Which Defenseman is the Odd Man Out for the Playoffs? by @DXTraeger

Mark Messier at the NYSE Imitating Ray Shero at the Deadline by Buying & Selling Shares of Mark Messier-Brand Ego
Before we launch into the debate of which Penguin defenseman rides the pine for the post-season, a "How We Got Here" summary is important to understand the background and gravity of the situation facing both Mike Johnston and Jim Rutherford.

The legacy of the Ray Shero era as General Manager of Pittsburgh Penguins is best summarized via the following two bullet points:

  • -Shero wheeled-and-dealed like a stockbroker at the NHL trade deadline
  • -Shero coveted and hoarded puck-moving defensemen


These two points are further linked in that Shero consistently used his prized young defensemen as bargaining chips to bring in, via trades, the offensive talent that Shero seemingly went out of his way to not draft.

Then, when head coach Dan Byslma and Shero both parted ways with the Penguins this past off-season, the change in philosophy, coupled with a necessary change in personnel to fit said new philosophy, meant that players that had previously lived in the doghouse (see: Despres, Simon) now had a fair shake to crack the organization's NHL lineup.
Rumored Off-Season Home of Brooks Orpik

In order for this to happen, Bylsma favorite Deryk Engelland had to take his "talents" to Calgary.  MEANWHILE, back at the Batcave, the Washington Bandwagons signed both Brooks "Free Candy" Orpik and Matt "Holy Cow Did I Have a Career Year Or What?" Niskanen.

These departures left Pittsburgh both the roster space and salary cap to add former offensive/defensive standout Christian Ehrhoff to the blue line on a one year deal.

As such, the Penguins opened the 2014-15 campaign with the likes of Olli Maatta, Paul Martin, Christian Ehrhoff, and Kris Letang in the first two pairings, with Rob Scuderi, Robert Bortuzzo/Simon Despres bringing up the proverbial rear.

Olli Maatta's health woes ended his season early, and following new GM Jim Rutherford's dealings of both Simon Despres and Robert Bortuzzo for Ben Lovejoy and Ian Cole, and coupled with the emergence of Derrick Pouliot, the Penguins last trudged out a defensive corps that looked like this:

#1)  Martin - Letang
#2)  Pouliot - Lovejoy
#3)  Scuderi - Cole

Christian Ehrhoff and Olli Maatta are noticeably absent, and the Penguins still have prospects Brian Dumoulin and Scott Harrington honing their games in the minors.

With Ehrhoff gearing up to return to the Penguins, and with the playoffs lurking just beyond the horizon, the questions for head coach Mike Johnston are simple: which healthy defenseman is the odd-man out, and why?

Graph Measures Corsi, TOI Competition, and Zone Start %
To the left is a Corsi Breakdown (shot attempts for and against while the players are on the ice) of the Penguins' defensemen this season while 5-on-5 and in a close score situation (that is, the score is close and the game is not a blowout).

The players are bunched into two groups, which in a way helps the coaching staff assess where "the bar" has been set in terms of expectations and production, and the upper globule of Pittsburgh's top 4 defensemen (Ehrhoff, Martin, Letang, and Mattaa) means that the closer to that group a player is, the more likely he deserves to be on the ice.

Ben Lovejoy then, based on this graph, is a clear addition to the Penguins post-season lineup.

Bortuzzo is out of the organization, so he obviously he isn't an option for Johnston.

Harrington's position on the chart is a great example of how Corsi-only evaluations are flawed: while Harrington's Corsi rating, competition, and location of zone starts (offensive vs defensive zone) are all respectable, when you factor in his +/- rating of -10 (goals scored against while at even strength or while on the power-play), something is clearly off in terms of the way Harrington is playing at the NHL level.

By contrast, Derrick Pouliot has parlayed his superior offensive skills into a spot on the power-play and can clearly skate and stick-handle at a professional level.  He has a noted tendency to get too cute in his own end and would benefit from simply making a safe outlet pass rather than trying to beat opponents one-on-one, but he has the tools to succeed on the game's biggest stage.

So if the Penguins include both Lovejoy and Pouliot on their post-season rosters, the odd man out is then either Ian Cole or Rob Scuderi.

Yes, Rob Scuderi carries a hefty contract, but come playoff time, salaries are off the books and the only statistic that matters is wins.  Similarly, the Penguins traded away assets to acquire Ian Cole, and trading for a player that you never use in the playoffs reeks of poor management and is a knock against Jim Rutherford- a knock that Rutherford may be unwilling to publicly take.

Ian Cole has the ability to activate and provide Penguin forwards with a dangerous shot as a trailer coming down the slot.  Cole is also a superior skater to Scuderi and has better closing speed should he need to get himself back into position.

Scuderi has clearly lost a step, and never really had any offensive skillset to speak of.  To that end, Scuderi will never need to use closing speed because he is never going to pinch and risk being caught behind the play.

The skating of Scuderi will only be an issue as players enter the offensive zone with speed and attempt to go wide on him; otherwise, what "Scuds" brings to the table in his own end is perfectly passable, and as a two-time Cup winner, #4 has shown a willingness to do the dirty things- primarily block shots on the penalty kill- that help a team win championships.

So what do the Penguins do?  To a very real extent, the Penguins' opponents in the playoffs may very well dictate which player starts and which player sits.

If the Penguins have to face a skilled and fast-skating team like the New York Islanders, the need for a plodding stay-at-home defenseman becomes nil and the Penguins need fleet puck retrievers to move the puck out of the defensive end.  Such a situation heavily favors Ian Cole over Scuderi.

If Pittsburgh finds itself up against a tough, grinding team that relies on physicality to generate scoring, Rob Scuderi is a more suitable player.  Scuderi is a clear zero when it comes to the offensive side of hockey, but his ability to mark his man and afford goalie Marc-Andre Fleury a clear lane to make saves is key.

The Penguins could also surprise people and dress both Cole and Scuderi in lieu of the young Pouliot, but Pouliot's offensive talent is alarming: there were moments on this west coast trip where the blue-liner warranted legit comparisons to Paul Coffey (and I'm not being hyperbolic in the slightest).

One thing is for certain: for once, the Penguins have enough NHL-grade defensemen to trot out on the blue-line, and that hasn't been the case since the 2010 playoffs.  This is a team that should be able to compete on all cylinders.

**Corsi Chart and information compiled and copied from the tremendous folk at www.War-on-Ice.com**


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