Ahead of last night’s Stadium Series game between the Philadelphia Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins at Lincoln Financial Field, there was some concern that rain – and the dangerous ice conditions it can cause – would force the Flyers to sit Wayne Simmonds, their top trade chip. With the NHL Trade Deadline only days away, an injury to Simmonds would have made him nearly immovable. Philadelphia decided to take the risk and play Simmonds and the result can only be described as ironic. Rather than Simmonds getting injured, he was the cause of another injury. A high hit by the physical winger on Penguins defenseman Brian Dumoulin forced Dumoulin out of the game late in the first period.
To make matters worse, Dumoulin’s top pair partner also left the game early. Kris Letang suffered an injury, although it was not immediately clear what happened, in the scrum following the hit on Dumoulin. With Dumoulin and Letang out, the Penguins skated with just four defenseman for much of the game, leaving Justin Schultz and Jack Johnson to each play more than 30 minutes in the game. The effort simply wasn’t enough to overcome the losses, as the Flyers stormed back from two goals down to win in overtime.
As disappointing as the result may have been, one overtime loss is nothing compared to what may happen to the Penguins if both Dumoulin and Letang are out long-term. After the game, head coach Mike Sullivan announced that Dumoulin had suffered a concussion, which was the expected result of the high hit. He also added that Letang was being evaluated for an upper-body injury, but refrained from going into detail. While a concussion is a serious matter, Letang’s injury may be of even greater concern. The All-Star blue liner missed more than a quarter of the regular season and the entire postseason in 2016-17 with a serious neck injury and the understandable worry in Pittsburgh is that it is another neck issue for Letang.
If one or both of the top defensemen are set to miss time, the Penguins are ill-suited to handle that absence. With Olli Maatta already on the injured reserve with no timeline for a return, injuries to Letang and Dumoulin leave Pittsburgh in difficult shape on the blue line. Schultz, who himself just returned from injury, should be able to fill a top-pair role if need be. However, Johnson has had a miserable season and would be a major liability if his ice time increased. Youngsters Marcus Pettersson and Juuso Riikola have played well enough, but neither is quite ready for an increased workload. Chad Ruhwedel has only played in 17 games with the Penguins this year as a frequent healthy scratch, while no defenders in the AHL have seen NHL action this year. The likes of Zach Trotman and Ethan Prow are likely the next men up in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.
Just last month, Pittsburgh felt comfortable enough with their defensive depth to trade Jamie Oleksiak back to the Dallas Stars. Now, the tables have turned and GM Jim Rutherford has about 24 hours to evaluate the initial injury news on Dumoulin and Letang and decide if he needs to add another defenseman before the deadline. The rental defenseman market isn’t very encouraging and the Penguins have limited cap space, but a player like Adam McQuaid or Michael Del Zotto might make sense for Rutherford to pursue if the Penguins will be without one or both of their top defenders for an extended time. However, with the team battling for a playoff spot still – currently tied with the Carolina Hurricanes for the final wild card spot in the East – a minor trade addition may not be enough to save the season if Letang and Dumoulin are out long-term. This could be the beginning of the end for the Penguins’ season.