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Imagining the Penguins’ defense with a healthy Justin Schultz

Recent history suggests the Pittsburgh Penguins are going to make some sort of a trade to strengthen their lineup at some point over the next month. They are always in a win-now mode and have an aggressive general manager that is going to explore every possible avenue when it comes to making his team better.

It could be a significant trade, it could be a minor tweak, it could be both.

No matter what sort of trade Jim Rutherford decides to make there is a very real possibility that it will only be the second most impactful addition that happens to the Penguins’ roster over the next month.

The most impactful addition, of course, will be the return of defenseman Justin Schultz.

At this point that return is still probably a couple of weeks away, but it is going to be significant whenever it happens.

So significant that it may be difficult for any other trade to overshadow its importance.

For one, I’m not sure the Penguins will have the opportunity to be in the market for a bigger or better player than Schultz, both due to salary cap constraints and the assets they have at their disposal to trade. They don’t have a lot to give up in terms of younger assets (at least valuable assets), and while it seems inevitable that the Derick Brassard experiment is going to come to an end I’m not sure where his value stands at this point.

Looking at the defenders that might potentially be available the only one that probably compares to — or exceeds — Schultz is Jake Muzzin out in Los Angeles, and while he would be a welcome addition to any lineup I’m not sure if I see that as a realistic match for the Penguins. So for that reason alone they are probably not making a more significant addition — at least on the blue line — than Schultz.

Also because Schultz is really good when healthy.

They have to this point, outside of four games at the beginning of October, played their entire season without one of their top-four defenders, and that is what makes his (hopefully) soon return so intriguing. That is a huge add for the stretch run, even if you consider the fact it will probably take him some time to get back up to speed and fully recover.

While Schultz isn’t going to be a lockdown defender that is going to immediately fix all of the Penguins’ shortcomings defensively, he still brings a dimension that no other defender on the blue line outside of Kris Letang can bring. He moves the puck, he can help create offense, he can play on the power play and make an already dangerous unit that is one of the league’s best even better.

Over the previous two full seasons he was a top-30 point producer among all NHL defenders and a positive possession player. Those players just do not grow on trees, and they are not always easily available without having to give up significant assets.

Based on the way the Penguins’ defense is set up at the moment I am assuming Schultz will slide right back on to the second pairing alongside Olli Maatta, not only because that is a spot where he spent a significant chunk of the 2017-18 season, but because that just seems to be the way everything is built.

The Letang-Brian Dumoulin pairing is not — and should not be — going anywhere. Why would it? Why would you want it to? Why would you fix something that is not broken?

Barring another trade or significant roster move the Marcus Pettersson and Jack Johnson duo seems to be set as the third pairing for better or worse.

That leaves Olli Maatta and his revolving door of defensive partners.

Based on the way the season has gone, this would probably be a welcome change for Maatta.

On one hand, I do not know that the Schultz-Maatta pairing was quite as good as it seemed last season when you look only at goals for and against (where it was excellent).

Their scoring chance numbers together were not great, and that is a red flag for what it might mean for goals in the future. But they were still better than what Maatta has had to deal with this season and their possession numbers were better than what Maatta has produced this season when playing alongside either Johnson, Jamie Oleksiak, or Jusso Riikola.

The 5-on-5 numbers, via Natural Stat Trick:

The Penguins’ Second Defense Pairing Options

Player(s) CF% SC% HDSC%
Player(s) CF% SC% HDSC%
Justin Schultz-Olli Maatta (2017-18) 50.1 47.2 46.8
Olli Maatta Overall (2018-19) 44.8 45.9 51.5
Olli Maatta-Jamie Oleksiak (2018-19) 45.3 47.1 49.4
Olli Maatta-Jusso Riikola (2018-19) 44.1 43.4 49.4
Olli Maatta -Jack Johnson (2018-19) 39.2 40.9 51.6

The scoring chance numbers are, in some areas, very similar but it is clear that Riikola and Johnson have dragged him down significantly. Though it is fascinating to see that no matter who Maatta plays with, and no matter how bad the other numbers can get, the high-danger scoring chance numbers stay relatively flat.

Either way, Schultz is a better option than everybody else mentioned here and should at least give the Penguins, in theory, two very good pairings at the top of their defense.

Once the trade deadline comes and goes I don’t know that the Penguins roster is going to look all that different. Brassard might be gone, they might have a new third-line center, but I don’t see a season-altering trade on the horizon here (maybe I’m wrong!) just based on the realities of their situation and what they have to deal from.

Despite that they are still going to get a significant addition to their lineup that is going to make them a better team than they are today.

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