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Penguins see top pair in John Marino's future as he shines in playoff spotlight

Matt Vensel, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on

Published in Hockey

Like many of his similarly brilliant peers at Harvard, John Marino this time a year ago was facing huge decisions when it came to his future in his given field.

The defenseman was gearing up for his senior year at Harvard when the Penguins acquired his rights from the Edmonton Oilers. Marino had a couple of weeks to choose whether to finish what he started there or turn professional.

The Penguins gave Marino the standard pitch. Organizational stability. Top-notch facilities. Acclaimed player development. Three decades of Stanley Cup contention.

A path to playing time, preferably right away, appealed as much as anything.

"It was a tough decision," Marino said back in the fall. "You've got all your friends back there. But I think hockey-wise, this was the best decision for me."

When Marino signed his entry-level deal with the Penguins on Aug. 8, 2019, few people beyond his fanatical family and one notable member of the team's Ring of Honor envisioned that he would be doing what he did Monday night.

A few days shy of his one-year job anniversary, the 23-year-old logged more than 22 minutes and made an impact everywhere as the Penguins beat the Montreal Canadiens, 3-1, to even their five-game qualifying-round series at 1-1.

There he was in the offensive zone, firing a career-high six shots at Carey Price, holding the blue line time after time and drawing a hooking penalty.

There he was at the Pittsburgh blue line, using his wheels and wingspan to push puck-carriers away like a pet-owner steering his pooch across the street.

There he was with two minutes left in the game, after the Canadiens pulled back within a goal, helping the Penguins quietly kill 46 seconds off the clock.

"It's incredible," fellow defenseman Kris Letang said. "He's been a really important part of our team. He plays a lot of minutes and in a lot of situations. He's a really calm and poised guy. He has all the tools that a player can ask (for). He's just going to get better and better."

How much better? We took that question to Jim Rutherford on Tuesday.

"He's still at an age where you know he's going to develop, he's even going to get better," the Hall of Fame general manager replied. "And I would suspect that in a short period of time that Marino will turn into a guy in the top pairing."

In the first two games of this series, only Letang got more minutes than Marino among Penguins. Like Letang, he has a role on both special teams units. And along with second-pair partner Marcus Pettersson, Marino keeps getting the nod for defensive zone starts, crunch-time minutes and other high-leverage shifts.

The Penguins have earned 58.3% of the scoring chances with him on the ice during 5-on-5 play. He is often out there with Evgeni Malkin's line, which has looked dangerous in spurts and seems poised to break through in the next game or two.

"John can handle any situation," Rutherford said from his home here. "Mentally, he's very strong. He has the skill level to do what he needs to do. Physically, he's strong. He skates well. He's a smart player. So for anybody that watches him on a regular basis or knows him, at this point it's not a surprise to anybody."

Kevin Stevens has known Marino, who grew up outside Boston, since he was a kid. His son, Luke, played youth hockey with him. Kevin coached him some.

 

The tough power forward who helped the Penguins win the Stanley Cup twice in the 1990s is now a scout with the team. Along with Scott Young, Stevens pushed Rutherford and the Penguins to go get Marino from the Oilers. They believed he was ready to play right away and could someday be a top-four blue-liner.

"Everything they told me was exactly what has come true," Rutherford said.

Now, Rutherford admits he didn't see this coming so quickly, with Marino arguably being the team's top defenseman in the first two games of the playoffs. But when he watched Marino more than hold his own in training camp and the preseason back in September, he was certain that he would settle in as a regular.

Not bad for a kid whom many Penguins had never heard of before the trade.

It didn't take long for the veterans to see that he could play. Rutherford opened up the opportunity by trading Erik Gudbranson to Anaheim in October.

"You could see it in preseason. The confidence grew pretty quickly for him," Jack Johnson said. "Once we got into some pretty big regular season games early on, that's when I think that us as his teammates really saw his capabilities."

A month into the season, Marino was already logging more than 20 minutes a night. He scored one of the team's more memorable goals of the year, burying a breakaway in his first NHL game back home in Boston. At season's early end, he had six goals, 20 assists and a Penguins-high plus-17 rating in 56 games.

The Penguins believe Marino has untapped potential offensively. His role on the second power-play unit confirms that. Defensively, he has a nice tool box with a 6-foot-1 frame, good mobility in all directions and surprising strength despite a slighter build. Plus, he can play with a mean streak in the battle areas.

Folks inside the organization say his confidence has surged throughout the season and his anticipation, already a strength, got better as each week went by. Coaches Sergei Gonchar and Jacques Martin had a hand in his emergence, too.

Coach Mike Sullivan believes Marino is a great fit for the aggressive way he wants his defensemen to play from the blue line in, quickly getting up in a guy's grill.

"His mobility really helps him," he said. "He closes on guys and takes time and space away from an offensive player as good as any defensemen we have."

If this is as good as Marino is ever going to get, well, that's pretty darned good considering the Penguins only had to give up a sixth-round pick to get him.

But as the stakes get higher and higher, he keeps getting better and better.

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