NHL playoffs: Rob Scuderi weighing down Penguins' Stanley Cup hopes

Russell LaBounty-USA TODAY Sport

The Pittsburgh Penguins need to shake up their defense, and it should start with their big free agent signing that was supposed to solidify their blue line.

SB Nation 2014 NHL Playoff Bracket

When Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Ray Shero announced the free agent signing of defenseman Rob Scuderi, a member of their 2009 Stanley Cup winning team, he did it by asking himself a question at the introductory press conference.

"Ray, was it mistake to let Rob Scuderi go?" Shero asked himself back in July. "Yes. It was a mistake to let Rob Scuderi go on my part. To have a chance to have a do over to bring Rob back is a thing I really wanted to do when he became available in free agency."

At the time, it probably was a mistake. In 2009, Scuderi was still a reliable player -- one that overcame a rocky start to his career on some horrid, rebuilding teams where failure was pretty much guaranteed for every player that put on a Penguins uniform. He eventually developed into a 20-minute per night, top-pairing defenseman on a Stanley Cup winning team. And a darn good one.

The problem for the Penguins, as they enter Game 3 of their Eastern Conference playoff series against the Columbus Blue Jackets on Monday, is that the attempt to correct the original mistake is turning out to be an even bigger, more costly mistake.

***

In theory, the idea of bringing in a player like Scuderi this past offseason was at least sound. If it was a one-year, low-risk deal it wouldn't have even been an outrageous thought for that player to be Scuderi.

The Penguins, coming off a disappointing Eastern Conference Final sweep at the hands of the Boston Bruins, a fourth consecutive postseason disappointment, wanted a solid, defensive defenseman to solidify their blue line. Likely one that they could pair with the often times wild and untamed run-and-gun style of Kris Letang, the definition of a high-event player.

Given Scuderi's success the first time around with Pittsburgh, as well as in Los Angeles where he would help the Kings win a Stanley Cup in 2012, he seemed to be their top choice, and they weren't about to let him get away again.

They went all in to make sure they didn't, giving him a four-year, $13.5 million contract. And that is where the problems started. It was too much money, for too many years, for a mid-30s defenseman that plays a style of hockey that doesn't lend itself to many quality years beyond that point. That type of player doesn't typically slowly fizzle out with a steady decline. They drop off cliffs.

For Scuderi and the Penguins, the 2013-14 season has been the cliff.

Coming into this season there were only 20 defenseman in the NHL since 1990 to appear in at least 50 games and record fewer than 10 points in their age 35 season. Scuderi, in his age 35 season for the Penguins, became the 21st by playing in 52 games and recording just four assists.

Of the previous 20 players, eight of them were out of the NHL the following season. Only four of them saw their careers continue long enough to play in their age 37 season (with only two appearing in more than 60 games). Only two (Glen Wesley and Hal Gill) lasted until they were 38. Gill's age 38 season was this year for the Philadelphia Flyers, and he played in just six games.

An anchor weighing down Pittsburgh's defense

Anybody paying attention to the modern NHL game already knows that Stanley Cup teams control the puck more than their opponent. This season the Penguins have, at times, been pretty far below a Stanley Cup level when it comes to their possession numbers.

A lot of that can be attributed to more than 500-man games lost due to injury, including extended absences for top players like Letang, James Neal, Evgeni Malkin, Paul Martin and Pascal Dupuis. The other factor is a roster that has far too many empty spots, including the third-and fourth-lines for most of the season, and a couple of spots on the blue line.

No player on the defense has struggled this season from a possession standpoint more than Scuderi. With him on the ice during five-on-five play this season the Penguins have attempted just 43 percent of the shot attempts. Among defensemen that appeared in at least 41 games this season, only 17 of them had a worse percentage.

As the table below shows, it hasn't really mattered which partner the Penguins have tried him with.

Image_medium

Other than Matt Niskanen, and the 42 minutes he spent with Olli Maatta, Scuderi has been quite the anchor. Nearly all of the Penguins' defensemen, with the possible exception of Deryk Engelland, are either breaking even or at least closer to a passable level with any other partner.

How opponents beat Scuderi

Let's take a look at the Scuderi-Letang pairing, since that has been the one Pittsburgh seems to want and the one that is currently playing against the Blue Jackets.

It also helps show the overall problem.

No player on the defense has struggled this season from a possession standpoint more than Scuderi.

This pairing, whether it be by the numbers or the eye test, has not worked at any point this season, and it seems to be getting worse in the playoffs. Maybe there is a chemistry issue at play since both players have missed significant portions of time this season. Maybe Scuderi hasn't quite recovered from his ankle injury that sidelined him for most of the first half of the season. Or maybe he just isn't the player he once was, which tends to happen to even the best players when they reach their mid-30s.

No matter the reason, it's clear that teams are going out of their way to target Scuderi in an effort to exploit him, and this has been especially true with the Blue Jackets over the first two games of this series.

In Game 1, I counted 26 even-strength zone entry attempts with Scuderi on the ice. Sixteen of them were targeted at Scuderi's side of the ice, including nine carry-in attempts, five dump-in attempts, and two attempts that Scuderi broke up. Seven of Columbus' 17 shot attempts in that game with Scuderi on the ice were the direct result of controlled carry-ins to his side of the ice.

One of them resulted in the interference penalty shown here that turned into a power play goal.

Scuderipenaltygame1_medium

With less than four minutes to play and the Penguins trying to protect a one-goal lead, this happened.

Scuderientry3_medium

And it goes on like this in Game 2.

The same thing seems to be happening: No matter who the defenseman on the other side of the ice is, teams seem to be going right at Scuderi, whether it be with a controlled entry or a dump-in.

Both create problems for the Penguins. By simply going right at Scuderi with a controlled entry attempt there is the chance their forward is going to take advantage of his lack of mobility and beat him one-on-one.

By dumping it to his side of the ice, it's forcing him to actually make a play with the puck, something that was never his strong suit even when he was at his peak. Now, his two main plays seem to be to either get the puck over to Letang as quickly as possible, or 2) if that avenue isn't open, simply try to weakly chip it out off the glass.

With option No. 2, sometimes it gets out of the zone, sometimes it doesn't.

Either way, it's not a great situation for the Penguins.

***

Back in July, Shero closed that press conference by saying this about long-term contracts to players in their 30s.

"You always have some reservation on 34-year-old guys, 35-year-old guys, 36-year old guys. But we know Rob Scuderi. We know him. If I'm going to pass on Rob Scuderi because I'm worried about what he's going to be like when he's 38, I'm not going to get him."

Given the results in year one of the contract, and the fact three years remain, not getting Scuderi may have been the preferred outcome for the Penguins.

If this sounds like a scathing criticism of Scuderi, well, that's probably because it is. But that's not really the intent. He's doing what he can, and whatever problems he is having are not from a lack of effort or a lack of understanding of what to do or how to do it.

He just can't physically do it anymore.

The blame lies with Shero and the front office for trying to recreate some four-year-old Stanley Cup magic by signing a 35-year-old player to a large contract -- one larger than they were willing or able to offer four years ago when he was closer to his career peak.

The blame also lies with the coaching staff for continuing to give Scuderi major minutes in key situations and asking him to do things he should no longer be reasonably expected to do.

It's something they need to stop doing (and soon) if they want to come anywhere close to making any sort of a lengthy playoff run.

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