The Pittsburgh Penguins are in a fairly precarious spot as they move through their bye week and the NHL’s all-star break.
(Part 1 of 2. Wednesday, PHN will publish the roster analysis of the forwards)
They are in a three-way tie for 10th place in the Eastern Conference, six points behind Detroit, which holds the eighth and final spot in the Eastern playoff field. (The Red Wings could add to their 57 points when they face Ottawa Wednesday.)
The Penguins have played just 46 games, fewer than any Eastern team except the Senators, and thus will have a chance to close the gap on the clubs ahead of them.
Still, ending their one-year absence from postseason play will require an upgraded performance by almost every unit — and every individual — coach Mike Sullivan deploys during the 36 games that remain in the regular season.
Here’s a look at what they’ve gotten from the eight defensemen and three goaltenders who have appeared in Pittsburgh Penguins games so far this season:
Graves, Ryan — The Penguins envisioned Graves as a reliable defensive presence on the left side of their top two pairings, a guy whose style would free his partner, whether it was Erik Karlsson or Kris Letang, to get involved in the offense whenever the opportunity arose. Despite his imposing size (6 foot 5, 220 pounds), nothing in Graves’ history suggested he would offer much physicality — and he hasn’t — but there was every reason to believe he would be much more sound, defensively. If the Penguins are to qualify for the playoffs, he will have to be.
Joseph, P.O — Joseph, who has played almost exclusively on the third pairing, has not produced to his offensive potential — he has no goals and three assists in 19 games — but can move the puck effectively and, at 24, is one of the Penguins’ few defensemen who can realistically be counted on to continue to elevate his game over the next few seasons. Just how high he’ll be able to take it remains to be seen.
Karlsson, Erik — It was not realistic to expect Karlsson to replicate his 101-point season from a year ago, or to believe he could be transformed into a defensive stalwart at this point in his career. Nonetheless, he has underperformed in almost every aspect of his job, whether it’s quarterbacking the No. 1 power play, the ineptitude of which has bordered on breathtaking, or his dismal work in his own end, which would make even Paul Coffey blush.
Karlsson is a three-time Norris Trophy winner and mortal lock to be inducted to the Hockey Hall of Fame, but Kyle Dubas didn’t acquire him just because of all Karlsson has accomplished in the past. The Pittsburgh Penguins traded for Karlsson because they felt he could help them to become serious Stanley Cup contenders. Perhaps he will, before this season is over, but he hasn’t done anything close to that yet.
Letang, Kris — Making a six-year commitment to Letang, as former GM Ron Hextall did in the summer of 2022, might prove to be a ghastly, costly blunder, but Letang was outstanding through the first three-plus months of 2023-24, playing some of the best two-way hockey of his career. He embraced the addition of Karlsson, even though it cost Letang his place on the top power-play unit (until last weekend), and has exorcised many of the lapses in judgment that led to costly mistakes in recent seasons.
Bottom line: The early returns on the Penguins’ long-term investment in him has been very good.
Ludvig, John — Ludvig might be on the perfect team for him, because it’s hard to think of any club that needs the agitation and toughness he can provide more than the Penguins do. He’s a worthy successor to Mark Friedman in that sense. Injuries have limited him to 19 games, during which he has one assist and 23 penalty minutes, and he currently is on a conditioning stint in Wilkes-Barre, but his physical play could help him claim a spot on the third pairing when he returns to the NHL.
Pettersson, Marcus — He is becoming a modern-day version of Ron Francis: A guy who gets a lot of credit and recognition because he doesn’t get a lot of credit and recognition. With the likes of Karlsson and Letang on the roster, Pettersson wasn’t going to generate much attention — especially from people who don’t see him on a regular basis — but he’s been superb, especially defensively, so far. And people are noticing.
Like Graves, Pettersson is counted on to complement an offensively inclined partner. Unlike Graves, he’s done an excellent job of it. Pettersson became an unlikely hero by scoring the overtime winner in the Penguins’ final game before the break, but it put a fitting exclamation point on his season to this point.
Ruhwedel, Chad — Ruhwedel has considerable limitations, but recognizes and plays within them. While he’s unlikely to ever rise above a third pairing, Ruhwedel is responsible defensively and can give 12-14 minutes of mostly solid work, game-in and game-out.
Shea, Ryan — He was signed as a free agent last summer to provide some depth on the blue line, and has filled that role well enough. Shea has bounced between the Penguins and Wilkes-Barre this winter, and likely will make the trip a few more times before the season is over.
Hellberg, Magnus — Remember him? Hellberg has appeared in just three games — none since Nov. 9 in Los Angeles — but he’s acquitted himself well, stopping 64 of 69 shots. He won’t be back at this level in 2023-24 unless an injury creates an opening, but should attract some NHL interest if/when he goes back on the free-agent market this summer.
Jarry, Tristan — Jarry has been very good at times — it’s no accident that he’s tied for the NHL lead with five shutouts — but he hasn’t performed as well as the Pittsburgh Penguins need him to at others. Although every player, at every position, is going to have some games that are better than others, the Penguins must have Jarry keep his so-so nights to a minimum.
Nedeljkovic, Alex — If Nedeljkovic continues to play the way he has this season — he’s 8-3-3, with a 2.60 goals-against average and .918 save percentage — Dubas might be hard-pressed to re-sign him, because it’s quite possible another team will be willing to pay him like a No. 1 goaltender. Which is what he was projected to be while playing in Carolina a few years ago.