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Penguins Halfway Report Card: Changes and Big Questions



Pittsburgh Penguins, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin

The Pittsburgh Penguins have played 41 games, bringing them to the halfway point of their NHL season. Technically, the team is well above .500 at 20-15-6, but the last two numbers mean the team lost more games than it won.

And they remain outside of a playoff spot, one of six teams in a wild-card battle royal. The standings and order change from day to day, but the Penguins have not been in a playoff spot since the beginning week of the season.

To the Penguins credit, they’re a different and better team today than they were at puck-drop on Oct. 10 against the Chicago Blackhawks.

The offseason was full of change, just as the first 41 games were. Pairings, lines, and tactics have evolved.

To the Penguins’ detriment, they’re not yet good enough. With seven wins and 17 of a possible 24 points, the NHL’s “old men” have erased their substantial deficit but fell short in their last two games against top opponents.

Standing alone atop the Penguins’ issues is the power play, which has been an inexplicable mess, exacerbating the jelling of new players and the need for points. At a rock bottom 13% conversion rate, it’s been bad and an albatross.

The mid-point report card comes with the largest question the organization has faced in nearly two decades. Are the Penguins improving enough to soldier forward? Or is this all they have, and the end is near?

The Penguins’ mid-term grade: C-

They’re slightly below average, but with a strong second half, they can pass the course and graduate to the NHL playoffs. The improvements speak well of their potential.

Specifically, the team has shown a willingness to adopt far more gritty play, especially around the net. It seems when the Penguins adhere to the principles that get them there and follow through with the “extra mile” to get space in the greasiest areas of the ice, they’re a winning team.

When they fall short — as they’ve done for most of the last two games against the Vancouver Canucks and Carolina Hurricanes, respectively — they’re not just a losing team, they’re a soft, unsuccessful team.

It seems the team needs more fire throughout the lineup, and a bit more aggression. Crosby has provided more than enough fire, but that hunger is in short supply. Some pot-stirring and dragging themselves into the fight more often couldn’t hurt.

Penguins Player Grades:

Tristan Jarry: B+

Until recently, the goalie led the league in shutouts (4). He’s posted a .913 save percentage and well above-average advanced stats. According to Hockey Reference, Jarry has 7.6 goals saved above average and a .630 quality start percentage.

However, when he’s off, he’s been well off his game, leading to some questions about his consistency. Overall, he’s been very good.

Alex Nedeljkovic: A+

Nedeljkovic has far exceeded expectations. He’s got a .916 save percentage, a 5.9 goals saved above average, and a .615 quality start rate. More importantly, Nedeljkovic has pushed Jarry to be better. The tandem has pushed itself to a greater level.

Nedelkovic has flashed a good glove and anticipation.

Erik Karlsson: C

He’s on pace for 60 points, which would be good enough for most defensemen, but he’s on pace to reach only 60% of last year’s output. Factoring the adjustment period and the likely designs to maximize Karlsson’s abilities, it hasn’t been bad, but it’s not been good.

The Penguins’ power play failure is reaching epic levels, converting only about 13% of the chances. A lot of that rests on Karlsson as the power-play quarterback.

Ryan Graves: D

It’s been a rocky road for the 6-foot-4 defenseman who was to be Brian Dumoulin’s replacement as the defensive rock of the top pair. However, it’s been a tough go. He’s been a little softer than expected and not as defensively aware as needed.

After being dropped to the third pairing last week, Graves had a few solid games, and on Sunday, coaches moved Graves back to Karlsson’s left.

Marcus Pettersson: A+

He’s been nothing short of great. He’s held the fort when his first defensive partner, Karlsson, freelanced too much. He’s shutdown odd-man rushes when forwards get sloppy. And he’s been steady every game.

Kris Letang: A

It’s been the best defensive season of Letang’s career. He’s been a little more unpredictable over the last several games, but that doesn’t erase forming a shutdown pairing with Pettersson. He’s been smart and defended with a little edge.

P.O Joseph: D

Much more was expected, but struggled begot more struggles, and very quickly, he was out of the lineup in favor of Ryan Shea. He returned to the lineup when John Ludvig suffered an upper-body injury and was much better before a recent dip. Joseph has much more to give.

Chad Ruhwedel: A

Last season, he looked like he was done. This season, he had a rough start but stabilized to play perfectly steady and reliable hockey. That’s his job as the third-pair defenseman, and he’s performed it well.

John Ludvig, Ryan Shea: A

Both far outperformed expectations. Neither is a top-four defenseman, and Shea probably has a ceiling as a seventh defenseman, but both surpassed what was thought possible.

Penguins Forwards

Jake Guentzel, Sidney Crosby: A+

Crosby should receive considerable Hart Trophy consideration. On too many nights, the Penguins offense has been almost exclusively Crosby and Guentzel. Crosby has been a driving force, with emphasis on force.

Crosby has 24 goals and 44 points in 41 games. Guentzel has 46 points and 19 goals.

Evgeni Malkin: B-

Malkin gets points for a great start and a bump after the Christmas break. His production has come in spurts, leading to a healthy stat line of 15 goals and 35 points. However, he’s also looked slower and has not driven enough offense. His work on the power play adds to the negative grade. At 37 years old, Malkin’s play has begun to raise questions.

Reilly Smith: D

Smith hasn’t replaced Jason Zucker’s on-ice production. He had just two goals in his last 29 games before suffering an upper-body injury on an awkward hit against Vancouver on Thursday. Smith has 20 points (8-12-20), but a majority were scored in the opening few weeks of the season.

Lars Eller, Noel Acciari: B, and Improving

Both centers were signed via free agency, and both had an adjustment period. And both have become more assertive over the last month. Eller has recently found his top gear, and Acciari has solidified the fourth line and penalty-killing unit. He’s been very good, too. There’s a lot to like about their performances, especially in the defensive zone.

Drew O’Connor: C+ and Improving

O’Connor’s work for much of the first half was quiet — too quiet. However, he began to add pieces and layers to his game when called upon to play in the top six. The lessons manifested in mid-December when O’Connor’s game visibly took a large step forward. He started to look like a power forward.

Jeff Carter, Jansen Harkins: B+

Yes, we’re giving Jeff Carter a B. He looked like a player at the end of the road in early November. A couple of healthy scratches had many, including us, writing his career epitaph. However, he got back in the lineup and has been a solid fourth-liner with a little bit of offensive pop.

Harkins has steadily improved this season. His initial audition in the first few games did not go well. Since then, he’s begun to figure it out. He’s been fast and tenacious and created some offense with a heavy forecheck.

Mike Sullivan: B+

The coach has helped transform the team. It teetered on being lost, and Sullivan should get credit for the turnaround. The power play does rest with him, though associate coach Todd Reirden is the coordinator.

Think again if you thought Sullivan lost the team.