It’s time for the Pittsburgh Penguins midseason report card. The Penguins have played more hockey and had shorter offseasons over the past two years than any team in hockey history. The Penguins did something no team has done in the post-modern hockey era of salary caps, shootouts, giant goalie pads and overcoaching. They won back to back Stanley Cup championships, and they did it with offense, not defense. However, none of that matters in the run to the 2018 Stanley Cup presentation.
Past achievements do not count towards the Penguins current grade. Current grades are also not an indicator of future success.
General Manager Jim Rutherford: C-
Rutherford was masterful in building the Penguins. He reshaped a petulant, underachieving roster with a lightning fast, hungry roster with a near perfect mix of veteran leadership, grit, speed, talent, and youth.
However, the 2017-18 season has not been his finest work. The Penguins have an expensive blue-line which when healthy has not produced adequate results for two years and counting. They have gaping holes in their forwards roster, including at center. And, the replacements for the Penguins losses have been deficient.
The Penguins organization, thus Rutherford, made a simple mistake in the offseason–they believed they could survive because Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin would carry the team until additional re-enforcements arrived. Call it hubris. Call it hope. It hasn’t worked.
In the process of punting decisions, candidates to adequately fill the Penguins pivot needs went elsewhere, including Brian Boyle who is now one of the reasons the New Jersey Devils are the surprise of the East. The Penguins also punted on tougher decisions, such as to keep Brian Dumoulin or Olli Maatta (a pair of $4 million defenders).
No contract for Patric Hornqvist also deducts points from Rutherford.
Rutherford’s pickup of defenseman Jamie Oleksiak currently looks like an inspired move, which raises his current grade to C-.
The New Guys. Hunwick, Sheahan, Reaves: C-
Matt Hunwick and Riley Sheahan have not yet worked out. Ryan Reaves and the trade for him is an excellent debate for another time. This season, Reaves has quelled the cheap shots against the Penguins stars but also helped suppress offensive production from the fourth line.
And, there is no more misleading statistic than Sheahan’s current points-per-game tally. It doesn’t matter if Sheahan is outscoring Nick Bonino, now in Nashville. It matters if Sheahan has affected the outcome of games and pushed offensive pressure. He hasn’t. Number do lie, sometimes.
Perhaps in Game 41, against Philadelphia, the Penguins found magic by pairing Sheahan and Reaves. Wouldn’t that be something?
Hunwick has been rough. His shot suppression statistics are the worst on the team, and his puck management has left much to be desired. Hunwick was deservedly a healthy scratch in Game 41.
Reaves protection of the Penguins stars and his integration into the locker room earns the newbies bigtime bonus points. Hunwick’s potential and Sheahan’s most recent game also score points, upping the grade to C-.
Phil Kessel: A+
Credit where its due. Kessel is the most improved Penguins player. Even more so than Olli Maatta. Kessel has been seen behind his net, in the defensive zone and has filled the stat sheet when the other stars have gone cold. If his play continues, give him all the hot dogs he wants.
The Kids. Sheary & Guentzel: B-
Conor Sheary has been moved around the Penguins lineup not because he has struggled, but because he’s provided energy and chances on his lines. Head coach Mike Sullivan first paired Sheary and Hornqvist with Sheahan to get a spark for Sheahan. Statistically, it worked. Sheary has also been used on Crosby’s line to spark the top line. Sheary’s play has earned a solid “B.”
Guentzel, however, has not been so fortunate. Jake “The Snake” has disappeared. Guentzel’s great strength is hockey-IQ. He finds space and reads plays. However, if he isn’t scoring, his other contributions are limited. He earns a generous “C.”
The Stars. Crosby & Malkin: C
The year has been below expectations for Crosby and Malkin. They have led a potent power play and put up enough points to avoid criticism, but not put up enough points to have the Penguins in the playoff seed.
The organization wrongly assumed the pair would be able to maintain their offensive production despite a dip in supporting personnel. The trust is–it takes at least three, preferably four lines to create offensive pressure. From that momentum, Crosby especially thrives.
Letang: Passing Grade
Letang has earned a pass/fail option. After neck surgery and more injuries than Super Dave Osborne, Letang is OK. He has struggled. He’s made inexplicable passes. And he’s also run one of the most effective power-plays in the league.
Letang also had a strong game against Philadelphia, signaling greater things to come.
Notes to Parents
The Penguins appear poised to make a run into the playoff position in the Eastern Conference. Letang especially looks ready to make amends. However, “As-Is,” the Penguins are not one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference. Compared to Tampa Bay, Toronto and teams ahead of them in the Metro Division, the Penguins are not the dominant kid, anymore.
Rutherford could hope the bottom-6 crew finds its stride. He could hope Crosby again makes Guentzel look like an All-Star. But…hoping for the unlikely got the Penguins into this predicament.
The Penguins will likely make the playoffs, but to make another run, they must get deeper. And, maybe even a little better in the top-6, too.
Please sign the report card and return it to school by Friday.