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Sorting Out the Battle for the Open Penguins Blue Line Spots

Who will play on the Pittsburgh Penguins third defense pairing to start the season?

The Pittsburgh Penguins first-round loss to the Rangers still stings for many people and likely will until they finally hit the ice for the first regular season game and officially put it in the rearview mirror. They have made a litany of moves since that game to try and improve the roster and push them closer to contending for Lord Stanley’s Cup.

Penguins general manager Ron Hextall has wanted to see his team play with more of an edge since he took over. They have tried in certain situations, but they haven’t had any players with that mentality or size on the roster.

Hextall went out and acquired a few of those pieces this off-season.

Now, the Penguins have an abundance of NHL defensemen, limited roster spots to keep them all, and even less in the way of cap space. They had the highest salary figure devoted to defensemen in the entire NHL last season. They will be close to the top, if not number one again, in 2022-23.

Kris Letang, Brian Dumoulin, Jeff Petry, and Marcus Pettersson have their spots fairly locked up. That leaves five other defensemen with the opportunity to snatch one of the final two spots in the top-six and likely another spot as the seventh defenseman.

Recently acquired college free-agent defenseman and former fourth-round pick by the Philadelphia Flyers, Jack St. Ivany, will not be included in this list.

Jan Rutta

Ht: 6’3”, Wt: 204 lbs., Age: 32, Exp: 6 years

When Penguins fans ask for “toughness” from their players, too many get caught up in the fact that they don’t throw hits. But the Penguins need toughness in the way of their defenseman not being moved by their opponent so easily. The Penguins added just that when they signed Jan Rutta to a multi-year deal.

Rutta is a big body that will plant himself in front of the net on the penalty kill. He will stand his ground better than John Marino and Marcus Pettersson were able to last season. He had 90:09 of penalty kill time last season and blocked 11 shots on the penalty kill.

The 32-year-old had the second best offensive season of his career in 2021-22’ with three goals and 18 points. He played 76 games for a Lightning team that made the Cup Finals for a third consecutive year, with Rutta playing an integral role on all three of those teams.

Fresh off signing a three-year contract, along with the need for his type of player, Rutta likely has a leg up on one of the two open spots on the Penguins’ blue line.

Mark Friedman

Ht: 5’11”, Wt: 185 lbs., Age: 26, Exp: 4 years

Hextall likes Friedman and rewarded him with a two-year extension in the offseason. Friedman played for Hextall in Philadelphia and was one of the first players Hextall brought in when he took over. Friedman is a feisty defenseman that gets under the skin of the opposing team and seems very well-liked amongst his teammates. He was given the most extended look of his career last season and did well for himself.

He only played 26 games last season but seems like a guy who won’t miss much of a beat as a plug-and-play defenseman.

Friedman’s best way onto this team will be as the seventh defenseman, a competition in which he will have to win against…

Chad Ruhwedel

Ht: 5’11”, Wt: 191 lbs., Age: 32, Exp: 10 years

If there is anyone who has overcome the odds and carved out a magnificent career for themselves, it is Chad Ruhwedel.

Ruhwedel, an undrafted free agent, will never be the biggest or most-talented defenseman in any locker room. However, he has been one of the steadier presences in the lineup since he arrived in Pittsburgh. Did you know he was part of both Stanley Cup teams? Yeah, it still shocks me every time I hear that.

Ruhwedel won’t be a guy that the Penguins trade and recover enough value to compensate for his loss, so he won’t likely be moved. He is the favorite to win the seventh job and be the first guy to fill in when an injury happens. He’s the definition of reliable.

Ty Smith

Ht: 5’11”, Wt: 180 lbs., Age: 22, Exp: 2 years

The Penguins sent John Marino packing to the New Jersey Devils after two straight seasons of his play regressing following his stellar rookie season. In return, they acquired Smith, a 22-year-old offensive-minded defenseman, much like Marino. The hope is that the Penguins not only got a younger player but a better player in the deal.

Smith made the all-rookie team and finished seventh in the Calder voting in 2020-21’. He followed that up with a slightly less impressive second season but still an effective one for a Devils team that feels very close to contending.

He averaged 17:30 of ice time per game last season and played some time on the Devils’ power play. With Mike Matheson gone, some extra power play time could open up. Petry seems likely to assume those duties, but underperformance or injury could open the door for Smith.

Smith’s only problem heading into the 2022-23 season is that he does not have to pass through waivers if he gets assigned to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. That means he’ll probably end up beginning the season in WBS due to the circumstances.

Pierre-Olivier Joseph

Ht: 6’2”, Wt: 185 lbs., Age: 23, Exp: 2 years

Smith’s loss will be Joseph’s gain as Joseph should finally get his first real chance at extended playing time in the NHL to open the year.

Joseph has been plugging away in WBS the last few seasons after being brought over in the Phil Kessel trade. His play hasn’t been enough to supplant any defenseman in front of him, so he will have to prove his worth this season.

Joseph is a former first-round selection of the Arizona Coyotes and has the pedigree to be a solid NHL defenseman. He has the speed and mobility to be an effective NHL defenseman, but he needs to be better in his own zone and get stronger both on and away from the puck. Assuming he’s worked on that in the AHL, Joseph could be an added weapon of youth that the Penguins didn’t know they needed.

This likely means the top six defensemen to start the season, barring injuries, will be Letang, Dumoulin, Petry, Pettersson, Rutta, and Joseph, which leaves Friedman and Ruhwedel to battle for the seventh spot. If that is the case, Smith heads to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton to continue to improve on his own game.

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