The Pittsburgh Penguins once boasted the finest young crop of young defensive prospects in the NHL. Kris Letang had cemented himself among the top defenders in the league, Olli Maatta had surprised all and earned a regular spot right out of the gate. Then there was the stock of talent waiting in the wings – Simon Despres, Derrick Pouliot, Scott Harrington, Brian Dumoulin, and Philip Samuelsson.
Fast forward to the current NHL season and only two of those young talents remain. With Despres, Harrington, and Samuelsson now suiting up for opposing clubs, Pittsburgh’s defensive promise was reduced to just Dumoulin and Pouliot.
After appearing in 34 games for the Penguins last season, it was widely assumed that Pouliot would not only start at the NHL level in 2015-16, but would rise to become one of Pittsburgh’s more important pieces. That wasn’t exactly how things panned out, however. The 21-year-old opened the season with the club’s AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, and has remained there since.
On the other hand, 24-year-old Dumoulin has put together a surprisingly strong stint in the big league this season, earning a permanent spot in the Penguins’ rotation. Dumoulin is one of only three rearguards who have appeared in all 28 games for the Penguins in 2015-16, and while his numbers have certainly not been spectacular (he has seven assists in that span), the young blue-liner’s recent play has turned some heads.
Despite having his youth and inexperience exposed at times during recent stints at the NHL level, Dumoulin has looked quite solid in 2015-16. Over Pittsburgh’s past five games, he’s risen to another level, tallying five points over that stretch.
To be clear, Dumoulin hasn’t miraculously grown into a point-per-game player over the last couple weeks, and he’ll obviously regress back to a limited offensive role quite soon. Nonetheless, the underlying reason for the uptick in production remains essential. After finding a consistent role on Pittsburgh’s blue-line, Dumoulin has started to look much more confident, utilizing his speed and his natural offensive instincts to have a consistent impact.
Plays like the following illustrate this:
Whereas Dumoulin previously looked tentative at times, his current comfort level has him trying to utilize the full potential of his skill. Here he breaks into the Colorado Avalanche’s zone – bypassing the chance to dish to Sidney Crosby or Daniel Sprong – and gets behind Colorado’s defense to take the puck to the net. He loses an edge and isn’t able to finish the play off, but Dumoulin isn’t afraid to remain planted in the slot once he gets back to his feet, nearly deflecting a point-shot into the cage. He finished the game with a primary assist on Pittsburgh’s final goal, to go with two hits, a block, and a plus-two rating as the Penguins won 4–2.
Dumoulin’s finest offensive performance this season came in Pittsburgh’s 5–3 loss to the Los Angeles Kings on December 5. Skating a career-high 22:58 minutes in the contest, Dumoulin got two assists on the board. The second of those two points came on the Penguins’ final goal – which nearly closed the gap before L.A.’s Milan Lucic scored an empty-netter to ice the game – as Dumoulin fired a perfectly-placed shot/pass onto the stick of Crosby, who redirected the puck up into the cage.
While the recent string of offense is nice, it’s Dumoulin’s overall solid play this season that has kept him in the lineup all year long. The rookie defender has been one of Pittsburgh’s strongest blue-liners in regards to possession this season, holding the second-best Corsi For percentage mark among all Penguins defensemen who have suited up for the majority of the team’s games.
His improved defensive play has also earned him a key shutdown role on the team. He and partner Ben Lovejoy lead the Penguins’ blue-line in defensive zone starts, seeing over 60 percent of their shifts start in their own end. The result has been Dumoulin ranking first among all Penguins defenders in terms of Goals Allowed per 60 minutes, as he holds a mark of just 1.5.
That key defensive role is especially notable considering the Penguins are currently ranked eighth in the league in goals against per game, having allowed the third-least total goals against this season (65).
Dumoulin is undoubtedly still a work in progress, and far from being a star, but it’s clear the young rearguard has rounded into a capable NHL calibre talent. This couldn’t have come at a better time for Pittsburgh.
As the club’s stock of blue-line youth was depleted in recent years, so too was the majority of their veteran talent. Former standouts Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik both left town for Washington. Veteran Paul Martin signed with San Jose. After a short stint in Pittsburgh marred by injuries, Christian Ehrhoff joined the Kings.
What remained was a blue-line that has been extremely underwhelming this season. The Penguins’ top two talents, Kris Letang and Olli Maatta, have both dealt with injury issues already – and Letang, the team’s number-one option, has rarely looked like himself. Past them, the club has been trying to get by with a haphazard assortment of extra pieces like Ian Cole, Rob Scuderi, and David Warsofsky.
The team’s inadequacy finally culminated in the firing of head coach Mike Johnston, whose system relied on a talented, mobile blue-line that the Penguins simply haven’t had this season. With former AHL bench boss Mike Sullivan taking the reins, it seems the Penguins’ offense could find life soon enough, with the emphasis to be placed back onto the creativity of the team’s top offensive stars.
While Sullivan will likely shuffle the deck in regards to the Penguins’ mediocre defensive corps, Dumoulin figures to remain a key part of the team’s plans moving forward, as he’s made clear the fact that he can be relied upon in a regular role at this level. Playing 20 minutes a night may be pushing it, but the 24-year-old’s true talent has started to emerge as he’s become more comfortable in the NHL, meaning an extended stay on the club’s second pairing could very well turn into a long-term, successful assignment.