The Pittsburgh Penguins have no shortage of great players. There has been a parade of Hall of Famers, near Hall of Famers, and otherwise well-praised indispensable cogs in the machine that has carried five Stanley Cups in the last 32 years. In every era since the team became relevant at home and across the league, a Kevin Stevens or Chris Kunitz type was well-recognized for their contributions. Conversely, a score of players played their roles with aplomb without the same recognition.
Underrated is a subjective matter. I could talk at length that Sidney Crosby never received his just deserts until well after he earned them, then they were sheepishly awarded, like a belated birthday present, as a matter of fact, not praise. Two Hart Trophies? C’mon.
But we’ll neither put Crosby nor Evgeni Malkin on the underrated list, despite Malkin’s nearly criminal snub from the NHL’s all-time top 100 list. While they may be underrated, they’re far from unheralded.
PHN also did the Underrated Penguins list more than three years ago, during the early days of the pandemic. And … we’re going to take a mulligan. Dominik Simon and Hall Gill appeared on the list.
Must have been a COVID fog?
In seriousness, a review of the Penguins’ rosters over the last 33 years turned up some interesting players who never found traction. Incredibly talented Czech defenseman Richard Lintner from the early 2000s returned to Europe and the KHL because the Penguins saw him as a forward, not a defender. Let me tell you, that guy had skills, but at what position, no one was ever sure.
Tomas Surovy also kicked around the KHL and Swedish Elite League after a frustrating couple of seasons under coach Eddie Olczyk, in which he flashed silky mitts, combined with a distaste for the rest of the game.
And as a matter of housekeeping, our roster search began with the 1990-91 squad. To search the 1980s and 1970s for underrated players would be a never-ending task, sifting through a messy organization with a revolving door. And the different media landscape, since no one talked about the Penguins, would also create an entirely different standard.
Top 5 Underrated Penguins
First, the honorable mentions: Bryan Smolinski, Janne Laukkanen, Troy Loney, and Andrew Ference, who eventually captained the Edmonton Oilers and was a scrappy, gritty defenseman held in high regard.
5. Jake Guentzel
How can a guy who pops 40 goals a year be underrated? Ask yourself, when was the last time Jake Guentzel was discussed as part of the Penguins, but apart from Crosby?
Guentzel is seen as a great sidecar to Crosby, but how many discuss him independently of his wingman status? He was equally good beside Malkin during Crosby’s injury absence in 2021-22, and the bet is that he’ll be just as good if he goes to another team next summer (at least until age catches him, perhaps a little quicker than others).
4. Martin Straka
He was another very important player as the Pittsburgh Penguins desperately fought to keep the team in Pittsburgh with a defunded lineup. Straka was the Penguins’ 1992 first-round pick, who didn’t find a home in the lineup and was traded to Ottawa, eventually bouncing from Ottawa to the Islanders to Florida in three years. However, he returned in 1997 as a new player. Straka was a tenacious forward with great speed and became a very good distributor for Jaromir Jagr, then later a winger with Alexei Kovalev and Robert Lang — the KLS line that carried the Penguins after Jagr.
Without a Stanley Cup ring, it seems Penguins history fondly remembers the ultra-talented Kovalev and even the great couple of seasons by Robert Lang before he signed a hefty free-agent deal with the Washington Capitals.
But Straka, as he was then, is oft overlooked. Straka posted 76 points in 82 games in 2005-06 with the New York Rangers. Then he popped for 70 points in 76 games the following season before age and injury caught up with him. He wasn’t a creation of those around him, but history too often records him as a footnote.
3. Brian Dumoulin
Dumoulin received greater praise as his injuries mounted late in his Penguins tenure than he did earlier, as more fans, media, and pundits realized his value. However, he was the silent Robin to Kris Letang’s Batman for most of his Penguins career. In 2016, teams crashed the Penguins’ net. It was Dumoulin who dug in his heels and fought back, providing the Penguins a much-needed net-front protector.
Dumoulin will never get much credit because of his paltry statistics, but he was the ideal Letang counterbalance for five years before multiple lower-body injuries prematurely slowed him.
2. Ken Wregget
The comfortable shoe in the Penguins’ net. As the Philadelphia Flyers’ backup goalie, he introduced himself to Penguins fans by denying the 1988-89 Penguins a trip to the Wales Conference Final. After Mario and Robbie Brown hung a 10-spot on Ron Hextall in Game 5, Wregget started the next two games and stuffed the Penguins.
He became a Penguins goalie in the blockbuster deals of 1992 that also brought Rick Tocchet and Kjell Samuelsson to Pittsburgh.
Wregget wasn’t much more than a 1A goalie, but he provided a substantial insurance policy against the oft-injured Tom Barrasso for most of the 1990s. When his career finished in 2000-01, Wregget had played seven seasons for the Penguins, but was taken for granted more than most in franchise history.
1. Bob Errey
Errey was the defensive conscience on Mario Lemieux’s line in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Errey was also part of the team’s heart, but his offensive statistics on those star-studded squads made him look like a Honda in a parking lot of Porsches.
After back-to-back Stanley Cups in 1991 and 1992, GM Craig Patrick traded him for defenseman Mike Ramsey at the 1993 NHL trade deadline, and the Penguins desperately missed his fire as they were out-scrapped by the New York Islanders in one of the biggest upsets of Stanley Cup playoffs history.
Perhaps even his own team underrated him. Fans know him now as the excitable color analyst on the TV broadcasts, but before that, he was a gutsy speedster who did the dirty work on a great team that needed it.