How to navigate the defensive conundrum

The Penguins have a lot of NHL defensemen. While they all aren’t bonafide superstars like Kris Letang and a healthy Justin Schultz, they’re league caliber defensemen nonetheless.

The list of names in no particular order: Letang, Schultz, Brian Dumoulin, Jamie Oleksiak, Chad Ruhwedel, Olli Maatta, Jack Johnson, Jusso Riikola and the newly-acquired Marcus Petterson.

That’s nine defensemen on an NHL contract. Currently, Schultz is hurt and is out until February at the earliest. That leaves eight defensemen on the roster. Typically, only six will play.

Since training camp ended, the Penguins have kept eight defensemen. They believed Riikola didn’t deserve the demotion following his stellar pre-season. Ruhwedel is the steady, prototypical seventh defensemen type.

After the Schultz injury, blue liners have rotated in and out of the lineup like clock work. It hasn’t been as seamless and that’s to be expected if there is so many lineup changes.

What should the Penguins do on the blue line?

To begin with, it makes the most sense to send Riikola to the AHL.

He is in his first season of North American professional hockey. He won’t be getting any better sitting in the press box. He needs time to play and he will have that in the AHL. The Penguins don’t have many heralded blue line prospect so the 24-year old won’t be blocking anyone.

Anyone else on that list must pass through waivers to be sent down. The Penguins won’t take any chances. They could shorten their press box to seven defensemen and add the extra forward.

This could of course open up the phone lines for a trade.

Petterson was compared to Dumoulin by general manager Jim Rutherford in the sense that he’s a shutdown defensemen. He isn’t quite at that level of Dumoulin yet but Rutherford believes he can get there with the right opportunity.

After trading Daniel Sprong, the Penguins will continue to give Petterson tons of chances to play.

Letang and Dumoulin won’t be going anywhere. Ruhwedel won’t net anything worth trading him in return. So, that leaves three palpable components that could be traded.

Starting with Oleksiak, the Penguins could opt to trade him despite re-signing him in the offseason. They did give him a three year, $6.4 million ($2.13 million AAV) deal. He is a mobile, 6’7″ bruiser who actually has some offensive upside. He could be sold off if not for some excess cap relief.

Johnson was signed in the offseason away from the Columbus Blue Jackets. He was castoff after him and Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella didn’t quite see eye-to-eye. He has four years remaining following this year at a dollar amount ($3.25 AAV) that could be seen as high. Don’t expect him to be traded to easily, if at all.

The real question mark is Maatta. He’s 24 years old and hasn’t truly lived up to the first round billing. He’s been solid and steady in spots for Pittsburgh but also has seen his fair share of struggles. He makes $4 million a year for four more seasons following this one.

A desperate team looking for a fresh start defenseman could offer up a high draft pick, something the Penguins desperately need, or even a top-nine scoring forward.

When Justin Schultz returns…

The Penguins will have some decisions to make. No rational NHL team carries nine defensemen.

Riikola will likely be in the AHL by then. If everyone is healthy, the Penguins will have nine NHL defensemen. It isn’t likely because Schultz is still so far away. But if in fact everyone is healthy, then what?

They would have to move someone and it likely would be one of the three listed above. They won’t trade Letang or Dumoulin. They won’t flip Petterson after acquiring him this season.

It’s also very likely the Penguins take their chances putting Ruhwedel through waivers and sneaking him to the minors. Riikola would still be an option if Ruhwedel would get claimed.

A fully-healthy Penguins defense corps in February could look something like this:

Dumoulin-Letang

Schultz-Oleksiak/Maatta

Johnson-Petterson

There’s no telling how the Penguins will manage things going forward. We all know the public itch Rutherford has to make this team better.

More moves likely loom over the coming weeks. No one is safe, especially this plethora of defensemen the Penguins suddenly have.

PHOTO: Marcus Petterson looks on during warmups at PPG Paints Arena on Tuesday night. Courtesy of Pittsburgh Post Gazette.

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