We are going to assign a grade to each player who plays on offense or defense for the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Pens are in first place in the Eastern Conference. At the same time, the Pens have experienced an up and down season of sorts. They started the year slowly playing .500 hockey in their first six games. Following, they ran off five straight wins. After their five game winning streak, the Pens again played .500 hockey in the ensuing six games.
Since the beginning of March, the Penguins have not lost a game. They’ve won 12 games in a row to be exact. The last seven wins have been spotlighted by shutdown defense. Through the ups and downs, most of the Pens have shined but others have room to improve. In a two part article, we will break down who is most responsible for the Pens’ success and who needs to pick up their game before the playoffs arrive. This first article is grading the goaltenders and defense. Look for part two on Tuesday for the grades of the Pens’ forwards.
Pittsburgh Penguins Goaltenders
Tomas Vokoun – B+
Vokoun has done his job as the backup. He did struggle through a small stretch where Pens’ fans were experiencing Brent Johnson flashbacks from a season ago. Vokoun surrendered 16 goals in a three game span. Following that trio of games, Vokoun was brought in cold off the bench against the Philadelphia Flyers. The Pens rallied back from a 4-1 first period deficit to win 5-4. Vokoun held down the fort during the comeback surrendering no goals. Since that relief appearance, Vokoun has been playing at a starter’s level. He’s won four in a row and only given up four goals during that time. Before and after Vokoun’s three game debacle, he’s been nothing but solid between the pipes. The back-up goaltending situation is secure with Vokoun posting eight wins in eleven starts.
Marc-Andre Fleury – A+
The Flower takes too much heat and people complain about his consistency. What else can you ask him to do? He wins. Fleury won five games in a row earlier in the season and is currently on a seven game ride as we speak. Fleury boasts a 17-5 record which is the most wins in the league for a net-minder. Fleury holds the highest winning-percentage among goaltenders who have played at least 15 games. Some argue that Fleury has won because he plays behind the highest scoring team in the league. In Fleury’s last five games, all being victories, he’s posted a shutout only yielding five goals. The Penguins have scored more than three goals once during that time. Fleury has made many spectacular saves when the Pens have fallen asleep in front of him during parts of games. His clutch play in these instances kept games within reach, usually ending in a Pens’ victory once the rest of the team was awaken. Fleury may not have the best goals against average or the highest save percentage, but he makes the timely saves when they’re needed the most.
Pittsburgh Penguins Defensemen
Kris Letang – A
Letang may be the most important player on the Pen’s talent-filled roster. The Pens are only a few games better than a .500 hockey club when Letang is in street clothes. He is, without a doubt, the most versatile defenseman in the show. Letang can get physical, score like a forward, and defend. Before aggravating a lower-body injury three games ago, Letang was having the best season of his young career. Letang leads all blue-liners in points and is third in the entire league with 25 assists. Letang is sometimes prone to giving the puck away being among the league leaders in that category, but Tanger is a one of a kind talent on defense. This has never been more evident than this season as Letang is one of the premier power-play point-men in the league.
Paul Martin – A
Martin has turned into a new player. He’s been the most consistent defenseman on the team and is earning every penny of his contract. Public enemy number one from a season ago, Martin has put himself in the good graces of Pens’ fans this year. Among NHL defensemen, Martin ranks third in in goal-scoring, seventh in points, and has shutdown opponents’ top scoring lines all year long. Martin deserves plenty of praise as he’s logged a ton of minutes. He’s second on the team in ice-time behind Letang with over 25 minutes a contest. Martin’s has also been a valuable asset on the power-play in Letang’s absence.
Brooks Orpik – B
Orpik ranks among the league leaders in plus-minus this season. He’s been assigned to shutdown opponents’ top lines on most nights, and has done a stellar job. There are some games that Orpik would rather forget when he has given pucks away or taken ill-advised penalties. He needs to sure up that part of his game and could improve his decision-making with the puck. Too his credit though, Orpik is the Pens most physical presence on the blue-line with 70 hits. He’s also been their vocal leader supporting the defensive style that the Pens have displayed of late. With a surplus of puck-moving defensemen, Orpik’s presence is needed every game.
Matt Niskanen – B-
Niskanen has done a solid job filling in on the first power-play unit when he has been called upon. The same can be said when he has anchored the point when the second power-play unit finds the ice. Niskanen has scored some big goals for the Pens this season while providing additional offense behind Martin and Letang. He’s only a plus one on a team that is the highest scoring team in the league. Niskanen could improve his defensive play, but sometimes the extra offense he’s added has been worth the shaky play in his own end.
Deryk Engelland – C-
What can we say about Engo? He is playing like a fifth or sixth defenseman on a team where he is a fifth or sixth defenseman. He has been a knockout artist in year’s past. This season he’s fought less. This is probably upon request from the Pens’ coaching staff. Engelland has been good at times and at other times he has been a disaster. When Engelland keeps the game simple he succeeds. When he’s tried to get too cute, he found himself in trouble. He needs to cut down on turnovers in his own zone, but has contributed some grit and toughness to the roster.
Simon Despres – C
Fans wonder why Despres has not played on a regular basis. He still shows some holes in his game. Despres can hold onto the puck too long at times resulting in bad giveaways. Turnovers by Despres have usually resulted from an opponent taking the body on him. This has caused Despres to cough up the puck. Despres hasn’t dressed against teams the Pens’ coaching staff considers to be physical. This has been due to giveaways taking place more than the staff would like to accept. At other times, he has shown brilliant speed, size and skill. Despres has improved drastically from a year ago, but he still has to wait until next year to become an everyday player.
Robert Bortuzzo – B+
Bortuzzo has been solid on the back end. He’s provided size and been a consistent physical presence when penciled into the line-up. Bortuzzo has kept his game very simple and hasn’t tried to force the famous stretch pass that everyone associates with the Pens. He has flipped the puck high out of the defensive zone or thrown the puck high off the glass if a tape-to-tape pass isn’t available. Bortuzzo has made very few mistakes and hasn’t been officially recorded as having one giveaway this season by NHL statisticians.
Mark Eaton – A-
Eaton was supposed to be a seventh or eighth defenseman who would provide a veteran presence in the locker room, especially come playoff time. He was thought to find his way into the line-up when circumstances presented an opportunity. Eaton has found himself in the line-up every game and provided much more than anyone ever expected. When a player of Eaton’s caliber is being effective, people do not notice him. Eaton hasn’t been noticed often which means he is playing a spectacular brand of defense. Since his return to the team, the Pens’ penalty kill has vastly improved. This is no coincidence.
Justin Glock has covered the Pittsburgh Penguins for The Hockey Writers since 2011. As a lead writer, his Penguins knowledge traces back over two decades. For any requests, please feel free to contact Justin via email: JGlock10@gmail.com.