As big defensemen disappear, Penguins blue liners will rely on speed, positioning |

As big defensemen disappear, Penguins blue liners will rely on speed, positioning

Jack Johnson

Only 11 teams in the NHL gave up more goals than the Pittsburgh Penguins in the regular season last year, and none of them made the playoffs.

That’s a problem.

As part of an effort to fix it, general manager Jim Rutherford changed up his personnel mix on the blue line over the summer, adding Jack Johnson and Juuso Riikola in free agency.

Johnson is a physical specimen at 6-foot-1, 227 pounds, but he never will be confused with Scott Stevens.

Riikola has impressed with his willingness to muscle up on opponents in the preseason, but he’s no Ulf Samuelsson.

Forwards can’t score goals when they’re looking for their teeth between the hash marks. When the Penguins began reshaping their defense in the offseason, why didn’t they go get a couple of road graders who can clear out opponents from the front of the net?

The answer: That’s just not how the NHL works anymore.

Jamie Oleksiak led Penguins defensemen with 138 hits last season. That’s the lowest total for the team’s hits leader since the league started keeping track of the stat in 2005.

When the NHL Players’ Association conducted a poll of its members last season, Erik Karlsson was voted most difficult defenseman to play against. He hurts opponents on the scoreboard, not with cross-checks to the kidneys.

“I think there’s always going to be a place for size and physicality, but you just can’t be a liability at the same time,” Oleksiak said. “You have to be able to move the puck or be a decent skater or whatnot. I think we have a good mixture of that here.”

In the last decade or so, NHL GMs have begun to value speed and skill over size and strength among forwards. Rarely is a scorer relegated to a career in the minors because he’s too small these days. Often, a player gets stuck in the AHL because he’s too slow.

Over time, the personnel makeup on defense has begun to catch up. For example, the Penguins have chosen a 5-10 defenseman in each of the past two drafts.

If the league were filled with Patric Hornqvists up front, it might make sense for defenses to continue stocking up on bulldozers. But Hornqvist is a rare breed these days.

“The league’s reacting,” Johnson said. “I think Horny is definitely a product of the older school. He’s got a lot of bite to his game. I don’t think that’s something that should be lost in hockey at all. He can skate, he can make plays, he’s skilled.

“He can do everything that’s evolved into today’s game, and he brings that grit and toughness to his game as a forward.”

Johnson noted one other reason the big, physical defender has fallen out of favor in the NHL: Referees don’t allow players to take the liberties they used to.

“It used to be a lot of clutch and grab and bigger guys and a lot of big, huge defensemen who would try to clear out smaller forwards. It’s just not as easy to clear guys out,” Johnson said. “You don’t have the (Chris) Prongers around now.”

Despite those factors working against them, Penguins defensemen still will have to keep the area in front of Matt Murray clean if they hope to improve on their goals-against numbers from last season.

They’ll try to accomplish that in a number of ways, from dominating possession so the opponent doesn’t have the puck in the first place to using length and stick positioning to fend off forwards with finesse like Brian Dumoulin does.

“You can’t just let guys sit there and whack away at rebounds, whack away at your goalie,” Johnson said. “You still have to clear guys out in front of the net. I don’t think that part of the game is lost. I just think you have different styles and different types of players coming through.”

Follow the Pittsburgh Penguins all season long.

Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jonathan at [email protected] or via Twitter @BombulieTrib.

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