The Pens’ blue line certainly looks a lot different than it did heading into last season.
That’s because apart from Kris Letang and Rob Scuderi, none of the other guys played here much last year – the first under head coach Mike Johnston. Olli Maatta missed all but 20 games as he dealt with numerous health issues. Ian Cole and Ben Lovejoy joined the team at the trade deadline. Brian Dumoulin was primarily in Pittsburgh during the postseason.
In addition, none of those players have spent significant time together on a pair at any point.
But that being said, assistant coach Gary Agnew – who’s in charge of the defense – likes what he’s seen from that group throughout training camp, and believes they’re only going to get better as they get comfortable with both each other and the systems.
“I think they’re basically a group of guys that are going to find their identity, but they’re what we’re looking for in terms of speed and puck moving and defending,” Agnew said. “We don’t have a big mean defenseman. But we’ve got a bunch of guys that, for me right now, are the way the NHL’s gone – the prototypical defenseman. They can defend, they can join the rush. They’re just a group of guys that are good defenders.”
Overall, the mindset for this group is to be aggressive in their play but with the right decision-making. And while it’s a tricky balance to strike, Agnew said that will improve with time.
“Those things are going to get better and better as we move along because as you know, none of them played here last year very much,” he explained. “So it’s a work in progress. But it’s been good, I think.”
The pairs the Pens have been practicing with for the last few days are the ones they opened the season with on Thursday in Dallas. Letang will play with Cole, Maatta will skate with Lovejoy and Scuderi will be with Dumoulin.
The Pens did a lot of experimenting before coming up with these pairs. It wasn’t about the old-school mentality of having one puck mover and one stay-at-home guy on each duo – it was more about putting guys together who had chemistry and whose play would complement each other.
And while there isn’t technically a “shutdown” pair like the Pens had with Letang and Paul Martin last year, overall Agnew feels the group has good balance and that each duo can defend well. So right now, he feels comfortable when it comes to matchups.
“The good teams have two good lines,” Agnew said. “So whether they face (Tyler) Seguin and (Jamie) Benn or they face (Jason) Spezza and (Ales) Hemsky, it’s two good lines. So they’re going to have to play. Do we have the Martin-Letang shutdown pair? No. But I like the balance. … At the outset, there’s a pretty good chance we’re going to roll three sets of D against their four set lines and see where it goes.”
Currently, the Pens are keeping eight defensemen on their roster. Johnston likes the depth it gives them for practice and said that having four lines and four pairs of defensemen is an advantage. Right now, that fourth pair consists of a couple young guys: 22-year-old Adam Clendening and 24-year-old Tim Erixon.
“They both fit the mold,” Agnew said. “Clendening’s a good puck mover, he’s been well taught. He’s got great pro experience in Chicago’s organization. You can tell that he does the details properly, he does a lot of things good.”
When it comes to Erixon, Agnew said it’s a matter of getting used to the reads here as the Swede is playing for his sixth NHL team in the last four years.
“For him, it’s a matter of getting confident,” Agnew said. “That if I go here, someone’s got me if something happens. I think he’s done well in that area. He’s a good guy, good team guy, so I think they both fit in nicely there.”