Defenseman Kris Letang (#58) of the Pittsburgh Penguins

Bolstered Blueline Paying Off for Penguins

Time will tell if Jim Rutherford’s trade-deadline additions of Ron Hainsey and Mark Streit to the Penguins’ blueline will help Pittsburgh defend the Stanley Cup. But the acquisitions are already paying dividends for a club whose depleted defense may have cause for greater concern.

Hainsey, 35, joined the Penguins from the Carolina Hurricanes Feb. 23 in exchange for a second-round draft pick in 2017 and minor-league forward Danny Kristo. Streit, 39, is well-known to the Penguins from his eight seasons with divisional rivals New York Islanders and Philadelphia Flyers. The latter rivalry is so fierce, in fact, that Rutherford avoided dealing directly with the Flyers on March 1, acquiring Streit as a flip from the Tampa Bay Lightning for a 2018 fourth-rounder.

The two defensemen both bring veteran experience to their new club, but with very different skill sets.

Streit brings the kind of puck-moving skills the Penguins rely on to jump-start their offense. He scored the game-winning goal and helped set up one on the power play Friday as the Penguins went 2-for-3 with the man-advantage and beat the Lightning, 5-2.

“The coaches told me, ‘Be active; jump in if you see the moment,’ so I tried to do that,” Streit said. “A lot of the forwards see the ice so well that I try to get open for them. It’s not working all the time but I think it creates offense; it helps out the forwards. You’ve just got to do it in a smart way.”

Mission accomplished, said head coach Mike Sullivan, who praised Streit’s hockey sense.

“He’s a real smart player,” Sullivan said. “He’s very positionally sound; you can tell he’s played a lot of years in the league. Because of that, I think his energy is spent in an efficient matter. He knows when to join the rush; he knows when to make a simple play. And I think he’s going to give us a whole other look on the power play that gives us other options. I think he’s going to bring a lot to our team.”

Hainsey is a workhorse who’s regularly leading his new club in ice time, like the 25:07 he played Friday versus Tampa, and on the penalty kill, like the 6:48 he logged Sunday in a 4-3 comeback win over the Buffalo Sabres.

“Ron brings a different element to our defense corps,” Sullivan said. “He’s a steady, stay-at-home defenseman. He’s mobile. He’s got good size. He’s got a long reach. He’s hard to play against. He’s a real good penalty-killer, so he adds that dimension, and I think that’s an element we really needed. It takes some pressure off our other guys killing penalties.”

The additions help compensate for long-term injuries to defensemen Trevor Daley and Olli Maatta, both of whom could be back before the postseason. And their special-team credentials in particular help compensate for the loss of Kris Letang, the team’s best defenseman and arguably its most important player.

Letang last played Feb. 21 in Carolina. He skated with no contact Feb. 28, but otherwise has been on the shelf, and will remain there indefinitely, with what the Penguins are calling a vague “upper-body injury.”

“It’s a little bit more complicated than that,” Sullivan said. “I wouldn’t say he’s day-to-day at this point. We’re hopeful that it’s nothing long-term.”

Letang’s injury history includes a number of concussions. He also suffered a stroke three years ago, at age 26. He was found to have a hole in his heart, but doctors said they didn’t believe surgery was necessary at that time.

With 34 points in just 41 games played, the Penguins miss Letang’s offense – though Justin Schultz continues to step up with a career year, ranking No. 5 among NHL defensemen with 44 points in 61 games. They also miss Letang’s ability to log big minutes. He’s No. 7 in the NHL with an average of 25:31 per game played, but regularly pushes 30.

“Both of these [new] guys give us the ability to spread the minutes a little bit better, so we don’t overtax some of the guys we’re using,” Sullivan said. “And I think that’s going to allow all of them to have more success.”

Keeping those players fresh so that they can make good decisions is important for the Penguins, who look at their defense corps as the engine that drives the team.

“They help you get out of the end zone. Whether you can get out clean with possession versus chasing it is a big difference,” Sullivan said. “I think, a lot of times, they feed the transition game for you. They’re able to make that first pass, that quick up, that gives our forwards an opportunity to maybe create a numbers situation where they might get an odd-man rush or a competitive advantage.

“I think the defense corps, by nature of the position, is so important to all aspects of the game, and I think Mark and Ron bring a lot to the table. We really like what we’ve seen from these guys so far. They’ve fit right in with our group, and I think they’re excited to be Penguins. They see the type of team we have and the opportunity in front of us, and they’re excited to be a part of it.”