With just 14 games left this season, the Penguins’ defensive corps has been a story of two halves. At times unwatchable and at times unbeatable, which version is legitimate?
After grading the Penguins’ forwards, it’s time to turn our attention to the defensemen.
A defensive corps featuring Kris Letang, Brian Dumoulin, Mike Matheson and Cody Ceci in the top four is, perhaps expectedly, an adventure every single game. However, more often than not, it’s a successful adventure.
With 118 goals against (14th best in the NHL) and 2.81 goals allowed per game (15th best), the Penguins’ defensive corps appear to be about as average as can be. When in reality, the first half of the season was abysmal and the second half has been among the better in the league.
Overall this season, the Penguins’ defensemen have earned a C rating. The early season struggles, no matter how good a recovery, cannot be ignored. Like with the Pens’ forwards, these ratings are completely objective and attempt to use advanced stats to justify them.
In the effort to grade the Penguins without just using the eye test, I took a dive into some advanced statistics and loved what I found. For reference:
- CF% — Corsi For Percentage = Corsi is a plus/minus that exclusively measures shots attempted. This might seem pretty basic, but it shows how well a team did in driving play over the course of a game. Raw Corsi scores are often presented in a percentage form, which allows teams and players to be measured over the course of a season. Simply put, a player’s CF% is measured by dividing the number of shots generated by the total number of shots. EX – 15 shots and 11 opposing shots equal 57.7%, and that’s exceptional for an individual rating. To calculate individual CF%, do the same as above but only when a particular player is on the ice.
- Relative Corsi — A players’ Corsi score is one thing, but the relative Corsi compares it to the sum of the team Corsi. So, if a player has a 50 CF%, but the team CF% is 54.6, that player is actually lagging way behind his teammates in driving play while on the ice. A positive relative Corsi shows just which players actually drive play while on the ice.
- oZS%/dSZ% — offensive and defensive zone start percentages show where players take a majority of their faceoffs. An offensive player will generally take a higher percentage of offensive zone faceoffs and a defensive player will do the opposite. A player with a high dZS% and a high CF% shows a truly strong two-way player. And a player with a high oZS% will generally have inflated CF%.
So, just what grades have the Penguins’ defensemen earned this season?
Cody Ceci – 39 games played, three goals, nine assists, 12 points / B-
When Ceci was signed from Toronto in October, the fan response was… not good.
A notoriously poor defender through his time in Ottawa and Toronto, the perception was that the Penguins were signing Jack Johnson 2.0. Through 39 games, that could not be further from the truth.
While Ceci’s underlying stats have slipped a bit over the past few weeks, Ceci’s 49.7 CF% is the highest it’s been since his rookie season, and -0.3 relative Corsi is by far the best of his career. Yes, promoting “below-average” stats might sound weird, but I don’t know if anyone could have predicted the success he’s had over during his one-year contract with the Penguins.
With injuries impacting Brian Dumoulin and a stretch of poor play impacting Kris Letang, it wouldn’t be a stretch to call Ceci the most consistent defensemen on the roster this season.
Ceci has provided solid, if not spectacular, defense for the Penguins’ defense this season while also providing surprising offensive play. Ceci’s goal against the Bruins on April 3 was a shot that Ceci himself might not have known he was capable of.
He’s been remarkable this season, far outplaying his cap hit of $1.25 million. As a third pairing guy, he’s been an incredible value while providing the second-best points per game of his career — he’s likely priced himself out of Pittsburgh this summer.
Who would have expected this before the season? He’s truly exceeded any and all expectations.
Brian Dumoulin – 27 games played, two goals, seven assists, nine points / A
If Ceci has been the most consistent Penguins’ defenseman this season, Dumoulin has been the best.
Dumoulin has long been one of the most underrated defensemen in the NHL, and that’s been abundantly clear watching the Penguins this season. Without Dumoulin in the lineup, his long-time partner Kris Letang looked lost at times early this season.
Since Dumoulin returned to the lineup on March 6, the Penguins have gone 15-4-1. It’s no coincidence that Letang has returned to Norris-form with the return of Dumoulin to the lineup either.
Dumoulin has never been a strong puck-moving defenseman, however, he’s not a pure defensive defenseman either. He will jump into the rush, thread breakout passes to start rushes and pinch on smart plays to extend Pens’ chances. Dumoulin’s 0.33 points per game is the highest of his career, and his presence on the offensive of the ice has never been greater.
His 50.2 CF% is at the lowest it’s been since his sophomore season in 2014-15, but he’s still providing positive contributions to the Pens, and they’ve been far, far better with him in the lineup.
This is one of those “don’t overthink it” situations. The Penguins are so much better with him in the lineup.
Kris Letang – 41 games played, seven goals, 27 assists, 34 points / B
Old Kris Letang hasn’t lost a step yet. Even when his play was erratic early in the season, his skating and vision weren’t the problems, it was his decision-making. Which has never really a strength of his, to begin with.
With the return of Dumoulin to the lineup, Letang has been one of the best defensemen in the league… yet again. Even at 33, Letang has plenty of mileage left on his tires.
Letang’s 34 points this season rank fifth in the NHL among all defensemen while his 22 even-strength points are tied for third. His impact on the offensive side of the rink is unmatched among Penguins’ defensemen, and his defensive impact has turned up in frequency over the past couple of months — even if he is known for a defensive lapse every once in a while.
Letang’s underlying stats, still recovering from early-season struggles, don’t leave much to desire (50.0 CF% and -0.1 relative Corsi with a 46.1 dZS%), but he’s been the most dynamic Pens defensemen this season.
If Letang isn’t playing well, you’re going to hear about it. If he is playing well, every mistake he makes is magnified.
I’m just saying, Letang should once again receive Norris Trophy votes.
John Marino – 38 games played, two goals, six assists, eight points / C-
Fresh off a six-year, $26.4 million dollar extension, Marino was riding a strong rookie season and new contract expectations coming into his sophomore campaign.
It hasn’t exactly been a sophomore slump for Marino, but he hasn’t taken that next step either — despite showing flashes of his improved offensive game. Marino’s skating is much more refined from last season, his smooth stride and effortless maneuverability showing his potential.
However, he’s also been on the receiving end of some pretty poor defensive efforts while paired with Marcus Pettersson — and Mike Matheson, too.
With just two goals and six assists, Marino’s offensive production is down, but his underlying stats mirror his rookie season well — perhaps showing how unlucky he’s been this season. Playing over 21 minutes per game this season, including over two minutes on the penalty kill and a minute and a half on the power play, he’s done it all for the Pens.
Marino is top five on the Penguins in blocked shots and takeaways this season, and his 50.7 CF% and 0.3 relative Corsi are relatively minor, but his 53.2 dZS% explains that a little bit.
Marino is the key for the Penguins’ defensive corps. It may be unfair to expect more from a 23-year-old sophomore, but another step from him would elevate the Pens immensely.
Mike Matheson – 34 games played, four goals, nine assists, 13 points / C+
What to make of Matheson… he really is the Penguins’ version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
With 13 points this season, he’s the second-leading scorer from the blue line, and his 0.38 points per game are the highest of his career, despite playing two-to-three minutes per game less than his leading ice times in Florida.
Matheson’s skating ability is impeccable, smooth and shifty out on the ice, leading to scoring chances almost every game. In contrast to Jack Johnson last season, Matheson’s anchor of a contract (five years left at $4.85 million) is at least useful.
In any game, Matheson is capable of scoring a beautiful highlight-reel goal or completely losing his man in defensive coverage.
Matheson’s defensive inconsistencies are certainly frustrating, but he wasn’t brought in to play like Dumoulin. His puck-moving, offensive play more often than not this season has made up for his defensive miscues.
With a 56.5 dZS%, among the highest of his career, Matheson’s 49.1 CF% isn’t terrible. His -0.7 relative Corsi isn’t awful either. He will never be an analytics darling, but it’s clear he isn’t an albatross — at least not quite yet.
I wasn’t very high on Matheson to begin the season, but he’s been a very pleasant surprise.
Marcus Pettersson – 33 games played, one goal, five assists, six points / D+
It’s been a tough season for Pettersson. He often appears to be the defenseman beat by opposing teams, he’s garnering the least amount of ice time since his rookie season and he’s scoring less than ever.
A lock on the third pairing with John Marino this season, the pair were bypassed by the Matheson-Ceci pairing. It’s been a tough season for Marino, and Pettersson’s five-year, $20.125 dollar contract is looking even worse.
With just one goal, scored way back in January, Pettersson’s two assists in 24 games between Jan. 19 and April 1 signaled a rough spell for the Swede. However, three assists in the last six games may point to a turning point in the future.
A 48.8 CF% is the lowest mark since Pettersson was an Anaheim Duck back in 2018-19, and his -0.6 relative Corsi shows the Penguins have been minimally worse with him on the ice. His 55.7 dZS% is the highest it’s been since coming to the Pens, so perhaps it isn’t that surprising.
Pettersson is a player with abundant talent, a long, rangy defenseman, but it’s been a tough season for him. At just 24, almost 25, he already has younger players breathing down his neck.
Pierre-Olivier Joseph – 16 games, one goal, four assists, five points – B
As a 21-year-old rookie defenseman, Joseph was called up from Wilks-Barre as an injury crunch hit the Penguins early in the season. All he did was play top pairing minutes to help the Pens survive while providing unexpected offensive contributions.
Originally acquired in the 2019 Phil Kessel trade, Joseph now appears to be part of the future of the Penguins’ blue line. Even with some rookie growing pains once settling into the lineup, Joseph’s steady presence allowed him to be an anchor for Letang’s high-risk play from the blue line — although not as well as Dumoulin.
With an assist in his very first game, Joseph’s offensive emergence manifested in a number of highlight-reel kind of ways.
That absolute beauty of a first goal gave way to an eventual three-assist night against the Rangers, including the game-winning assist to Sidney Crosby in the overtime period. A goal and four assists in 16 games were much more than expected from Joseph.
With a 47.6 dZS%, Joseph’s 52.0 CF% and 1.4 relative Corsi show he wasn’t protected by the Penguins and even helped the Pens control play while he was on the ice.
With a goal and five assists in 11 AHL games this season, it appears that Joseph will get to spend the rest of the season sharpening his game with the Baby Penguins before cracking the lineup again next season.
Chad Ruhwedel – 16 games played, zero goals, two assists, two points / B-
While not a prolific puck-mover, Ruhwedel has made an impact for the Penguins in a sparingly used role.
In just 16 games, playing a tad under 15 minutes per game, Ruhwedel blocked 13 shots and dished out 28 hits. His two assists don’t jump off the page, but his underlying stats do.
With Ruhwedel on the ice, the Penguins controlled play far more effectively than one may have thought. A 54.0 CF% with a relative Corsi of 2.7 shows just how good the Pens have been at driving possession — especially with him on the ice.
A 55.8 dZS% shows the Penguins haven’t sheltered Ruhwedel when he’s been in the lineup either.
As a 7th defenseman, Ruhwedel will likely face some competition from Friedman, but the Pens could do a lot worse than Ruhwedel for depth.
To Be Determined
Mark Friedman – N/A
With only two games played in Pittsburgh, Friedman doesn’t have much of a sample size. However, a goal (his first NHL against the Philadelphia Flyers) and an assist in those two games show potential.
Unfortunately, he picked up an injury in early March and hasn’t seen the ice since.
Kevin Czucman – N/A
Like Friedman, Czucman has only played two games this season in Pittsburgh. And that’s the way it’s going to stay.
Juuso Riikola – N/A
Like Friedman and Czucman, Riikola has only played in two games this season. As the object of affection for many Penguins’ fans, his status as “under-used” will likely remain the same. Mike Sullivan just doesn’t want to play him.
Yannick Weber – N/A
Like Friedman, Czucman AND Riikola, Weber has only played in two games this season. I’m starting to see a trend here…
What are your thoughts on the Penguins’ defensemen this season? Let me know in the comments below!