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Blue Line Buzz: Flick of the Risto

Jason Chen

Consistently fires muffins. Blue Line Buzz on Mondays, Daily Puck and DFS on Sundays.

Look at the stats for Penguins defensemen and there’s one clear problem: they’re not good enough. With Kris Letang sitting at just one goal and a minus-14 rating, and no other blueliner averaging more than 20 minutes a game, the entire group has been very underwhelming. Of course, this is just part of a bigger set of problems the Penguins had been facing before firing head coach Mike Johnston on Saturday.

Johnston leaves Pittsburgh with a 58-37-15 record; previous head coach Dan Bylsma was fired after going 51-24-7 in his final season before bowing out in the second round of the playoffs. Bylsma had a better record, but the bar is set pretty high in Pittsburgh, and anything short of a Stanley Cup appearance is deemed a disappointment. It is worth noting, however, that the Penguins looked very much like a different team under Johnston. They were a little too passive and a little too concerned with limiting goals than scoring them, which should still be the team’s strength.

What’s most glaring, however, is Johnston’s work with the defense, something that should’ve been constantly improving. When Johnston really made a name for himself with WHL Portland from 2008-14, the Winterhawks rivaled the Kelowna Rockets as a factory of defensemen, producing Joe Morrow, Derrick Pouliot, Tyler Wotherspoon and Seth Jones – all of whom are making or will make a difference in the pros. Pouliot in particular didn’t find as much success under Johnston with the Pens as he did with the Winterhawks, and has spent the entire season in the AHL so far.

Olli Maatta remains a bright spot, but after being limited to just 20 games last season, he’s lost precious development time, and he’s only recently returned from yet another injury. But the rest of the crew, including puck movers Brian Dumoulin and Adam Clendening, has failed to make much of an impact. Sure, the Penguins’ defense is generating a lot of shots on net, mostly thanks to Letang, but outside of him and Maatta’s recent stretch, there’s not much to speak of.

Ideally, these young defensemen are the ones who should be generating speed from the back end and pushing the puck up to Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel – but Dumoulin, Clendening and Ian Cole have combined for just 12 assists in 63 games combined. These are the players that new head coach Mike Sullivan will have to work with, however, since Jim Rutherford so hastily traded away Philip Samuelsson, Scott Harrington and Simon Despres. The bright side is that Sullivan was a long-time assistant to John Tortorella, whose teams generally fare well on defense.

It’ll be interesting to see how Sullivan spreads the ice time around in his first test, a big one against Washington on Monday. That’s something to pay close attention to as Sullivan familiarizes himself with the team with ever-mounting pressure, both from management and himself, as he tries to establish himself as an NHL-caliber head coach. With Letang out for the next two weeks, if there was ever a time for the rookies to step up, it’s now.

Last week’s top five performers:

Justin Faulk, CAR – The Hurricanes are winners in four of their last five games and they’ve been having no trouble scoring goals; Faulk’s led the way with four goals and six points from the blue line in the last four games. Crazy as it seems, Carolina’s only six points out of a playoff spot.

Rasmus Ristolainen, BUF – His first career hat trick unfortunately came in a losing cause against Calgary, but the young Finnish defenseman now has seven goals and 22 points on the season, placing him in the league’s top 10. The Sabres snapped a three-game losing streak with a 2-1 win over the Kings on Saturday, with Ristolainen playing 27:30.

Dan Boyle, NYR – What happened to the bit about Alain Vigneault resting him to keep him fresh? The grizzled veteran has now played in seven straight games, including a pair of back-to-backs, and though the Rangers have lost three straight and five of their past six, Boyle’s doing what’s expected of him, notching two goals and two assists this past week.

Niklas Hjalmarsson, CHI – Hjalmarsson led all defenseman with a plus-6 rating this past week and also chipped in with four helpers. Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook may get the spotlight, but Hjalmarsson’s been the ever-dependable No. 3, giving the Blackhawks 21 minutes of solid hockey every night.

Drew Doughty, LA – At the rate Darryl Sutter is playing Doughty, you have to wonder whether he has enough energy to crawl into an ice tub at the end of the game. Saturday’s 2-1 loss to Buffalo was the first time in six games Doughty didn’t play at least 30 minutes, as he skated “just” 26:42. Thirty friggin’ minutes. For five straight games. That’s half the damn game! The race to see which defenseman ends up leading the league in ice time will be fun to watch. It’s a three-way race between Doughty, Ryan Suter and Erik Karlsson again this year.

Top five trending up:

Francois Beauchemin, COL – He’s back! After a hot start with five assists in his first two games this year, Beauchemin cooled off considerably, but recently came back to life with points in back-to-back games, the first time he’s done so since the beginning of November. The Avs are coming off impressive road wins over Nashville and St. Louis. Beauchemin has seen his minutes spike recently, as Patrick Roy’s leaning on him in close games – he’s sitting on his highest average ice time since 2011-12.

David Rundblad, CHI – Perhaps the nicest thing about Rundblad’s career so far is that he gets to play again. The 17th overall pick from the 2009 draft, Rundblad has only managed to become a depth defenseman in the NHL, but has dressed in four straight games, picking up assists in two of those. He’ll never advance beyond the third pairing without an injury to a top-four guy, but Rundblad’s certainly trending up.

Matt Hunwick, TOR – Mike Babcock likes Hunwick because he’s smart and the does the little things well. That man crush has gotten a little more love recently, with Hunwick playing well over his usual 22 minutes in his last two games, both of them wins. Though he has just one assist and a minus-8 rating on the season, he’s been making a significant impact on the Leafs defense. He doesn’t have a lot of fantasy value, but if Hunwick keeps seeing big minutes, there may be a stretch in which the pucks start bouncing his way and he racks up a few assists.

Alec Martinez, LA – He’s played over 24 minutes in each of his past three games after eclipsing the 20-minute mark just twice since Nov. 22. The forgotten scorer of the Stanley Cup-winning goal in 2014, Martinez will probably top out as a second-pairing defenseman, but he’s been given a little more responsibility by Sutter recently and has three points in his past three games.

Jared Spurgeon, MIN – The undersized, but talented Spurgeon continues to trail Suter by a large margin in ice time on the power play, 3:49 to 2:01, even though he’s probably the more offensively dynamic of the two. Mike Yeo will entrust him with more power-play time if he continues to play well, though, and Spurgeon’s exceeded his usual 22 minutes in his last two games, collecting a point both times.

Top five trending down:

P.K. Subban, MTL – Subban finds himself on this list for the second time in a row, but with the Habs losing four of their past five and their star blueliner without a point in that stretch, eyebrows are starting to be raised. After keeping pace with the likes of Erik Karlsson and John Klingberg in terms of points early on, Subban’s fallen well behind, and he’s still sitting on just one goal.

Brent Burns, SJ – The Sharks are going belly-up at an inopportune time. Except for the Kings, who may have already locked up the division title with a 10-point lead over second place, the Pacific Division is wide open, but the Sharks haven’t been able to take advantage. Despite losing six straight, San Jose’s still just one point out of a playoff spot; if the Sharks somehow miss the postseason, this will be the moment they will look back on as a lost opportunity. For his part, Burns is still putting up points regularly, but he’s sitting on a minus-12 rating over the last nine games.

Alex Pietrangelo, STL – He’s gone eight games without a point and the Blues have won just three of their last nine. With just 11 points so far, Pietrangelo’s on pace for roughly 30, which would be a 16-point drop from the previous season and a new career low, discounting the lockout- shortened season during which he scored 24 points in 47 games.

Oliver Ekman-Larsson, ARI – The Coyotes have won once in their past seven games in what’s turning out to be a brutal Pacific Division. OEL is still doing his part as Dave Tippett’s linchpin, but he also hasn’t scored in six games and has an ugly minus-9 rating in that span. The problem with OEL in fantasy is that the Coyotes don’t have a lot of scoring depth or goaltending to complement what their young star blueliner brings to the table.

Cam Fowler, ANA – Are there changes coming in Anaheim? Pittsburgh finally said enough was enough and fired Johnston, and with the Ducks sitting at the bottom of their division, Bruce Boudreau’s seat is getting hot enough to bake pizza. Fowler drew some pretty good reviews early on in the season on a struggling team, but he’s beginning to struggle a little himself after a horrendous minus-3 showing in a surprising 5-1 loss to Carolina.

This week’s top five recommended pickups:

Dougie Hamilton, CGY – He’s probably played himself off quite a few fantasy teams so far this season, but Hamilton may be worth considering this week with a four-game slate. They’re all tough opponents, of course, but the Flames aren’t having any trouble scoring goals and are winners of five straight. Dennis Wideman is likely available, too, but Hamilton is the better choice.

Olli Maatta, PIT – He has four points in four games since returning from injury, and maybe the firing of Johnston can help give the team a spark. Maatta played 25:02 in a 3-2 loss against the Kings and should continue to see ice time in the 20-to-25-minute range for the rest of the season. The Penguins’ blue line is talented, but has yet to reach its full potential. A home-and-home against Boston, then a game against Carolina – two teams that try to win by outscoring their opponents – should provide plenty of opportunities to score.

Marek Zidlicky, NYI – The veteran scored two goals and played over 18 minutes in a 4-0 win against New Jersey despite having played sparingly for much of the season. At 38 years old, he still quarterbacks the power play at times and can obviously still play, but the goals have been fewer and further between. Still, upcoming matchups against Colorado and Arizona shouldn’t be too challenging.

Dan Boyle, NYR – If Vigneault doesn’t intend to rest him, why should we? With an upcoming date against Edmonton, it’ll be a good time for Boyle to generate some offense and exact some revenge – the Rangers lost 7-5 the last time these two teams met.

Darnell Nurse, EDM – He’s played over 20 minutes in nearly every single game and he rides into Monday’s game against Boston on a two-game point streak. With a four-game road trip this week, the Oilers are going to be challenged, but they’re riding high with a five-game winning streak. Games against Boston and Colorado seem to offer the Oilers a pretty good chance at winning.

Last week’s picks:

Brent Burns, SJ – A goal and two assists as the Sharks continue their slide.

Shea Weber, NSH – No goals in four straight games after a hat trick, but three assists in his last four games.

Keith Yandle, NYR – The Rangers aren’t playing well and he has just one assist in their last three games. He has just one goal on the season.

Kevin Shattenkirk, STL – He had a very productive week, netting a goal and four assists, even though the Blues aren’t winning a whole lot.

Mike Green, DET – It looked like he was back on track with helpers in three straight games, but he proceeded to add just one assist over his next three games.