Pittsburgh Penguins: A look at potential defensive changes

The Pittsburgh Penguins need to rebuild their defense. Here’s a look at what could be coming this summer.

I mentioned in yesterday’s article that the Pittsburgh Penguins defense needs an overhaul this summer. That process needs to begin by trading and/or buying out defensemen Jack Johnson and Erik Gudbranson from the roster.

Manny Perry, who is the creator of Corsica Hockey, tweeted this in regards to just how awful Johnson truly is.

In terms of wins above replacement (WAR), he is arguably the worst skater the NHL has seen over the last 12 years. The available public data aligns with what Manny determined through his tremendous work.

If you have watched the games and read my articles, you know the numbers. Johnson’s presence has a variety of negative effects on the Penguins stars and the vast majority of the entire roster.

The local media, and more importantly, the Penguins coaching staff still refuses to acknowledge any of this as a significant problem.

There is no debate that Johnson got exposed against the Islanders. While it is not all his fault, it is noteworthy that teams that have him on their roster are now 0-5 in the playoffs.

Since being acquired at the trade deadline, Gudbranson was serviceable on the third defense pair alongside Marcus Pettersson. He is far less of a problem than Johnson. The problem is Gudbranson’s contract.

You would be hard-pressed to find me a third-pair defender that actually provides $4 million in value. Stylistically, Gudbranson does not fit the criteria as to how the Penguins need to play in order to be successful. His adequate play in Pittsburgh could end up being lightning in a bottle, as there is long-term evidence suggesting he has been a below-average player for the majority of his career.

While it is somewhat of a cliche, Gudbranson has been consistently unsuccessful in the post-season as well. Jeff ‏Veillette summed it up to a tee.

The Penguins fell into the trap that Veillette mentioned in the latter stages of the second tweet. If the Pens have serious aspirations about winning another championship, they need to move on from these two. Having $7.25 million tied up in these two defenders is an indication of poor decisions, player evaluations, and asset management. Whether or not Jim Rutherford will own up to these self-inflicted mistakes is an issue in its own right.

Trading Olli Maatta needs to be on the table, too. Maatta is a fine complementary player and can be effective when paired alongside Kris Letang or Justin Schultz. The Penguins refused to do this. They did not maximize Maatta’s potential, and in doing so, made themselves a worse team.

Moving him would likely lead to a fair return for Pittsburgh. Maatta’s perceived value is higher than his actual value. If the Penguins place him in a position to succeed in the top-four, then that should lessen their problems and limit the roster tweaking on the blue-line.

While Maatta is not irreplaceable, Johnson certainly is not the answer on the Penguins second pair. Internally, Pettersson would likely be fine on the second pair alongside Justin Schultz. Externally, Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Jake Gardiner could be a fit as an unrestricted free agent this summer.

It is interesting to note that both Gardiner and Schultz played on the same Wisconsin Badgers team while in college from 2009 to 2011. Both of them are very mobile, can see the ice well, and can distribute the puck to Pittsburgh’s forwards with speed and precision. Gardiner would fit the Penguins offense-first and up-tempo style seamlessly.

I also mentioned in yesterday’s article that Wilkes Barre’s Ethan Prow serves as a cheaper, more effective option who offers more offensive upside than Johnson or Gudbranson will on the third pair. He represented Wilkes-Barre in the AHL All-Star Game this past season. With cap space likely being an issue, Prow serves as a much more realistic lineup possibility than Gardiner does.

In a perfect world, my Penguins defense core to begin next season would look like this:

  • Brian Dumoulin – Letang
  • Gardiner/Maatta – Schultz
  • Pettersson – Prow

While this is absolutely a pipe-dream and unlikely to happen, there is a chance the Penguins come to their senses and realize that this team is driven by the high-end offensive talent at forward. The entire roster should reflect this.

Pittsburgh needs more defenseman who can make controlled zone exits and entries. Gardiner and Prow fit that bill. I prefer to allocate the $7.25 million that I mentioned earlier to players who help feed Pittsburgh’s transition game and control territory. Gardiner, Prow, and a slight pay raise for Marcus Pettersson would likely come in at a maximum of $8 million.

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For the sake of the entire fan-base, they better come to their senses. A third straight summer of very questionable roster decisions would only make more of a mess for the Penguins heading into next season. Thanks for reading!e