The Pittsburgh Penguins hit the halfway point of the disjointed 2020-21 NHL season with their sixth straight win on Monday night. Fittingly, there won’t be any time for reflection because it was the first of back-to-back games with the Boston Bruins.
But that’s why we’re here. This has not been a normal season, and many veterans across the league started a step slow. Very few teams quickly hit their stride, and it’s in that context that we’ll grade the Penguins first half.
“We’re just we’re competing hard and we’re giving ourselves a chance every night. And, you know, that’s what we need to do. That compete level has got to be there. That’s a strength of our team,” Sidney Crosby said. “Obviously, speed is too. But just the urgency, the desperation playing physical, we need to be strong on pucks. Those are things that need to be there every night…”
Pittsburgh Penguins Report Card:
Overall Team Grade: B
At 18-9-1, the Pittsburgh Penguins have had the tougher road amongst the top five teams in the division. They’ve played only two games against the bottom-end cupcakes, Buffalo Sabres and New Jersey Devils. Making the playoffs seem to be a solid bet, though still not a given.
We’ll grade the Penguins’ progression, process, and how it stands against others in the division. In third place, they’ve beaten the New York Islanders four times, but New York has a commanding five-point lead and a nine-game win streak.
The Penguins breakouts and speed game have dramatically improved over the past 12 games. The defense has gotten healthy and jelled. Mike Matheson has added a spark, and Cody Ceci has added a two-way solidness that has been missing.
All arrows are pointing up, but the Penguins won’t win the next 28. They can ill afford a losing streak to give back the gains they’ve made.
Sidney Crosby: A-
Crosby has been great at times. He was one of the few players who started strong this season. There were a few more mistakes than usual, and his point production was below career normal pace. However, a three-point night (1g, 2a) pushed him over the point-per-game threshold.
Crosby has 29 points (11g, 18a) in 27 games.
Jake Guentzel: B+
The quiet assassin has amassed 26 points in 28 games and has nine power-play points. Call it a glass-half-full or empty question that one-third of his point total is on the power play. Guentzel has been backchecked well, forechecked well, and otherwise played his steady, quiet game.
He needs to pick up the even-strength production.
Bryan Rust: A+
Rust has easily been the most consistent and aggressive Pittsburgh Penguins player this season. He was shot out of a cannon and has not relented. His offensive game has taken another step forward.
He’s receded from his point-per-game pace, but that was too much to ask. Rust does everything else, in addition to scoring points. He has 20 points, including nine goals this season.
Jason Zucker: C-
Until his long-term injury, he was floundering on the Penguins’ second line. Zucker and Evgeni Malkin were not producing, not defending well enough, and the line was largely dependent on the contributions of Bryan Rust.
Zucker shares the blame. For $5.5 million AAV, seven points (4g, 3a) in 17 games isn’t up to standards.
Evgeni Malkin: B-
Malkin was well behind, and we have to hold that against him for his mid-season grade. Like turning in poor homework assignments, but acing the midterms. Malkin is in prime form now and his play on Monday night cemented that evaluation.
The third leading all-time Russian scorer in the NHL has 24 points (8g, 16a) in 28 games and is on the wrong side of the +/- ledger, but if we grade the last 10 games, he gets a solid A.
Kasperi Kapanen: B
His report card would show recent high marks, too. This semester, he’s been absent and tardy but has buckled down in the last two weeks with Malkin.
Kapanen’s speed, defensive ability, and abilities to play with and without the puck have been striking–when he’s on his toes, which hasn’t always been the case.
There’s a bit of Marian Hossa in Kapanen’s game, and we don’t say that lightly. He needs to consistently bring that 200-foot element.
Zach Aston-Reese: B
Aston-Reese is trim, quicker, and in abbreviated sample size has been very good. He has six points in 17 games (5g, 1a) and has cooled since scoring three goals and four points in his first four games back from the LTIR list.
As a third liner, he’ll need to chip in more consistently, even as his play remains steady. He works hard in the corners and immediately improved the penalty-killing unit. His extra step has allowed him to get to a few more pucks, too.
Teddy Blueger: A
Blueger keeps upping his game. He was a very good fourth-line center last season but has adopted the third-line center role with aplomb. The Penguins’ third line does not have much natural offensive talent. There is no Phil Kessel on the wing leading the charge with Nick Bonino, but Blueger is scoring at a pace well above that of Bonino with the Penguins in the Stanley Cup years.
Blueger has 15 points (4g, 11a) in 28 games, including two shorthanded goals. If the Penguins put their chips on Blueger as their third-line center, they surely could do a lot worse (and recently have, repeatedly).
Brandon Tanev: A+
Tanev didn’t score a point in the 4-1 win over Boston, which snapped his four-game point streak. Tanev has never been known for offense, but he’s providing pressure every game and enough ink on the stat sheet to be credible. He’s easily on a career-scoring pace. In fact, if he maintains his pace, he could equal his 29 points of 2018-19.
Tanev has 13 points (6g, 7a) but is also fourth in the league with 123 hits. The Penguins need more players like Tanev.
Fourth Line: F
All four players in the rotation, including center Mark Jankowski, have been below expectations. We’ll exclude rookie Drew O’Connor who was thrust into duty out of training camp without any prior professional seasoning. O’Connor was vanilla, but Sam Lafferty, Jankowski, and Colton Sceviour have not been trustworthy, productive, or provided energy.
Recent flickers of hope weren’t enough to up their grade. The line has consistently been on the wrong side of the puck, which is only highlighted by their matchup against other fourth lines.
The only player without a big minus is Anthony Angello, who has provided a little bang for the Penguins buck. Angello himself earns a B on the curve. Combined, the four players have nine points and are a minus-14.
Kris Letang: B
Recent returns have been very good. Letang was also behind at the start of the season, which invited every Letang critic to flood the internet. The Penguins’ top defenseman has been very good–VERY good over the past 12 games.
It’s not a coincidence the Penguins’ uptick has coincided with Letang’s uptick, too. Letang is still one of the straws that stir the Penguins drink. He has 20 points (5g, 15a) and is a plus-11.
Brian Dumoulin: Incomplete (But would be an A)
Dumoulin hasn’t played much hockey in the last two seasons, but he adds a stabilizing presence when he’s around. Letang is better, and the entire corps is better with him in the lineup. He’s also one of the few defenders who can clear the net.
Mike Matheson: A-
He is what he is, but the Penguins are getting the best version. He adds that offensive dynamic to the second pairing that the team desperately wanted from Justin Schultz but didn’t get it for the duration of Schultz’s three-year contract.
Matheson plays well enough defensively, too. Let’s stop this undercurrent that Matheson is terrible defensively. Nip it in the bud before it takes hold. One of our trusted hockey sources, who is a professional coach, called criticisms of Matheson “Laughable.”
Matheson creates breakouts by skating past the first wave, which opens the ice for everyone. He only has four points (2g, 2a), but the offensive chances he helps create for the bottom-six are a big (and unnoticed) difference with these Penguins.
Considering the worry when the Penguins acquired him, Matheson is acquitting himself well.
Cody Ceci: A+
Both ends of the rink. Ceci has been a revelation with the Penguins. He is perhaps playing some of the best hockey of his career. He added defensive stability and has chipped in offensively. He’s a huge bargain at $1.25 million.
Marcus Pettersson: D
Pettersson has been poor this season. He played only 12 minutes on Monday night. Head coach Mike Sullivan has called for him to be more consistent. He’s quickly fading. (Just as PHN wrote), forecheckers can get to Pettersson, and he has to be stronger on the wall.
The East Division is full of teams with aggressive forechecks and gritty, low-zone players.
John Marino: C
Marino has been up and down, and it seems the second-year NHL player hasn’t yet found his groove. His mysterious injury has seemingly morphed from needing a maintenance day to skating with the skills coach.
Marino is still an easy defenseman to play with; his work beside P.O. Joseph when Kris Letang was injured was inspired work. Marino played 30 minutes in two straight games and was brilliant. However, he has also disappeared into the background too often too.
Perhaps the reset will be a refresh.
P.O. Joseph: A+
Grading on the curve, the greenhorn wasn’t ready but played out of his skates. Just wait until he is ready.
Tristan Jarry: A.
Rough start. Great since. Jarry has upped his save percentage to .906, but more importantly, how many points has Jarry stolen? At least six by our count, but probably more. Jarry has done more than give the Penguins a chance to win. He has propelled them to wins.
The Penguins have a legit No. 1 goalie. THAT is the biggest reason to begin to believe in the team.
Casey DeSmith: A+.
Perfect backup goalie participation. He’s 5-2-0 and has been solid when called. There was some question if the Penguins would look for a more experienced backup, but DeSmith has quelled that talk.
Mike Sullivan: A-
The Penguins were decimated with injuries, their stars were a step behind, and their starting goalie began the season in arrears.
Yet Sullivan didn’t lose the room. He cobbled together lineups and properly motivated the troops. Now that the Penguins are healthy, the breakouts are humming, the offensive zone movement is crisp, and the team is coming together.
It could have gone south, and Sullivan deserves the credit for keeping the team afloat.
Todd Reirden/Mike Vellucci: C
The special teams have improved over the past two weeks, but the power play and penalty kill unit still rank 23rd.
Reirden likely deserves some credit for helping Cody Ceci achieve his best game, as well as working with Matheson, but you can’t give too much credit and not take the debits of Marino and Pettersson, too.
Ron Hextall: All Courses Incomplete.
Penguins Power Play: C-
The 23rd ranked until in the NHL has been better, but it still walks a tightrope of too much fancy movement and not enough aggressive attack. Malkin’s PPG on Monday night was a great example of when it works. Now, it needs to work more often.
Penguins Penalty Kill: C-
With Brian Dumoulin and Zach Aston-Reese, the PK has elevated. Teddy Blueger and Brandon Tanev are two of the most aggressive penalty killers in the league. When they’re attacking, the Penguins are winning the battle.
But, 23rd is 23rd. Things must continue to improve.
PPG Paints Arena Staff: A++
What great people. Masks on, smiling eyes, and a welcoming word. We’re all happy to be back, and the arena staff is well tenured. They wouldn’t miss hockey for anything, and they’ve made the cumbersome process of checking in and limitations as easy as possible.
Stick tap to the arena staff and to the Pittsburgh Penguins staff. Under trying times, it’s been a well-run process.