When you don’t notice a defenseman on the ice, that’s a positive thing. That means they’re quietly being effective, making all the right plays and not getting caught out of position.
That’s exactly what Rob Scuderi has been doing for the Penguins all season long back on the blue line.
The 36-year-old has been the consummate stay-at-home, defensive defenseman and one of the anchors of the Penguins’ No. 2-ranked penalty kill, averaging 3:10 shorthanded minutes per game there.
Scuderi has also been a steady veteran presence in a group that’s dealt with a number of injuries to key guys, and has mentored both the young players that have been here since the start of the season along with the ones who have come up as well.
“He’s had a very good year for us,” head coach Mike Johnston said. “Rob is the type of guy who leads by example. Oftentimes when you’re watching the clips after a game, for our younger defensemen he’s a guy you can show and tell them, watch how he plays his gap. Watch how he closes on guys 1-on-1. His positioning is Grade-A all of the time. He’s always in the right spot. He’s very good defensively.”
That’s the Scuderi Pens fans know that wasn’t there for the second half of last season, his first one back with Pittsburgh after playing the previous four years in Los Angeles. After breaking his ankle on Oct. 26 vs. Toronto, Scuderi missed 29 straight games.
It was the first long-term injury of his career, and Scuderi is the first to admit he didn’t deal with it well. He struggled upon returning, especially mentally – saying that he felt out of sync and his reads, his footwork, just everything was off. Coming into training camp, Scuderi knew he needed to have a bounce-back year and focus on getting his game back to where it needed to be.
And so far, he’s done just that.
“I wasn’t looking to do anything new,” Scuderi said. “I was just looking to get back to the way I know I can play – being consistently good defensively, keeping the puck in safe areas, and trying to do what you can on the penalty kill. I’m certainly not counting my chickens before they hatch type of thing, but I’m pleased so far and that’s the outlook I’m taking.”
Scuderi hasn’t just gotten his game back – he’s helping the younger players with theirs, too. At the beginning of the season, Johnston paired Scuderi with 22-year-old defenseman Simon Despres, the Penguins’ 2009 first-round draft pick who had shown glimpses of his potential the previous couple of seasons but hadn’t been able to do it consistently.
That all changed this year, as Despres is having a breakout season next to Scuderi and credited the veteran defenseman for his guidance and support.
“I can’t say enough about how much he’s helped me,” Despres said. “He’s a two-time Stanley Cup winner. I listen to him a lot. He’s my mentor. We’re playing well together. He talks a lot and makes it easy for me. It’s going well so far.”
While Scuderi has been paired primarily with Despres, Johnston has also slotted him in next to players like Derrick Pouliot, the 8th-overall pick in the 2012 draft, so that he could provide stability to the 20-year-old in his NHL debut.
“I’ve been doing it for a while now,” Scuderi said. “In LA, every young guy we had called up or new person that came in, I usually played with them the first few games until they got a feeling for what we were trying to do in Los Angeles with the system there. I feel like the coaches trust me to do the same thing here. So I take it as a compliment and just try to play safe and be reliable.”
The goaltender is the one who benefits the most from Scuderi’s work. Though Marc-Andre Fleury is six years younger than Scuderi, the two of them broke into the NHL with Pittsburgh at the same time back in the 2003-04 season. He knows what Scuderi is capable of, and loves having a player like that in front of him.
Especially in big moments, say, with less than 20 seconds remaining in Game 6 of the 2009 Stanley Cup Final. Scuderi was alone in the crease with Fleury down and out and Detroit’s Johan Franzen at the top of the blue paint. Scuderi went down to make a save with his left shinpad before covering the puck with his leg to preserve Pittsburgh’s 2-1 win that forced Game 7.
In that deciding game, Scuderi – who accidentally referred to himself as ‘the piece’ instead of ‘a piece’ of the Penguins team that year and hasn’t been able to live the goof down since – was again in front of Fleury as Detroit pressed to tie it up with the clock running out – and again, helped him keep the puck out of the net.
“’Scuds’ has been around for a while,” Fleury said. “He’s got experience and he’s been consistent all season. We’ve had lots of injuries and stuff and he plays with different guys a bunch of the time, so he’s been very good, solid and it’s nice for a goalie to have a guy like that in front of you always thinking defense. So it’s nice.
“When he does his thing, just play simple, he’s very effective,” Fleury continued, adding with a smile, “He’s ‘The Piece,’ you know? He’s that guy in there doing his thing and he’s been doing it great so far.”