Chad Ruhwedel has been in waiting for a long time and it’s time for the Penguins to show that he is indeed ready for this role.
With the biggest wave of free agency done with, the Pittsburgh Penguins roster looks set for next year. Well, almost. The forward depth has been filled out (though a case can be made they didn’t do enough), the goaltending is set (unless a trade happens), and most of the defense is locked in as well. The only spot on the backend that’s up for grabs is that No. 6 spot due to Cody Ceci pricing himself out of Pittsburgh. During free agency, the Penguins decided not to fill that spot externally which has cleared the door for Chad Ruhwedel to play full-time. With that said, let’s take a look at a couple of reasons why he’s easily the best option for the Penguins this coming season.
Steady as he goes
This is 90% of what every team should look for in a third-pairing defenseman. If the player is not costing you games on a weekly basis, then they’re doing their job. Ruhwedel has always been very reliable each time he’s come into the lineup. Granted, it’s been on a limited basis due to injuries, but he’s done the job every time. Take a look at what he did in the defensive zone this past season (via Micah Blake McCurdy of HockeyViz):
Remember, the bluer there is in the defensive zone, the fewer chances a player is giving up. There is absolutely nothing going on for the opposition in both the front of the net and the high-slot areas, which are the most dangerous areas of the ice. The team’s 1.76 expected goals against with Ruhwedel on the ice is a career-best and that’s saying something as the previous career-high was 1.98. For comparison’s sake, let’s compare this to what Ceci did this past year:
I understand Ceci played over 600 more minutes this past season but this is still a night-and-day difference. The team conceded almost two and a half-expected goals against per 60 minutes with him on the ice and he still landed a four-year $3.25M AAV contract from the Edmonton Oilers. That contract is likely to age badly as Ceci gets older and plays more minutes next season due to the Oilers being thin on defense.
Penalty kill and offensive ability
Ruhwedel will still need work as a penalty-killer but that will come with time. He only played 28 minutes on the PK last season and while the results weren’t good (7.82 expected goals against per 60), they’ll likely regress as he gets more minutes. Remember, Pittsburgh’s PK unit was ranked 28th last season. It’ll be a tall order for it to be worse this season, even with Ruhwedel on it and not Ceci. Even though he also won’t provide much in the way of offense, Pittsburgh shouldn’t expect him to. That duty falls on Kris Letang, Brian Dumoulin, John Marino, and Mike Matheson. All four are exceptional at moving the puck up the ice and driving offense on a nightly basis. This again allows someone like Ruhwedel to be a rock in the defensive zone and be that steady presence that they need.
Chad Ruhwedel comes cheap
In the modern-day NHL, if you don’t have a cheap third pairing, you’re likely not going to win a Stanley Cup. Here’s a look at the last six Stanley Cup winners and the combined cap hit for their bottom-pairing:
- 2016 Pittsburgh Penguins Ian Cole-Justin Schultz: $6.1M
- 2017 Pittsburgh Penguins Ian Cole-Justin Schultz: $3.5M
- 2018 Washington Capitals Brooks Orpik-Christian Djoos: $6.150M
- 2019 St. Louis Blues Vince Dunn-Joel Edmundson: $3.725M
- 2020 Tampa Bay Lightning Mikhail Sergachev-Erik Cernak: $7.75M
- 2021 Tampa Bay Lightning: Mikhail Sergachev-David Savard: $5.8M
The big trend here is that each team has had a third pairing make up not even $8M of their respective salary cap. Each team also had players who could both move the puck and weren’t a total liability in their own end. This is exactly what the Penguins would be getting with both Ruhwedel and Matheson on the bottom pairing. Together, their combined cap hit would be $5.625M compared to over $8M against the cap had Ceci signed with Pittsburgh for what he did with Edmonton.
This brings me to my overall point: Why would the Penguins pay a player who had middling results down the stretch last season when there’s a cheaper in-house replacement ready to go? The Penguins are already up against the cap as it is, especially with the Brock McGinn and Danton Heinen signings. They also still have to sign Zach Aston-Reese as his number will likely come in around $2M per season. They don’t have room to do anything else for the defense, and frankly, they shouldn’t have to. Ruhwedel makes $750K per season and provides value that is worth more than twice that number. Pittsburgh needs cheap, cost-controlled players any way they can get them and that certainly applies here.
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The bottom line
There is no one more suited for this role than Ruhwedel. Sure, the team also has Mark Friedman ready to step in but his defensive metrics were a bit underwhelming in the short sample size he gave the team this past season. Here’s a look:
Head coach Mike Sullivan also doesn’t have a lot of familiarity with Friedman and he likely trusts Ruhwedel more due to a larger sample size. Nevertheless, Ruhwedel is excellent in his own zone and is also strong at moving the puck out of danger to start a counterattack. He’s been patiently biding his time for the last couple of years looking to finally get a crack at being in the starting lineup each game. That looks poised to pay off this coming season, and the Penguins will be a better team because of it.