2023 Pittsburgh Penguins Offseason Preview, Part 3: The Defense

The one aspect of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ roster this offseason that potentially could use the least fiddling with is the defense. There are two departing unrestricted free agents: Dmitry Kulikov, who, like his fellow trade deadline acquisition Nick Bonino, was limited to just six games due to an injury; and Brian Dumoulin, who spent much of his contract year looking abysmal before slowly rounding back into better, if not ideal, form as the season wore on. Even with those two potential departures, the depth chart looks relatively unharmed, at least on paper: on the right side they have Kris Letang, Jeff Petry, and Chad Ruhwedel, while on the left they have Marcus Pettersson, Pierre-Olivier Joseph, and Jan Ruuta. As of now Mark Friedman is #7 on the chart while Ty Smith, acquired from New Jersey in the John Marino trade that has aged like milk (another Ron Hextall hit), is unsigned as his entry-level contract has expired. The point is, Kyle Dubas could possibly leave the blueline well enough alone, and that might be satisfactory.

Leave my defence alone … ?

Much of this past season was spent watching head coach Mike Sullivan churn the pairings as he struggled to find consistency with his blueliners. Much of that had to do with injuries: Pettersson missed 14 games, Letang missed 18 games, Petry 21, Ruuta 26. (While recovering from an injury, Letang also had to deal with the death of his father.) Some of these injury lay-offs coincided, so at one point around midseason the Penguins were without Letang, Petry, and Pettersson, while Petry, Pettersson, Ruuta, and Kulikov were all out of the lineup at the same time towards the end of the season. Indeed, the Penguins are no strangers to injuries over the years, but the problems start when you have several guys go out at the same time. Pittsburgh’s depth across the board has diminished to the point where they don’t have a lot of guys who can pick up the slack left by the absence of key players, and certainly not for extended periods such as they saw in 2022-23.

Additionally the Penguins had the twin challenges of the underproduction of Dumoulin and Petry. Last offseason, Petry (along with Ryan Poehling) was brought in from Montreal in exchange for Mike Matheson and a mid-round draft pick, and really did not impress in his first season. He showed sparks of positivity but at 35 years old (turning 36 in December) I’m not sure how much anyone can expect out of him. I suspect Hextall et al. saw how well he did for Montreal in their Cinderella playoff season, then the precipitous drop-off in production the following season (which saw Montreal sink like a rock to the bottom of the League), and thought, “Here’s a guy who just needs a change of scenery, and he sneakily produce like a first-pairing defenseman on our second line!” That, like most of Hextall’s acquisitions, did not work out like he thought it would in his head, and now the Penguins have to make do with a guy making $6.25M/year for the next two years, who is also starting to show a concerning trend of health issues over the last couple of seasons.

“Oooooo Jeff”

Then there is Dumoulin. After years of being a stalwart defensive presence, while last season was a career-best year for him offensively, it was probably a career-worst year defensively which obviously matters the most for a guy who typically plays a defensive role. Unlike in previous seasons, he had no substantial portions where he was a net-positive producer and in fact was substantially net-negative for large chunks of the season. When it became clear early in the season that he was not in the same form that he had been in previous years, Sullivan started shuffling him around with other defensemen, finding limited success with Petry and much less so with Ruuta, but none of the pairings stuck because of the injuries afflicting the lineup. At the end of it all Dumoulin ended up playing the most with Letang, but the duo never looked the same as it had in the glory days of the prior seven years.

If there is some silver lining here, it’s that Dumoulin is “only” turning 32 in September; if his decline last year was a fluke, then he still has a good chunk of time left to be a productive defenseman. While there is an opportunity to go younger internally with Joseph continuing to mature and Smith (if re-signed) to also step up to the NHL level, Dumoulin could still be useful to Pittsburgh for a couple years or so. His salary demands would probably be up from the $4.1M/yr he was making, and I can see him returning for a slight raise, maybe up to $4.5M on a short term? I’m no good at predicting contracts, but until we know for sure how Joseph and possibly Smith will perform, I don’t know if it’s safe to let Dumoulin walk without knowing for certain that he is actually washed up.

Consequently, the free agent market for left-handed defensemen is not too bad. The three most productive players from last year who are on the market are all about the same age as Dumoulin: Erik Gustafsson had a dubious career year between Washington and Toronto (ding); Shayne Gostisbehere, who had been with Arizona before being a trade deadline acquisition by Carolina, is still not as productive as he was in his best years with Philadelphia; and Dmitry Orlov, who (like Gostisbehere) made more money and was more productive from an offensive standpoint than Dumoulin last season. I don’t think there’s much sense in replacing Dumoulin with any of those guys, as their production last season was substantially more than Dumoulin’s and they will likely fetch a higher salary than Dumoulin would get because of that. (Gustafsson was oddly quite cheap, at only $800k/year, but he also played more of a third-pairing role.) Perhaps a better option for a top-four replacement would be someone like Vladislav Gavrikov (oops he was just re-signed for 2 years, $5.875M/year) or Ryan Graves: they are both a few years younger than Dumoulin, filled more or less similar roles with their prior teams (Los Angeles and New Jersey, respectively), and would likely cost about the same as Dumoulin. (Will Pittsburgh fans revolt over having a Graves playing for their team?)

The bottom line is that Kyle Dubas has somewhat more and better options as far as how to deal with Dumoulin’s potential departure than he does with regards to Jarry and the forwards. It’s possible that Dumoulin sticks around, but what seems more likely is that Dubas bets on a younger player who can fit his role just the same, whether it is internally or externally. Beyond that, your guess is as good as mine as to whether he’ll be able to finagle any upgrades from there.