By Brian Metzer
Pittsburgh Current Hockey Writer
The Pittsburgh Penguins’ season began like a ride on the Thunderbolt at Kennywood. October (6-2-2) brought some dips and climbs that matched up with the first moments on the ride, while November (4-7-3) served as two bumpy trips past the Potato Patch that made it feel like we’d all fly out of the car.
The usual Thunderbolt ride takes roughly 1 minute and 41 seconds and it’s always a sweet time. The Penguins ride wasn’t near as fun, luckily a young Swede came along to get them off the roller coaster and back on solid ground.
General Manager Jim Rutherford shipped Daniel Sprong – we’ll leave out any commentary on him – to the Anaheim Ducks on Dec. 3 in exchange for 6-foot-3, 177-pound defenseman Marcus Pettersson. Pettersson had made a semi-quick ascension up the Ducks depth chart and was playing in their top six, but he hadn’t logged enough time in the NHL to really show what the Penguins were getting.
He was a former second-round draft pick and his upside was evident, which prompted Rutherford to make a brazen comparison.
“I caution everybody that he is young and is still learning the league. You have to be careful where you put these guys in the lineup,” Rutherford said. “But he’s a guy that my projections would be, in the next couple years, he would be a Brian Dumoulin-type player.”
Dumoulin has proven to be one of the finest defensemen on the Penguins roster and currently leads the team with a plus-27 rating. He’s also contributed one goal and 12 points.
Well, Pettersson might not be Dumoulin yet, but the assessment is looking more and more accurate by the day.
Since his arrival the Penguins reeled off a 14-3-1 record, have climbed to within striking distance of the Washington Capitals in the Metropolitan Division and have all but put those Thunderbolt days in the rearview mirror.
Coach Mike Sullivan seemed to pick and choose where and when he used Pettersson during his early days with the club, but has since been comfortable giving him a regular shift alongside Jack Johnson on the Penguins’ third pair. Pettersson is skating an average of 16:03 per game and has twice eclipsed 18 minutes.
“He sees the ice really well. He makes good plays. He passes the puck well. He has good poise, both on the breakouts coming out of our end but also along the offensive blue line,” Sullivan said. “He doesn’t just slap the puck back down low. If there’s plays there, he has the confidence to make them.”
The Skelleftea native has done a little bit of everything since joining the Penguins. It starts with his defensive game of course, but he’s started to flash some offensive instincts after going scoreless in his first 11 games in town. He’s riding a current four game scoring streak that’s seen him pick up five assists and he has six points over his past seven.
He has blocked 21 shots, delivered 23 hits and even dropped the gloves for a clash with MacKenzie Weegar of the Florida Panthers on Tuesday. He jumped into that battle when Weegar challenged teammate Riley Sheahan. That endeared him to his new club even more.
It’s worth noting that he almost resembles Dumoulin in body type, skating stride and the way he moves the puck. He has also quickly rolled up a plus-11 rating in 18 games.
Pettersson certainly can’t be given all the credit for the Penguins turnaround, but it isn’t hard to look at his arrival as a significant facet of the team’s improvement. His presence has allowed Sullivan to keep Dumoulin and Kris Letang together on the team’s top pair, Olli Maatta has looked more comfortable on the second pairing with either Jamie Oleksiak or Jusso Riikola and his chemistry is growing with Johnson.
Johnson was a lightning rod for criticism early this season and has recently all but flown under the radar. That’s always good for a defenseman and it points to the fact that things are just working when their pair is on the ice.
“I’ve clicked with Jack very well,” Pettersson said. “I think I’ve started right, just not trying to do too much, just trying to play my game, play solid defense and let the rest come itself. I think I’ve done a good job of that, and I’ve just got to keep it going here.”
His solid defense has helped the Penguins goaltending round into form as well. Since his arrival, Matt Murray has gone 8-0-0, with a 1.24 goals against average, .963 save percentage and two shutouts, while Casey DeSmith has gone 6-3-1, with a 2.49 GAA and .927 save percentage.
Pettersson has been directly involved in making a several big saves himself, none bigger than his diving effort to extend every inch of his 6-foot-3 frame, arms fully extended, to knock away a Lars Eller shot that trickled through Murray. That diving stop helped preserve a 2-1 victory over the Washington Capitals on Dec. 19 and helped the Penguins keep pace with the Metropolitan division leaders.
The 22-year-old seems to be enjoying himself in Pittsburgh. He has talked at times about growing up in Sweden with winters, which has him enjoying our recent drop in temperature. In terms of his personal success, he points to the supporting cast.
“I think the style of play suits me very well,” he said. “I like to move the puck quickly and we have such skilled forwards. You just got to get the puck to them quickly and things will work out.”
Pettersson will be facing his former team for the second time since arriving in Pittsburgh on Friday night when the team travels to Anaheim and he’s excited about that for a number reasons. Most of all for the chance they gave him to break into the NHL and ultimately end up in Pittsburgh.
“I loved my time there,” he said. “I’m super grateful for everything they did for me. I got drafted there. I got to play in the NHL, play playoffs with them. And I’m just really grateful for them essentially giving me an opportunity to play here in Pittsburgh, with the history here and the players that are here.”