It’s an honest question without objective answers. The Pittsburgh Penguins management is undoubtedly debating and discussing the same thing.
How much weight should the Penguins playoff performances count towards their final grade?
The best answer we can offer is: It depends. Sidney Crosby couldn’t seem to cover Islanders winger Anthony Beauvillier in the Round One series, but of course that doesn’t diminish Crosby’s value or final grade.
The Islanders’ defense gobbled up Jake Guentzel. One goal, and no even-strength goals in the Round One series, isn’t a great resume enhancer on the heels of just two goals in the last two playoff campaigns. Guentzel’s job is to score.
Does that lower his grade? Well, yes, it does. It’s one thing to tank the course final because it’s a bad day. It’s another to flunk the big test because the test was too difficult. And that’s where Guentzel finds himself. Though full credit to the winger, he seemed to fully acknowledge the necessary changes.
If the Penguins were still playing, several of the grades would be much higher. It’s an unfortunate fact of sports–results help to judge the process.
One interesting note that you and I can laugh about. Remember when you and I used to joke that head coach Mike Sullivan would set the lines only so he could juggle them in the second period? The Penguins’ line combos were remarkably steady this season. That was in part by choice and in part because of a lack of options due to health.
Pittsburgh Penguins Report Card:
Top Line: Guentzel-Crosby-Rust: A
They didn’t get an A+ because, upon further review, there were a couple of trends in the advanced stats that didn’t show nearly as well as you would expect.
First, a singular line on which all three players scored 20 or more goals in a 56-game season is ridiculous. Crosby had 24 goals, Guentzel 23, and Rust 22.
The Pittsburgh Penguins premier players had the highest Expected Goals stat in the league. At 26.9, they were higher than MacKinnon-Landeskog-Rantanen (25.7) and Marchessault-Karlsson-Smith (25.7), according to MoneyPuck.com.
Without Evgeni Malkin for half of the season, the Penguins’ top line carried the team. They outscored opponents 34-24 in 55 games, but the eye tests also say they dominated.
Bryan Rust had his finest season.
However, the dry ink says they did really well but didn’t dominate. They only had a 52% expected-goals-for ratio and only 54% of the scoring chances. Most surprising, they only had 51% of the high-danger chances.
Perhaps it’s time for Sidney Crosby more often to draw easier assignments than the opposing top line.
The playoffs were another matter for the line. Crosby zigged when he should have zagged against the Islanders’ second line with Brock Nelson and Anthony Beauvillier but was ever impactful. Rust was very good and charged head-first into the New York Islanders packed net front. Jake Guentzel…not as much and not enough. Guentzel was smothered in the series, and he admitted as much.
“I’ve got to find a better way to produce and do my job there, so I take responsibility for that, and I let a lot of people down. But I’ve just got to find a way to put the puck in and make plays and be better there,” Guentzel said.
Crosby and Rust were impactful, but they needed more help.
Individual: Crosby- A. Rust- A+. Guentzel- B.
Second Line: Zucker-Malkin-Kapanen: C
We like the chemistry with Evgeni Malkin and Kasperi Kapanen but didn’t like that Malkin was again injured for a significant amount of time (23 games) or that Malkin was unprepared for the start of the season. We understood Malkin’s predicament because ice time isn’t as plentiful in Russia, especially during a pandemic, but we didn’t like it.
Kapanen had hot streaks with all of his centers, including Malkin, Jeff Carter, and even Teddy Blueger. Kapanen also had some ice-cold streaks.
Zucker missed 18 games, too.
This trio played only 18 games together, and their output was a very mixed bag. They scored 58% of the goals but had only 44% of the scoring chances. They had only 34% of the high-danger scoring chances but scored 62.5% of the high danger goals while on the ice.
Go figure. Malkin and Kapanen didn’t need many chances to get it right, but they surely gave up a lot of chances.
In the playoffs, a tender-knee Malkin trod water. With nearly 86% of their faceoffs in the offensive zone, they were about even in most categories. Malkin gets a pass for his playoff performances, especially in Games 3 and 4 because he couldn’t skate to the level he needed.
Malkin was very good in Games 5 and 6. Kapanen was a ball of energy, and Zucker had his best games.
However, the worst thing the last two playoff games could do is give the Penguins hope this line can work, as-is. Zucker and Malkin are oil and water. North-South and all over the map. Zip and zag.
Individual grades: Zucker- C. Malkin- B-. Kapanen- B+
Third Line: McCann-Carter-Gaudreau: A+
B?! For the regular season, this line and its iterations beside Jeff Carter get a solid A+. Carter filled the net. He had nine goals in 14 regular-season games and four more goals in the Round One series. Jared McCann ripped ’em past the goalies. Frederick Gaudreau quietly weaved his way through traffic, found loose pucks, won faceoffs, killed penalties, and chipped in some offense, too.
Remember Carter’s four-goal game? Of course, you do.
In the playoffs, Carter kept scoring. Gaudreau kept chipping in, too. But McCann left them hanging in the offensive zone. Like a tepid lion first setting foot on grass, McCann seemed to ease into the playoff sphere. His three career assists get louder and louder.
In the regular season, McCann ripped it up, too. The zippy forward with a Howitzer-like wrister had 32 points (14-18-32) in 44 games. It was easily his best points-per-game output in his career.
But when you flunk the final and don’t have a good reason, your grade takes a big hit.
Individual grades: McCann- B, Carter- A, Gaudreau- A
Fourth Line: Aston-Reese–Blueger–Tanev: A+
How do you not love this Pittsburgh Penguins line? Clearly, head coach Mike Sullivan digs Turbo and the boys who can shut down opposing top lines, and this season contributed at career paces.
Brandon Tanev scored 16 points (7-9-16) and more points per game (.5) than he ever has. Zach Aston-Reese scored a career-high nine goals.
The line was a spark plug, an offensive contributor, and a shutdown defensive line. Quick–how many goals did Mathew Barzal have in the Round One series? None. Jordan Eberle didn’t score until later in the series, and that was on Crosby & Co.
Individual Grades: Still A+. They grind, beat, bang, defend and score with the best fourth-liners in the league.
Tomorrow–the defensemen and Tristan Jarry. There will be some glowing grades and a couple of unkind marks.