Not every fan favorite or prominent player provided the same tangible value as they did in the team’s internal perceptions or the external emotions of the paying public. The Pittsburgh Penguins have been blessed with nearly a handful of the greatest players of all time, such as Sidney Crosby and Mario Lemieux, or at least their generation, like Evgeni Malkin and Jaromir Jagr.
Saturday, we rolled through the most underrated Penguins players to pull on a flightless bird sweater.
Of course, while being underrated can be a compliment, being overrated is the inverse, and we do so without malice. Should Ryan Whitney, viewed by many as a potential No. 1 defenseman but never got there, be on the list? What about Jeff Petry, who was supposed to be a top defenseman capable of shouldering part of the load previously carried solely by Kris Letang but was traded after one average season?
What about Milan Kraft and Alexei Morozov, from whom much was expected and several years of NHL contracts were delivered, but little production was received?
No, we had to separate expectations from performance value and perceptions to get to the final five.
In the end, the list will probably rankle a few hearts, but that would be the very reason a few players made the list.
Top 5 Overrated Pittsburgh Penguins
First, the honorable mentions: Mike Ramsey, Jeff Petry, and Stu Barnes. Chris Kunitz is a unique case. His profile was raised to the level of making Team Canada. That was an overreach that caused great controversy, but he remained uniquely valuable to the Penguins.
5. Matt Murray
In 2016, the Penguins’ goalie was in high demand on the NHL trade market as the fourth-round pick became dominant at the lower levels. The Penguins had Marc-Andre Fleury in the NHL net and second-rounder Tristan Jarry on the way, but former GM Jim Rutherford made him off-limits. Murray was heralded as a potential Ken Dryden when he won two Stanley Cups while still having his rookie designation.
The Penguins chose him over Fleury, but Murray’s weaknesses were soon exposed. He’s on his third team in four years and hasn’t found nearly the success he did as a rookie. His NHL future is in doubt, and he’ll be placed on LTIR this season at just 29 years old.
4. Jocelyn Thibault
Another goalie. Thibault was part of the Penguins’ 2005-06 big-name shopping spree. Former GM Craig Patrick went after big names and built a team of name-brand players who were not necessarily still at their best. The team, which featured Mario Lemieux’s final season and Sidney Crosby’s first, was an abomination.
Thibault was supposed to be the No. 1 goalie, but a hip injury and ineffectiveness limited him to just 16 games, and he won just one. He played 22 games the following season before finishing his career with 12 games in Buffalo in 2007-08.
3. Dick Tarnstrom
Tarnstrom was a quiet defender on the more talented teams, but when the Pittsburgh Penguins could no longer afford much more than a free lunch, Tarnstrom became the team’s leading scorer in 2003-04. Tarnstrom scored 52 points (16-36-52) in 80 games.
His value in Pittsburgh soared. However, the rest of the league yawned. When the Penguins put him on the NHL trade block, the trade return from the Edmonton Oilers was only Cory Cross and Jani Rita. The Penguins received six games from Cross and 30 from Rita before both finished their careers in Europe.
2. Robert Lang
Lang was the middle of the KLS line with Alexei Kovalev and Martin Straka. The line was dynamic and carried the team as Mario Lemieux battled ownership issues and age. The Penguins could not afford to re-sign Lang but held onto him past the 2002 trade deadline in the futile fight to make the playoffs.
As a free agent, Lang signed a whopping five-year, $25 million deal with the Washington Capitals. The Capitals traded him before the end of his second season with the team. He played a couple of seasons with Detroit before finishing his NHL career with Montreal, Chicago, and the formerly Phoenix Coyotes in successive seasons.
Lang was never again as important or successful as he was with the Penguins, and perhaps Lang looked a lot better between Straka and Kovalev than he otherwise would have.
1. Darius Kasparaitis
The fan-favorite picked up where Ulf Samuelsson left off as the fearsome hitter on the Penguins blue line. There is no doubt fans loved Kasparaitis, but there is some doubt about how valuable the Lithuanian defenseman was. He didn’t score many points, just 83 in 405 games with the Penguins, didn’t move the puck terribly well, and wasn’t great in the defensive zone. Kasparaitis often left his position to make a hit, which could put his team in a bad spot.
That it is near-heresy to criticize Kasparaitis among Penguins fans is the very reason he made the list. He had a role on the team, but the analytics community would have hammered him if it existed then, and he would be viewed much differently in the current-day analysis. Some critiqued him on those negatives back then, too. The New York Islanders did. Regardless of his popularity, just how valuable he was to the Penguins is debatable.
But he sure was fun.