by Justin Luteran

Almost one month ago to the day the Pittsburgh Penguins found themselves in dire straits on the blue line. By the time the horn sounded signaling the first intermission of their Stadium Series matchup vs Philadelphia they were down to just four defenseman remaining in the game having lost Brian Dumoulin and Kris Letang to injury, and on a larger scale with Olli Maatta already out longer-term, were down arguably the top half of their starting defensive lineup.

As late as the end of January the Penguins realistically had a shot at facing a scenario that included having nine, yes nine, capable-starting D-men on their roster. For the January 19th game vs Vegas the Pens dressed Dumoulin and Letang, the stalwart first pairing, the Finnish Twins (“Twinning”?…”Finning”?)  Jusso Riikola and Olli Maatta on pair number two, with Jack Johnson and Marcus Petterson bringing up the rear. Healthy scratches were the Big Rig Jamie Oleksiak and the oft-underrated Chad Ruhwedel. Oh, and Justin Schultz was fast on the mend from his broken leg. It is not an exaggeration to say that the Penguins could soon have enough starting-caliber D-men to go over to PNC Park and take the field on Opening Day (which given the Pirates recent struggles is maybe what should have been the master plan all along).

For a franchise that has been inconsistent at best with their blue-liners over the past several years, this was a high-class problem for GM Jim Rutherford. Finally he had breathing room, had the much-sought-after depth on D that teams need to make deep playoff runs into May and June.

Shortly after that game Oleksiak was traded back to Dallas for a 4th round draft pick (literally the pick they had traded away for him originally). That cut the number of bodies down to 8 and the Pens were still in strong shape.

Then the bodies began to fall.

Maatta was first to go being placed on injured reserve by mid-February. By the end of the month, Dumo, Letang, and Ruhwedel would also have their names added to the list. Guys were dropping like flies and Rutherford’s first-class problems had been demoted to just plain old ‘problems’.

Luckily by that point Justin Schultz was back in the lineup after a four month absence and Rutherford was able to act quickly to plug holes. He brought in big-bodied Erik Gudbranson from Vancouver and promoted Zach Trotman from Wilkes-Barre giving the Penguins a somewhat stable, if slightly cobbled together, defensive core.

The Bad News D was able to get by and, after getting healthy bodies back, the recent lineup has looked like this:

(left)           (right)
Dumoulin – Letang
Johnson – Schultz
Petterson – Gudbranson

As of late this group has unquestioningly been playing the best defensive hockey of the season and dare I say some of the most complete and balanced D that a Pittsburgh lineup has seen in recent memory.

With Olli Maatta finally taking contact in practice and seemingly being ready to return to NHL action, the question on many minds, fans and pundits alike, is what to do with him? The quick and easy answer from most tip-of-the-iceberg fans would be to slot him back with Schultz and rotate someone else out but the reality is that…it ain’t that simple.

Realistically Olli Maatta should have played his final game in a Penguins jersey and here’s why:

The most obvious and important reason is that the Penguins D has found the perfect balance and are playing their best hockey of the season, not only without Maatta in the lineup, but also on the doorstep of the playoffs. Mike Sullivan is as big a fan of shuffling the lineup as anybody but there’s no way he or assistant coaches Jacques Martin or Sergei Gonchar are going to want to interrupt the chemistry at such a crucial time of the year, even for a constant like Maatta.

One reason the D is clicking so well is that each guy and each pair has a specific function and they are are all doing their jobs.

Dumo and Letang have been the number one for the last several years and are both playing some of the best hockey they ever have. Letang was once again in the Norris Trophy discussion before missing a dozen games due to injury and his play at both ends of the rink this year has been arguably the best it’s ever been while Dumo remains a severely underrated defensive defenseman who not only sits near the top of the league in plus/minus (tied for 7th at +28) but whose stay-at-home style of play allows Letang to jump in on the rush and put up the career-high-tying 16 goals that he currently sits at. One of them might as well be Kevin Costner because they are the g-d Untouchables.

Next up is Jack Johnson and Justin Schultz. Finally the general public is catching on to what I’ve been pontificating all year which is that Jack Johnson is not really that bad and is capable of playing good hockey, especially when he gets to play his style. Jack isn’t skating the puck up ice, he’s not jumping into the offensive zone. He’s a big boy who is going to lay the body out, put guys on their asses, box out in front of the net, smother them in the corner, and block shots. He is Ian Cole 2.0 and though there was a little bit of a transition period at the beginning of the season, he has rounded into form the last couple months and especially benefits from playing with Schultz. A big part of that is he is back on his natural side (which we’ll touch more on in a minute), but he and Schultz compliment each other well because like the first pairing you have a big, physical body responsibly staying back which allows for a smooth-skating, puck-moving, offensively gifted player to start breakouts, carry the mail, or jump in on the rush. Thus the top two pairings have a balance of speed, physicality, ability to breakout, and offensive prowess.

I hate to call them the third pair since really all three of these combos are capable of shutting down an opposing team’s best players, so we’ll just say finally we have Petterson and Gudbranson. This pairing is the black sheep of the group. They are truly unique and may not sound as effective on paper but watching them play puts any and all doubt to bed. Mark Madden wrote a column for the Penguins website on March 6th outlining why these two are such a formidable pair and much of it boils down to size. Without skates Gudbranson is listed at 6’5″ and Petterson at 6’3″. When these guys are backing into their zone with their arms and sticks spread out, that is A LOT of covered ice. Said Pettersson, “We can cover a lot of ice without having to move too much. We can stay in the right position and still cover a lot together. That’s a huge advantage for us.” And boy, he ain’t kidding. Those guys seem to tower over opposing players. But it’s not just their physical size, these guys play a BIG game. People forget that Petterson, amazingly, is only 22 years old (still technically a rookie!) and only listed at 177 lbs but we might as well call him Terry O’Reilly for the way he throws the body around without fear (or maybe Happy Gilmore himself, though I’d have to check if he ever took off his skate and tried to stab somebody…). Gudbranson, meanwhile, is listed at 217 and is built more like the prototypical/now virtually extinct NHL enforcer. One of the reasons Jim Rutherford brought him on was because of his size and reputation for fighting and throwing big hits (see lowering the boom on Tom Wilson), a skillset the Penguins locker room had desperately been missing since dealing Ryan Reaves to Vegas. The two of them have range, strength, and have both upped their games since arriving in Pittsburgh. Petterson quietly sits third in defensive rookie scoring with 22 points on the season and is first among the same group in plus/minus at +14. He’s also first in penalty minutes at 64 so like I said, don’t cross the man (“Don’t you ever touch my puck!”). A lot of negative attention was given to Gudbranson at the time of pickup because of his play in Vancouver which he admitted “not being proud of”. Also at the time of his acquisition he owned the 2nd-worst plus/minus in the league at -27 but has done well in Pittsburgh’s system. He’s in good position, playing tough but not stupid (2 penalties in 12 games) and has gone +5 in March and is slowly creeping his way back out of the hole.

Another huge factor to consider is that all of these pairs have a lefty playing the left side and a righty playing the right side, which the coaching staff loves. Allowing players to play on their natural, strong side has allowed guys like Jack Johnson to flourish after his early season struggles while playing on his weaker side. With Olli Maatta being a lefty, that narrows down who he would likely slot in for between Dumoulin, Johnson, and Petterson. Dumo, as mentioned, isn’t going anywhere so that leaves Johnson or Petterson. Johnson has played a very strong game since going back to the left and playing with Schultz so even though Maatta and Schultz have played together and shown decent chemistry, Jack’s earned his spot for the time being. Same with Petterson playing with Gudbranson.

Of the possible outcomes that are being thrown around, short-term the best solution for the team is not to rotate guys out, it’s not to dress seven defenseman and eleven forwards (which Sullivan has repeatedly expressed disinterest in), and it’s not to play people based on matchups. Like Averman, Goldberg, and many others before him, Olli Maatta needs to be riding the pine pony pal. The current six are simply playing way too complete a game and the Penguins can’t risk interrupting that flow by inserting someone new into the lineup. As a competitor who’s missed a lot of time that’s going to be hard to swallow but the team comes first and it’s what’s best for the team. He’ll just have to wait for someone to get injured which if we’re lucky (but we’re not) won’t happen from now until the Penguins win or lose their last game.

That’s the short-term solution. But what about after this season ends? Letang (2022), Dumoulin (2023), Schultz (2020), Johnson (2023), and Gudbranson (2021) are all signed at least through next season while Petterson will be a restricted free agent though it’s hard not to imagine him getting a deal with how well he’s played since joining the team in early December, not to mention guys like Riikola, Ruhwedel, Trotman, and others down in Wilkes-Barre who are in play and much cheaper. Maatta has become the odd man out and it’s time to shout it from the rooftops for all to hear, it’s time to trade Olli Maatta.

Now in his 6th season in Pittsburgh, Maatta’s career has been more of a roller coaster than the casual fan may realize. He broke into the league as an 18-year old in 2013 putting up 9 goals and 29 points in 78 games while shooting a very respectable 7.6% and only taking 14 PIMs. Much like the late Jordan Staal (I WISH I could say “late”…) he’s never quite lived up to the promise of his rookie season. Yes he helped the Penguins win two Cups (which alone is a stat that waaaay too many people overemphasize), but the organization envisioned him as the next coming of Kris Letang, an offensively gifted, puck-moving defenseman who could help with breakouts and on the power play. While he’s done a fairly adequate job at both, usually on both the second D-pair and PP, his point production has barely crested to what he achieved as a rookie. Last year he managed to match his career-high in points with 29, albeit with only 7 goals and in 4 more games played, but his stat lines peak and valley like a heart rate monitor and a lot of that has to do with his well-documented history with injury. Over 6 seasons his games played totals read:

78, 20, 67, 55, 82, 55

As they say, the biggest ability a guy can have is avail-ability.

When taking into account his history with injury, his cap hit of just over $4 million, and the fact that the current lineup is playing a complete game with everyone filling an established role, the best solution has to be to trade him. He’s become the Daniel Sprong of the blue line. It just ain’t working out here so let him go to flourish somewhere else. To his credit he’s a proven NHL player who’s still only 24, has a 2-Cup pedigree, and should slot in on another team’s second pair while giving the Pens a decent return. Let guys like Riikola and Ruhwedel play the role of extra man. Maatta is simply being paid too much and has unfortunately fallen into the trap of losing his roster slot due to injury.

Hey none of us are mind readers and Saturday at Dallas maybe one of the left-sided D-men takes a puck to the face and Olli gets to slide ride back in no questions asked (knock on wood please God don’t), but if the Penguins are lucky, the six D they currently have will remain healthy throughout the regular season and potentially playoffs relegating Maatta to the press box until season’s end at which point they can trade him for a decent return and a good size chunk of savings. If they’re lucky it means they have their main defensive core intact moving forward. If they’re lucky, he’s played his last game in a Pittsburgh Penguins uniform.