The Pittsburgh Penguins season teetered on the brink as injuries mounted. At several points, the season could have gone sideways, and the challenge been too great. Instead, by January, the Penguins surged to the fourth-best record in the NHL. As the NHL officially declared the 2019-20 regular season concluded, all stats are official and storylines over. When we next see hockey, it should be the 24-team Stanley Cup scramble in late July or August. I
So, it is time to hand out the officially unofficial PHN Pittsburgh Penguins season awards.
The extraordinary adversity the Penguins faced as they battled through injury after injury after injury galvanized the team and created opportunities for players to assert themselves.
A couple of slumps and the salary cap crunch also opened the door for an MVP candidate. It’s time for the PHN awarded (and created) Penguins post-season awards.
Penguins Rookie of the Year: John Marino
Marino had 27 points in 66 games during his final two seasons at Harvard. He had 26 points in 56 games during his rookie season in the NHL.
The smooth-skating, quick thinking defenseman forced his way into the Penguins lineup after a solid training camp and preseason. The Penguins only had to give up a conditional sixth-round pick to the Edmonton Oilers for Marino.
Marino earned top-four minutes with Marcus Pettersson this season as defenseman Justin Schultz was injured. Marino stayed in that position even after Schultz returned.
Runner Up: Sam Lafferty. The Hollidaysburg kid took advantage of roster spots opened due to injury and played 50 games. The Penguins 2014 fourth-round pick scored 13 points, including six goals as he became a super-sub for multiple roles.
The Paul Coffey Award (Defenseman of the Year): Kris Letang
Letang hit a rough patch in January, but he was one of the players who carried the Penguins through the injury woes, even as he battled injuries, as well. Letang missed 10 games and may not have been 100% healthy for part of the regular season, but he still scored 15 goals and 44 points in 61 games. His goal total was just one off his career-high of 16, set twice before.
Letang helped the Penguins makeshift forward lines by carrying the puck and often pushing the play, which opened space for the skilled players and relieved the other players of some responsibility.
The Pittsburgh Penguins veteran defenseman also tied a career-high with six power-play goals. Letang traded roles with Justin Schultz and sometimes buoyed the Penguins second power-play unit, but eventually established himself as the top power-play QB, too.
The Ulf Samuelsson Hitter Award: Brandon Tanev
The Penguins signed Brandon Tanev to a six-year, $21 million contract on July 1. The Penguins fanbase was decidedly against it, but very quickly realized why GM Jim Rutherford was willing to dish the cash. Tanev’s speed and aggressiveness fit perfectly into the Penguins system. And, Tanev hits everything that moves.
Tanev delivered 244 hits in just 68 games. His play allowed Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan to firmly establish a heavily-relied-upon fourth line with Teddy Blueger and Zach Aston-Reese.
There aren’t many who question the signing anymore.
The Jaromir Jagr “Hero Who Saved the Day” Award: Tristan Jarry
Where might the Penguins season have ended without Jarry? The young goalie has been itching for a chance at the NHL since he played 26 games in 2017-18. However, it didn’t appear this would be Jarry’s year, either, until the Penguins salary cap crunch forced a hard decision to send Casey DeSmith and his $1.25 million salary to the WBS Penguins, in favor of keeping Jarry and his paltry $675,000 salary.
That worked out pretty well for the Penguins and Jarry, who was selected to the Metro Division All-Star team and led the league in save percentage and goals against average for much of the first half of the season.
After Jarry stole two points from Florida in an early February game, Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby dished some praise.
“(Jarry) did a great job making some key saves, swallowing up rebounds, and allowing us to hold them off.”
Jarry claimed the Penguins net in early November as Penguins starter Matt Murray again struggled in the first half. What would have happened if the Penguins were forced to ride Murray through November and December? Would they have five fewer wins?
Such math would have put the Penguins on the bottom of the wild-card chase, which, in reality, is where they belonged given their patchwork lineup. However, Jarry was lights out for two full months.
In that February game against Florida, Jarry stopped no fewer than six breakaways as the Penguins had a terrible night but still won. It was indicative of the service Jarry provided this season.
The Mario Lemieux MVP Award: Evgeni Malkin
When Sidney Crosby had core-muscle surgery, amid the piling Penguins injuries, things were bleak. Instead, Evgeni Malkin put the team on his back and carried the Penguins offense for several months.
At one point in December, Malkin had participated in 40% of the Penguins offense. Malkin scored 25 goals and 49 assists (74 points) in just 55 games. His play helped winger Bryan Rust find a new level, too.
Playing mostly beside Malkin, Rust scored 56 points, including a career-high 27 goals. Malkin also quickly meshed with Jake Guentzel, and the line with Rust was unstoppable. Absolutely unstoppable.
When the Penguins light was the dimmest, Malkin stepped to the fore. As he joked at mid-season, when the fire alarm went off after a morning skate, “I am fire.”
Yes, Malkin was fire. He was also the Pittsburgh Penguins MVP.