When news of Kris Letang’s neck surgery hit the airwaves, many pundits and fans started to discount the Penguins’ chance of repeating as Stanley Cup champions. That’s entirely understandable. Letang is a world-class defenseman that absorbed huge minutes each game, in each phase of play — 19:42/game at even strength, 3:40/game on the power play, and 2:08/game on the penalty kill. In the playoffs, his minutes per game only ramp up. It’s impossible to replace him with just one existing Penguin.
As a result, Mike Sullivan is trying to replace Letang with all six of the current defensemen. Through the first series, Sullivan has divvied out overall ice time about as evenly as one coach could do in real time.
- Trevor Daley — 20:22/game
- Olli Maatta — 20:57/game
- Justin Schultz — 21:17/game
- Ian Cole — 19:56/game
- Brian Dumoulin — 19:44/game
- Ron Hainsey — 19:44/game
The only defensemen receiving more than 1 minute per game of time on the power play are Trevor Daley (barely, at 1:17) and Justin Schultz (3:25). Schultz is up 40 seconds over his regular season average of 2:45/game, so essentially Malkin has replaced Letang’s minutes on the power play.
At first blush, it’s not good that Daley and Maatta are the second and third leading minute vacuums right now, as they’ve been the worst of the three pairings, both by the eye test and possession stats. But Maatta and Daley have absorbed the second and third-most PK minutes among the defense corps, so with Columbus only managing two power play goals and an 16.7% rate on their power play, it’s hard to argue too much with that part of their usage.
My issue is that Maatta is the leader among even-strength minutes, as well. If you clicked the link above to the Fox Sports breakdown, you’ll see that Maatta is 40 seconds more than the next closest two defensemen of Dumoulin and Cole (not a pairing, just pure ice time). He’s averaging nearly more than 1:00 more than Justin Schultz, who’s on the top pairing with Ian Cole; you would think that just by nature his minutes would be higher than Daley/Maatta.
Every coach has their blind spot(s). It seems as if Mike Sullivan is too comfortable leaning on Daley and Maatta, when all the evidence points that he should be doing the contrary. Justin Schultz’s even-strength ice time is virtually the same in the playoffs as it was in the regular season. I’d like to see him increase that total by 1:30 and take those extra two shifts away from the Daley/Maatta pairing.
It would be easy to say that Sullivan should substitute in Mark Streit for one of Maatta or Daley. Would I consider swapping Streit out for Daley? Perhaps. Streit could easily assume his spot on the 2nd power play, but Streit doesn’t kill penalties and with Schultz barely seeing PK time himself, that would burden the other four defensemen. In the alternative, I would rather see Sullivan go to more of a top-heavy even-strength ice time distribution to the top two pairs (2 more shifts as stated to Schultz/Cole, 1 more to Dumoulin/Hainsey) and de-emphasize Daley/Maatta at even-strength. At this point, don’t worry about jostling the penalty kill or power play time, until someone’s play bears it out.
With Chicago out in the West and Washington in a stronger dogfight with Toronto than expected, the Penguins path to the Cup is opening up. This defense corps is not awe-inspiring, especially when they’re coupled with a volatile game-to-game goalie in Marc-Andre Fleury. It seems as if the Penguins are going to have to win in spite of their defense, rather than because of it. With the firepower on display from the top two lines, that’s a distinct possibility.