The Pittsburgh Penguins are in the midst of a defensive overhaul this off-season. After parting with John Marino and Mike Matheson, the Penguins brought in veterans Jeff Petry and Jan Rutta. They also acquired youngster Ty Smith to revitalize the bottom two pairings on defense.
As the dust settles from these moves, the Penguins have nine players vying for six spots on defense. The most exciting competition is between the two youngest defensemen, PO Joseph and Ty Smith, for the third pairing left-side defenseman.
The Penguins have waited since the summer of 2019 for prospect PO Joseph to graduate to the NHL level. As a former first-round pick and the return for Phil Kessel, Joseph has likely suffered from lofty expectations since he arrived in Pittsburgh. Whether or not he is ready to be a full-time NHL defenseman is unclear, but his tools and upside are crystal clear.
Standing at 6'2 and just under 200 pounds, Joseph has the ideal size for this new look Penguins defense. But it isn't his size that stands out the most. It's his fluidity and smooth skating with the puck. Joseph is a player who likes to get the puck forward and join the rush.
In his brief auditions over the past two seasons Joseph has put up five points over 20 games. At his best, Joseph displayed an ability to join the rush and produce on both ends of the ice.
Where Joseph struggled for the Penguins was his decision-making. There were times over his brief stints with the NHL club where the play seemed to unfold a moment too quick for him. His penchant for joining the offense also caused him to struggle to get back on defense.
Another concern that the Penguins noticed was the need for Joseph to add strength and muscle to his frame. Even as a prospect, a knock on him was how thin he was. The skill and IQ were undeniable, but there were moments where he was out-maneuvered by a more physical player.
Management has stressed the need for the Penguin's defense to be sturdier and more physical on the back end. With Joseph's primary weakness being his physicality, it's fair to wonder if Joseph can meet the standard the Penguins have set this off-season. It's safe to assume that some, if not all, of these concerns, can be remedied by more NHL experience.
Another first round pick, Ty Smith, is an exciting addition to the Penguins roster. Recently acquired for John Marino, Smith instantly becomes the best young defenseman in the system besides Joseph. Smith comes highly touted for being a quick, puck-moving defenseman. Standing in at 5'11 and 180 pounds, he is part of the new generation of defensemen that are undersized but can skate circles around the competition.
Despite being one year younger, Smith has almost 100 more NHL games on his resume. He dominated the WHL after his draft year and burst onto the NHL level when he made the New Jersey Devils roster for the 2020-2021 season. In the shortened season, Smith put up 23 (2-21) points in 48 games, good enough to lead all NHL rookie defensemen. He followed that up with a disappointing sophomore season, scoring only 20 (5-15) points over 66 games.
The asset the Penguins are most excited about regarding Smith is his skating ability. He skates with confidence and purpose with the puck on his stick and has an excellent first pass. If he were on the third pairing, he would bring speed and an offensive threat.
He would likely see some time on the second power play unit alongside Jeff Petry. With Brian Dumoulin and Marcus Pettersson potentially being the two defensemen ahead of him, Smith is easily the most offensive player of the left-side defense.
The biggest concern with Smith is the defensive part of his game. This past season was a massive regression for Smith, who looked overmatched and overwhelmed on the defensive end. He never got a chance to utilize his strengths, which seemed to affect his confidence.
The Penguins hope the change of scenery for the 22-year-old can help him re-connect with the smooth-skating and confident rookie he was. Smith, similar to Joseph, has concerns about his physicality and defensive game that may push him out of the lineup, but giving him a chance to work it out in the NHL is likely the best option.
Who is the choice?
So who will the Penguins have in their opening night roster? One of the veterans, Chad Ruhwedel or Mark Friedman, could fight their way into the final spot. However, it seems like a two horse race between the young defenseman. Right now, the edge has to go to Smith. Despite Joseph being more familiar with Coach Sullivan's system, the potential upside Smith brings to the lineup is higher.
If Smith can find his form from 2020-2021, the Penguins will have three defensemen in their lineup that are legitimate offensive threats and producers. That might be too hard for Sullivan to pass up. What is known for sure, the training camp battle for the bottom pairing defensemen will be intense and entertaining.
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