Last week I got into a discussion on the podcast I share with my friend, Pat. It started off as a “Dumoulin hasn’t looked great” and ended up with Pat reading me an interesting statistic. Kris Letang, at the time and let’s be honest probably now, was leading the Pittsburgh Penguins’ defense corps in Corsi-for. This is hardly unusual as the perennial Norris trophy short-lister is just that good. What was interesting was the number two name. Because where last year it was regularly Brian Dumoulin, who found himself at the top of this list or just behind the astronomically gifted Letang, the next name so far this season was Olli Maatta.
That’s right. The guy half the Penguins fanbase left for dead in a ditch three games into the season has quietly got himself oriented back into the player who Kris Letang prefers to play with once more. So let’s put them back together. It seems fairly simple to those of us not coaching the team. To us armchair coaches and GM’s, putting the two best performing players who have historically played solid together seems simple.
Jacques Martin, who runs the Penguins’ blue line, is a brilliant man, though, so the thought has surely crossed his mind. However, as the man has been responsible for the resurgence of Schultz, Cole and oversaw the reaching of Letang’s career to new heights, I’m apt to trust him. Because Martin and Sullivan have always been tops at building confidence and resurrecting the careers of many of their players by doing two things very well. One, giving them appropriate deployment and two, allowing them to make errors.
For the number one example of this not named Justin Schultz, look at the transformation Maatta’s undergone in the first month and a half of the 2016-17 season.
Game One: He pinched forward on a puck trying to keep it in the offensive zone while a forward was back covering for Trevor Daley who was in way deep. He got caught kind of oddly out of position and was able to get back into the play but not effectively. The puck went into the net on Marc-Andre Fleury and the game was tied.
Now: In the Penguins more recent games Maatta’s made a concerted effort to get the puck in as deep as possible at the blue line. On the extended shifts in the offensive zone the Penguins had against the Rangers and Sabres recently, he was part of the defensive posture sealing up the exits to the zone effectively to keep the puck in to keep the cycle working.
I believe this approach by Martin and Sullivan is why the pairings haven’t been swapped yet. Letang and Dumoulin have had limited effectiveness since the former returned from an early season injury. But it is still the regular season and very early in it so they kept giving them the benefit of their stellar play together last spring.
Meanwhile, Maatta, who has looked better by the game has been performing better but they didn’t necessarily want to rush it. They trusted him and wanted his confidence to go back up because a lot of what was wrong with him early in the year was between the ears. He was making plays like he had limited time and space when he really had both. Now he’s banking pucks off of the wall, easily following his nose for the puck (remember – his offensive numbers in junior are a large part of why he was drafted so high), and making defensive plays with his skates to protect the puck as he moves it around the cage. But he’s ready and it’s time to take the training wheels off and see if he is going to be their first or second pairing defender and there is no better time.
On the other hand there’s Dumoulin. Brian Dumoulin is playing his second full NHL season and hasn’t had a great run of late. He seems to just be a bit out of position and making his goalies lives more difficult, as opposed to making them easier. He’s not completely fallen off of a cliff and is still a high-level shutdown guy but his numbers haven’t been there lately. And it feels like Letang is dragging an anvil more than he’s playing with a defenseman he trusts.
This isn’t saying Dumounlin’s career is over by any stretch but he needs to get his feet under him. He needs to see less of the Ovechkins of the NHL and more of those second/third line match-ups, plus he needs to play a little less time-wise because he does look fatigued at points.
This is where the swap of Maatta and Dumoulin has its real genius though: Dumoulin plays well with Daley. Dumoulin became well known last season when he emerged on the top pairing with Daley when Letang was out.
Daley and Dumoulin has worked as swimmingly in the past for its players as Letang and Maatta. It’s only November, tinker while you can and see what happens. And it seems like the Penguins have decided to try just that. As news out of practice following the teams 5-2 setback to the New York Rangers was they had gone to 3/58 and 8/6 as the pairings. As for Cole and Schultz? The 28/4 pairing remained as it has been. And I for one don’t think they’re getting split up any time soon unless injuries necessitate it. Sure, their deployment has been calculated extensively, especially at home, by Martin and Sullivan. But they’ve thrived and their second unit deployments on their respective special teams (Cole on PK and Schultz on PP) have been brilliant. They’re dependable and working well but the staff knows better than to overtax them.
It’s time to go back to 3/58, 6/8 and 28/4 – conveniently it seems like that’s just what the team is about to do.