

He’s the perfect compliment to Schultz, who enters a massive year for the Penguins in a contract season. Schultz has not been very good the last couple of years. His offensive numbers have declined, as has his possession. He also hasn’t been as good in his own zone. Having a partner like Pettersson with him can ease some of the load off Schultz as he had to do all of the heavy lifting with Johnson.

The first couple of games together this season wasn’t as good but with this latest game against the Ducks, the pairing looked much better. They showed much more of an offensive pulse, they weren’t getting caved in their own zone and because of that, not many scoring chances were given up while they were on the ice. This pairing is going to be one of the Penguins’ biggest x-factors this season. Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin won’t be able to do everything by themselves.

The Third Pairing Craziness

There’s no set-in-stone pairing yet here since it looks like the Penguins are going to fiddle with it throughout the season. The one thing they do need to do is play John Marino more. Marino was a training camp surprise after being acquired from the Edmonton Oilers over the summer. He was scratched for the first couple of games of the season and then was inserted for the third and fourth games. In those games, he hasn’t disappointed. Sure his possession numbers aren’t the greatest (very low sample size), but he moves the puck up the ice and he’s defended very well. Just look at this clip from the most recent game against the Ducks, courtesy of Jesse Marshall:


Gudbranson or Johnson don’t make those plays often. It’s night and day what a mobile defenseman with good hockey sense like Marino can do. Pittsburgh needs to make him a staple to that third pairing for the foreseeable future. Not only for right now but also to see what they have in him.

As for the last spot, right now it’s Johnson’s. However, in the future, if both he and/or Gudbranson are traded to clear cap, Pittsburgh will want to take a look at Juuso Riikola. He only appeared in 37 games last season and had two goals and five points. That’s not nearly enough time for him and he was praised a ton throughout this year’s camp as a player who had made a lot of progress.

It’s time to see what the Penguins truly have in this player but it likely won’t happen until one of, if not both of Gudbranson or Johnson are moved. They’re likely going to rotate this spot throughout the season or until the Penguins get healthy again since they’re going to have to be cap compliant when all their injured players are back. That is how the crowded Pittsburgh Penguins’ defence may shake out.

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