A seventh defenseman in hockey is a lot like a backup quarterback in football. You may see hardly any action at all. You may play a vast majority of the games if your team suffers a horrible injury at the position. For Chad Ruhwedel, this uncertainty hasn’t bothered him in the least.
After Ian Cole took that gruesome puck to the mouth, Ruhwedel was inserted into the lineup as the team needed reinforcements on defense. He played a few games and just as Cole was ready to come back and Ruhwedel was bound to depart back to the press box, Matt Hunwick was diagnosed with a concussion.
Ruhwedel has played in seven contests this season. He has an assist and is even on the year. To the common eye, those stats are below average. To the hockey eye, those stats mean little if you watch him play.
In hockey, a defensemen’s job is to shut down his opponent from getting quality chances on the goaltender. Ruhwedel does just that. They’re also expected to pitch in offensively. Ruhwedel’s numbers are not eye popping. But, he doesn’t hold on to the puck too long and always seems to make the right decision.
In the past two games, Ruhwedel has made some really quality passes.
In the blowout against Tampa Bay Saturday night, Ruhwedel made a beautiful pass from his zone all the way up to Bryan Rust who got in alone on Andrei Vasilevskiy but couldn’t finish. Tuesday night in the big overtime victory against Edmonton, Ruhwedel was being closed in on by two defenders and pushed the puck up to Phil Kessel who found Evgeni Malkin on a two-on-one who went back to Kessel and couldn’t bury the puck to add an assist to Ruhwedel’s totals.
As I’m watching Ruhwedel, it’s easy to see that confidence exudes from him. He isn’t timid like former Penguins’ defenseman Derrick Pouliot. He makes a decision and sticks to it. There’s no second guessing. He’s right pretty much every time, too.
He’s a guy who has high offensive instincts. His scoring totals don’t show that with only 13 points in 74 games, but he has a “get the puck on net” mentality. That is something head coach Mike Sullivan highly respects.
Last season was a real turning point for Ruhwedel. In 34 games, Ruhwedel had his only two career goals and totaled 10 points. He was given the opportunity after a myriad of injuries. He turned it into a solidified spot on the Penguins roster and a two year extension at an AAV of $650,000. That’s a steal for the Penguins.
The 27-year old’s 34 games last season were a career high. He’s never been given a real shot at the NHL level and was a perennial AHL top-pair defenseman in his Buffalo days.
Justin Schultz was concussed on Tuesday night which is a bad sign for the Penguins. It’s music to Ruhwedel’s ears. Hunwick began skating Tuesday morning and could return as soon as Thursday if all goes well. One would expect Schultz to at least miss Thursday.
I’d go as far as saying that I’d like to see Ruhwedel be a top-six defenseman on the team. I wasn’t super impressed with Hunwick’s play in his couple games with the Penguins. Of course, that means virtually nothing with the small sample size he’s had.
There is value to be had in Ruhwedel, however, and if the Penguins feel he can outperform a guy like Hunwick, they could move him later. They could always use the cap relief especially after acquiring Riley Sheahan and his $2.075 million contract. Hunwick makes $2.250 million.
This is no suggestion that he’ll beat out Hunwick at any point in the year. It is merely just a point the Penguins may consider. Ruhwedel is a potential top-6 defenseman who happens to have the “seventh defenseman” role on a deep defense. If they do get healthy on defense and Ruhwedel becomes a press box guy again, don’t be shocked if they sprinkle him in to givestruggling defensemen a breather.