Penguins Could Play 7 Defensemen to Help Spell Tired Group
The Pittsburgh Penguins are about to lock up their second-straight division title, but you wouldn’t know it from their run of post-Olympic play.
Pittsburgh is just better than a .500 team since returning from Sochi. Their problems are many, and varied. Lack of possession. Mindless penalties. Bottom-six depth. Even with two straight wins under the belt before Tuesday’s dud against Carolina, Pittsburgh is hardly inspiring confidence as the postseason nears.
Of course, simply having enough warm bodies to send out on the ice has been the biggest detriment to the team.
So where depth and continuity have taken their toll on the team’s record, injuries have played a far bigger part. For the healthy bodies tasked with picking up more minutes in expanded roles, fatigue is sure to follow. That fatigue has been noticeable of defense, where irregular pairings and expanded minutes have taxed the team’s remaining healthy blue liners.
Short of making even more call-ups, Pittsburgh could give its group a rest by playing seven defensemen the rest of the way out.
Fatigue has certainly become an issue as the team tries to scrape together a full roster on any given game night, and it’s been most notable on the blue line.
Olli Maatta, in his rookie season, seems to have hit a post-Olympic wall. While this may have been due to being split from his regular defense partner in Matt Niskanen, the stress of having played more than 70 NHL games as a 19 year old (including an extended run at the Olympics) has to have taken a toll.
Maatta made the team with his impressive early play, and he has taken on greater responsibility throughout the season due as much to others’ injuries as his own ability to fill the void. The Pens are fast approaching 500 man-games lost to injury this season.
They’ve lost 471 man-games so far, and that number will rise over the last seven regular season contests with Marcel Goc, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang and others on the shelf.
Pittsburgh is likely to finish with more than 500 man-games lost. That’s far and away the highest total in the NHL. Only three other clubs have lost as many as 300 man-games. Detroit sits second, at 379.
The coaching staff has certainly acknowledged the effect of Maatta’s uncommon workload. He and Niskanen have played career-high minutes this season, and Maatta’s superhuman rookie season didn’t seem to hit a snag until recent weeks.
The Pens made him a healthy scratch last week after he fought through a series of uncharacteristic poor games, and fatigue was the likeliest culprit.
The game off was a nice first step, but Maatta can’t possibly be the only defender who is feeling a bit taxed by this point.
Relief wouldn’t be terribly hard to come by, either. If the team has depth anywhere, it’s on the blue line. Even without Paul Martin and Kris Letang, the Pens have seven NHL-caliber defensemen on the roster. Of those seven, Deryk Engelland has taken a few regular turns as a fourth-line forward. He’s been a good option on the fourth line at that.
It’s not a cure-all, but Pittsburgh could begin to address its fourth-line woes and tired defense group by dressing Engelland in a hybrid role.
Surprisingly, the Engelland-at-forward experiment has worked out well. Outside of the team’s top-six forwards, Engelland trails only Brandon Sutter and Brian Gibbons in total points. His six goals also make him the highest-scoring bottom-six forward not named Brandon Sutter.
Engelland has appeared in only 53 of the team’s 75 games this season, and played forward in less than half of those contests. Yet he’s still outscoring the majority of the team’s bottom-six.
Pittsburgh can play seven defense and still run four lines of forwards with Engelland in the lineup. Call him the wildcat option, if you have to. He’s proven himself to be viable in the bottom-six (and that’s as much an indictment of the rest of the team’s bottom-six as it is praise of Engelland’s versatility).
If the team doesn’t want to go with Engelland, Simon Despres and Robert Bortuzzo ought to have shown enough this season to get continued playing time. Despres is one of the team’s better puck-movers — no small trait for a group that is missing Letang and relies on a crisp first pass.
Bortuzzo, for his part, has proven to be the only player on the roster who elicits more aggravation than he shows. Pittsburgh has lost its snarl in recent years, but Bortuzzo has the ability to provide some in his limited minutes.
The defense group operates well enough with six men, but it couldn’t hurt to give them a look with further support — especially since the team’s bottom-six forwards are so ineffective.
The Pens’ third and fourth liners generally make the money on the penalty kill and in other non-goal scoring capacities, but if they can’t play defense like Engelland (they can’t), haven’t potted more than a half-dozen goals to a man all season (they haven’t) and are no longer able to justify their ice time by playing well on the penalty kill (they aren’t), it’s hard to argue that a seventh defender wouldn’t be a better option.
It’s at least a possibility, one that could change with Martin seemingly close to a return. And if the Penguins’ blue line really is wearing down before the postseason has even begun, the team needs to do what it can to spell the tired group.