Over the last few decades, the Pittsburgh Penguins have been a starstudded team with a steady stream of All-Stars and Hall of Famers. Stanley Cups and adulations have flowed to players who wore the crest of the flightless bird.
However, more than a few players were castoffs or written off elsewhere but hit the pay streak of chocolate bunnies, Peeps, and Swedish Fish (Happy Easter, everyone!) in Pittsburgh.
After initially struggling to fill a Top 5 list for players who turned their careers around with the Penguins, we were suddenly flooded with potentials. Of course, the list is somewhat subjective. Do we include Bryan Trottier? He was cast aside by the New York Islanders in 1991 for the crime of hitting his mid-30s. He was invaluable to the rise of the 1991 Penguins, but his statistics weren’t eye-popping, and the Penguins were his last stop.
Trottier didn’t make our list, but the center who fed the rookie Jaromir Jagr and helped him through that season deserves some recognition.
There have also been players who had a surprising run with the Penguins but returned to ineffective after leaving the Penguins, too. A few of those players almost made the list. So, one stipulation to make the Top 5 is a follow-up contract.
Top 5 Players Who Resurrected their Careers with the Pittsburgh Penguins
5. Matt Niskanen
Niskanen had become a rattled defenseman and press box dweller with the Dallas Stars. Near the 2011 trade deadline, the Penguins gave up offensive defenseman Alex Goligoski who was establishing himself as a solid two-way defenseman in exchange for winger James Neal. Penguins GM Ray Shero also got Niskanen as a throw-in.
Mark this as one of the best trades of Shero’s career. Neal and Evgeni Malkin formed a wicked scoring line, and the trade rejuvenated Niskaken. Niskanen began to earn a greater role and place with the Penguins. In 2013-14, Niskanen scored a career-high 10 goals and 46 points. He earned a fat seven-year, $40 million payday from the Washington Capitals on July 1, 2014, and he maintained a 30-plus point pace for six years in Washington.
Niskanen has been a top-four NHL defenseman for eight years, including this season in Philadelphia.
4. Justin Schultz
Schultz has been up and down and over and out. The current Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman was the premier attraction on the college free-agent market in 2012. He held court at his agent’s office in Toronto, where teams pitched their best offers. Schultz surprised everyone when he chose the Edmonton Oilers, who were restocking their organization with a string of top-three draft choices.
Schultz was supposed to be one of the last pieces of the puzzle. He had an excellent start to his career with 27 points (9g, 18a) in his first 48 games, but things quickly soured.
Over the next two-and-a-half seasons, Schultz was thrust into top-pairing minutes and responsibility. His game and confidence crumbled. It wasn’t long before the new hockey internet, and social media mob tagged him, “the worst defenseman in the NHL.”
At the 2016 NHL trade deadline, Penguins GM Jim Rutherford was able to pluck Schultz from Edmonton for only a third-round pick. Schultz’s game began to rebound. A Stanley Cup ring followed.
In 2016-2017, Schultz had a career year with 51 points (12g, 39a), and was a pivotal factor in replacing Kris Letang, who was injured and lost for the remainder of the season in February. Schultz became the primary offensive source on the Penguins blue line.
Schultz inked a follow-up three-year, $5.5 million contract.
3. Robert Lang
For three-plus seasons, the LA Kings shuttled Lang back and forth between NHL and the AHL. In 1997-98, the Penguins plucked the Czech center off the scrap heap, twice. The Penguins signed Lang as a free agent but then lost him to the Boston Bruins in the late September Waiver Draft. The Penguins re-claimed Lang a month later when Boston tried to slip him through waivers, too.
That was the end of Lang’s roller-coaster ride, and it was straight up from there.
Over the next five seasons, Lang became a central figure for the Pittsburgh Penguins and centered the prominent second line with Marty Straka and Alex Kovalev. Lang popped 80 points, including 32 goals in 2000-01. He scored 50 points (18g, 32a) the following season and got a five-year, $25 million contract from the Washington Capitals.
Lang played eight more seasons in the NHL. Not bad for a guy selected in the Waiver Draft.
2. Marty Straka
The Pittsburgh Penguins selected Martin Straka with the 19th selection in the 1992 NHL Draft, and he scored 30 goals in 1993-94, which was his first full NHL season. However, Straka didn’t continue his arc, and the Penguins traded him to Ottawa, one year later. Straka’s downward trend continued as Ottawa traded him to the New York Islanders who shortly thereafter waived him. Florida claimed him but didn’t re-sign him, just one season later.
The Penguins signed Straka as a UFA for the 1997-98 season, and the relationship soared. Straka played the next seven seasons with the Penguins, including a 27-goal, 95-point season in 2000-01. Straka became a key player as financial hardship besieged the Penguins, and players you don’t remember or don’t want to remember filled the roster.
Straka-Lang-Kovalev became the primary Penguins line, at least as long as the Penguins could afford it.
1. Pascal Dupuis
In fairness, Straka had the better statistical resurrection with the Penguins, but Dupuis became a beloved fan favorite and locker room pillar. He was a throw-in when the Penguins acquired Marian Hossa to chase the 2008 Stanley Cup. Months later, Hossa bolted for the victorious Detroit Red Wings, and all the Penguins had left was the sour taste of defeat and Dupuis.
That was a pretty good combination, and the Penguins won the 2009 Stanley Cup. Dupuis became a featured winger beside Sidney Crosby and Chris Kunitz but had his best offensive season without Crosby. “Dupper” scored 25 goals in 2011-12 and 20 more in 2012-13.
Dupuis played eight more seasons in the NHL, and all with the Pittsburgh Penguins before blood clot issues forced him to retire in 2015-16, just before the Penguins won another Stanley Cup.
In 2007-08, Dupuis had 15 points in 62 games for the Atlanta Thrashers, before the Penguins acquired him. He had 12 points in 16 games after the trade and found his hockey home.