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Do the Penguins Have–or Need–a Player Having a Breakout Season?



Pittsburgh Penguins, P.O Joseph
P.O Joseph has not grabbed the opportunity to produce a breakout season.

The Pittsburgh Penguins have a diverse club – future Hall of Famers, role players, young players with an upside, a few players who are struggling. But do they have a player having a breakout season?

It’s not looking that way on the cusp of the NHL’s Christmas break.

A national publication recently looked to identify some breakout players around the league this season. Not surprisingly, no Penguins were on the list.

It seems as if a lot of good and successful teams have a breakout player or two to go along with their established top players and role players.

We asked Penguins coach Mike Sullivan after practice Friday at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex how he would define a breakout season.

“I think it would be someone that when they approach the next level … there’s a process for players to get there, and most players evolve,” Sullivan said. “When players have a breakout season, usually the potential that everyone sees in a player when he’s drafted or they see in him as a young player, that’s when it comes to fruition.

“That would be my definition of a breakout season, when a player starts to fulfill the potential that everyone sees when he’s a young player and striving to get to the next level.”

That’s a strong definition, although with utmost respect to Sullivan it could be expanded to include a player who exceeds expectations by breaking through in a particular season.

A player having a breakout season usually provides a feel-good narrative for a team. The Penguins, two games over .500 but closer to the bottom of the Metropolitan Division than the top — could certainly use the mojo from a breakout performance.

It’s not usually a rookie who has a breakout season. Some star players simply arrive at that status right away, as Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin did with the Penguins.

It can be a high draft pick who takes a few seasons before finally breaking out and living up to that pedigree. It can be a lower draft pick who has a big season and proves he was a steal.

Some players with breakout seasons are reclamation projects who just didn’t get things going with previous teams. Think defenseman Justin Schultz or even Trevor Daley previously with the Penguins.

Some are players who enter the league with a lesser role and grow into top talent.

Penguins winger Bryan Rust, a third-round draft pick, was at first considered a bottom-six forward. His breakout season was 2016-17, when he netted 15 goals in 57 games, then had seven goals, 10 points in 23 playoff games, including some clutch performances, during a playoff Cup run. Rust, based heavily on that season, forced his way into a prominent top-six role and is coming off four straight seasons of 20-plus goals.

Defenseman Kris Letang, a third-round draft pick who has proven he should have gone higher, won a Cup with the Penguins in 2009 during arguably his breakout season, when he had 10 goals, 33 points in 74 games, another 13 points during the title run, and showed how he could use his speed and skill to join the offense as well a track back.

Marcus Pettersson has developed into one of the Penguins’ steadiest defensemen, but for those watching closely, his development seemed more linear, without a specific breakout season.

The Penguins have some players who were or are candidates to have a breakout season in 2023-24, although time it ticking.

The table was set for defenseman P.O Joseph to be a breakout player this season, but he has been inconsistent, in and out of the lineup and injured.

Ryan Graves was another potential candidate coming into the season after spending the past five seasons with two other teams. He has spent most of this season alongside Letang, but he does not play as big as his size and he has not played well enough to this point to be a candidate for a breakout season.

Forward Jansen Harkins, picked up off waivers in October after never quite emerging with Winnipeg, still has a chance to have a breakout season. He has no points in 16 games, and was sent to the AHL at one point, but he has played well in other areas.

Forward Drew O’Connor has established himself as a full-time NHL player at age 25 and has taken on different roles. He needs to produce more – he has two goals, eight points in 31 games — to make this a real breakout season.

Winger Radim Zorhorna has had his moments this season, but he has not gone as far as to force his way into a regular role when the Penguins are fully healthy.

As noted, breakout players are not usually rookies, but perhaps winger Valtteri Puustinen or defenseman John Ludvig could expand the definition.

Puustinen is playing in the top six and on the power play. If his line, with Malkin and Reilly Smith, can get things going on a sustained level, Puustinen could potentially qualify for having a breakout season.

Ludvig brings a confident game and a physical style the Penguins have missed, and he has not looked out of place getting some time in the top couple pairings.

But do the Penguins really have a breakout player? It does not appear so for now. Do they need one? Is the lack of one an indictment of a team’s ability to find or develop one as an added dimension to the roster?

Feel free to weigh in in the Comments section.