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Time to change the defense pairings

April 16, 2017, 10:55 AM ET [385 Comments]
Ryan Wilson
Pittsburgh Penguins Blogger • RSSArchiveCONTACT
The Pittsburgh Penguins head into Columbus tonight with an opportunity to put the series out of reach of the Columbus Blue Jackets. A victory would create an 0-3 hole for John Tortorella's team and one that would probably send the team into a tail spin.

Matt Calvert was suspended one game. It's not meaningful to the league, the Penguins, or the Blue Jackets. He's in the 25th percentile in both possession and even-strength offense. It doesn't hurt the Blue Jackets on the ice and it doesn't hurt Calvert's pocketbook considering that players aren't paid in the playoffs. So what is learned? Same as always, nothing. The league's explanation included the fact it wasn't a "hockey play" and it was meant to send a message. Still only one game.

All the former players who say the Calvert play doesn't deserve a suspension seem to have something in common...

Through two games in this series Columbus holds the shot volume advantage while the Penguins have held the high danger chances advantage. Pittsburgh has the high end guys to make that work in the short term. I have concerns with that being a successful strategy over the larger haul. It's an area that needs to improve if Pittsburgh is to become the first repeat champs in the cap era. It isn't very fair to expect your goaltender to play at a ~97% level. So where can the Penguins improve?

Controlled zone exits have been an issue in this series for Pittsburgh. They aren't able to take advantage of their speed because it has been wasted chasing the puck instead of forcing the issue. Not having Kris Letang is a big deal on this front. A lot of people take for granted what a zone exit/entry machine Kris Letang is. He creates positive situations solely on his skating ability. That won't be replaced by one guy. The team will need to get the most out of the players that are available. The early returns in this series suggest that the team is not. I think that it is due to usage.

I can't fault Mike Sullivan for attempting to spread the minutes out like this. He clearly wants to see if he can balance all the pairings and manage their minutes so nobody is overworked. However, through two games we have some significant issues at play. The main one is that Ron Hainsey cannot handle the role that he is in. Here are the bottom five players in Dom Luszczyszyn's game score for the first two games of this series.

Ron Hainsey has been the worst player in both games. He is neutralizing Brian Dumoulin. The Penguins can't afford have their best left defenseman get dragged down like this. Brian Dumoulin is a solid player, but he is not quite the caliber of player that can carry dead weight. When Ron Hainsey was acquired it was always imperative that the Penguins give him a soft role to excel in. This isn't that role. I wrote about that at the time of acquisition

The thing that I am taking away from this information is that you need to keep Hainsey away from Kris Letang. You can clearly see that Hainsey was a negative impact on Justin Faulk. Hainsey just can't handle those types of minutes and the Hurricanes kept playing Faulk and Hainsey together. The Penguins won't have to do that because they will use Brian Dumoulin in that role. This should allow Hainsey a more appropriate 5v5 role than he was getting in Carolina.

The information I was alluding to was the Hurricanes with or without you stats. Hainsey couldn't handle the top minutes with Faulk. He did fine in lesser roles with other players.

So what can be done? There are no easy answers, but the status quo seems doomed. We know a Maatta-Daley pairing doesn't work and the Dumoulin-Hainsey pairing has been even worse. You can't have two-thirds of your defense pairings be a dumpster fire. And yes two of the pairings have been a complete dumpster fire

Mike Sullivan's first step is obviously to change the pairings, but he could also stop spreading out the minutes evenly and start to lean more on his best defenders. Brian Dumoulin and Justin Schultz are his best two and the ice time should reflect that. They should both be receiving near 25 minutes a night.

The Cole-Schultz pairing has had some success, but not the kind of success that makes them inseparable. It could be time for the coach to load up a "top pairing" and maximize the talent of Dumoulin and Schultz. There is little risk in this because the current setup is not working at all. I have a few options to look at. Here is the first


The logic is to play the two best players together and play them a lot. This should give the other pairings some easier minutes. Using Hainsey-Streit in a bottom pairing role could be useful. They controlled 54.8% of the shot attempts as a pairing this year playing in ~80 minutes with one another. Trevor Daley is the odd man out here. He's had a bad season. He's coming off of injury. He can't play with Maatta.

Another option could look like this


When you look back at Maatta's career sample his best minutes have come with Kris Letang and Matt Niskanen. That isn't hard hitting analysis. That should come as no surprise given how good each of those two players are. The common denominator with both of those players is that they are right handed, have puck skills, and can skate. Justin Schultz fits the bill and if the team wants to maximize Maatta's ability (and they probably have to) he might be the one guy on the team that can do that.

I don't have Trevor Daley in either scenario. I just don't think he's played well enough. He is significantly below the other options.

Daley is the purple line.

There are no perfect solutions to the Penguins defense pairing issues. Letang's absence creates a low ceiling for Pittsburgh's defense unit. Even during the Stanley Cup run of last year it was mainly driven by the forwards. The good news is that I believe the Penguins forward group is even better than last year's when they are healthy. If Pittsburgh can get through the Columbus series they have a chance to ice a healthy forward unit against their second round opponent. If that's the case the defensemen will be able to lean on the strong forward unit to help them once again. Changing the pairings will give them that chance.

Thanks for reading!
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