The Pittsburgh Penguins have reached the halfway point of the truncated 2020-21 NHL season, and it’s been turbulent, to say the least. Many key players were snake-bitten by slow starts but have since come around. Through 29 games, the Penguins sit third in the Mass Mutual East Division with an 18-10-1 record and 37 points.
Everyone has contributed this season, so here’s a rundown of the Penguins squad and their grade through the first half to see where things could be improved.
Sidney Crosby: A
Captain Sidney Crosby has been a source of calm in an otherwise hectic beginning to the season off the ice. A general manager change and a laundry list of injuries have led to the Penguins’ rocky start, but Crosby has been his same consistent self despite a slow start and some outlandish trade rumors. He is one of the best players to ever play the game for a reason.
After missing one game, Crosby has 11 goals and 18 assists for a team-high 29 points this season. Where else would No. 87 be? The Penguins haven’t missed the playoffs since 2006, and that is due in large part to their captain.
Jake Guentzel: A
The 2020-21 season has been quiet for Jake Guentzel so far, but he is second on the team in scoring and has been finding a new element to his game on the power play. After Patric Hornqvist was traded to the Florida Panthers, the team needed a new net-front presence with the man advantage. Enter the 26-year-old Guentzel.
The Penguins have struggled on the power play this season, but Guentzel has been a threat in the crease, which is promising. Three of his 11 goals and six of his 15 assists were scored with the man advantage.
Bryan Rust: B+
After a breakout season in 2019-20, expectations were high for Bryan Rust to continue his dominant play, and he has done just that. Jumping onto the top line with Crosby and Guentzel, Rust has nine goals and 11 assists in 29 games. He is one of only four players to have played in each of the team’s 29 games.
Rust with Evgeni Malkin and Jason Zucker was slated to be a top second-line in the NHL, but Malkin and Zucker were slow off the blocks. Rust was steady early and was bumped up to the first line shortly after the season started.
Evgeni Malkin: B-
This grade would be much lower if Malkin had not turned his game around to become one of the team’s biggest scoring threats. He may not have reached a point-per-game pace, and a recent injury may sideline him for some time, but getting his game back on track was likely the most important boost for the Penguins.
Malkin’s poor start was widely acknowledged, and he simply wasn’t good enough. In 29 games, he has eight goals and 16 assists; 17 of those points were scored in the last 15 games.
Kasperi Kapanen: B+
Kasperi Kapanen’s return to Pittsburgh has been successful so far. He was primed for a breakout season as one of the league’s top stars, and joining forces with Malkin has been beneficial. Kapanen has been a clutch performer with three game-winning goals when every win is crucial in a shortened season.
His late arrival and the brief time when he was benched by head coach Mike Sullivan has brought his grade down a touch, but there’s a ton of upside still to come from Kapanen this year. He has been able to find success on every line he’s played in just about every game. Through 26 games, he has seven goals and 13 assists. In a full 82-game season, he would be on pace to shatter his career-high 44 points.
Jared McCann: B-
The mark for Jared McCann is a little fragile since he has missed 12 games with a pair of injuries. He was also one of many Penguins who got off to a slow start, but the games between injuries were impressive. In 17 games, McCann has five goals and five assists. With injuries to the forward core piling up, he will likely be called upon to move to centre.
Evan Rodrigues: B-
Evan Rodrigues has used his speed and skillful skating to effectively fit in on all four lines. A healthy Penguins roster might not feature Rodrigues, but he has done a great job when called upon. In 13 games, he has two goals and three assists.
Teddy Blueger: A+
Arguably one of the Penguins’ most important players, it is going to be hard to replace what Teddy Blueger brings to the team. An upper-body injury will put him on the shelf long-term, which will leave a big hole in the lineup. When he did play, though, he was near perfect. Attacking for scoring chances, not only at even strength but also on the penalty kill, he found a new level to his offensive game.
Through 28 games, Blueger has four goals and 11 assists, all while focusing most of his game on defense. Along with Brandon Tanev, they have made a lot of noise through the first half of the season, taking the reigns on the top penalty-killing unit and as a sneaky scoring threat.
Brandon Tanev: B+
With seven goals and seven assists, Tanev is the last of the four skaters to play in each of the first 29 games. He is the energy guy, and like Rodrigues, can play on all four lines. Tanev, aka “Turbo,” has provided more than just scoring depth this season. Using his body and defensive mindset, he has regularly been near the top of the league in hits. He has128 hits this season, fourth in the league.
Zach Aston-Reese: B-
There hasn’t been much to complain about Zach Aston-Reese since his return from a long-term injury that kept him off the ice for an entire offseason. His offensive attack is streaky, but just like his linemates, Tanev and Blueger, his defensive game is his biggest asset. Through his first 18 games, Aston-Reese has scored five goals and a single assist.
Mark Jankowski: F
The first two games of the season looked promising for Mark Jankowski, but all production has stopped since then. He was held off the scoresheet for two months until he picked up an empty-net goal against the Buffalo Sabres. That is not what the Penguins expected from their new acquisition. Jankowski only has a pair of goals and assists to his name in 26 games this season.
Jankowski was brought in by former general manager Jim Rutherford to be the third-line center. It goes without saying he just hasn’t been good enough for the position. However, with Blueger out long-term, Jankowski may have another crack at the 3C position.
Colton Sceviour: D+
The Penguins’ fourth line has been hard to watch, and Colton Sceviour has had his hand in the troubles. He seemed to do well at the beginning of the season, picking up two important goals against the Washington Capitals. Since then, however, it’s been rough for the 31-year-old. He had no points in 13 straight games, became a regular healthy scratch, and was briefly placed on waivers. Sceviour has not been good for the Penguins. In 21 games, he only has two goals and an assist.
Kris Letang – Brian Dumoulin: B-
It’s hard to pin a grade on these two when Kris Letang had such a poor start to the season, and Brian Dumoulin missed a chunk of games due to injury. Recently, however, both players have found their game to become the best blueliners on the team. Letang has refreshed his offensive play, posting five goals and 15 assists in 28 games.
Dumoulin specifically found a new level to his game after returning to the lineup. His defensive play has improved to the level it should be, and he found another step to his puck-moving ability. In 14 games, he has four assists, which might not sound like much, but it is solid for a stay-at-home defenseman.
Mike Matheson – Cody Ceci: B-
To say these two have surprised everyone would be an understatement. Mike Matheson and Cody Ceci haven’t been phenomenal by any stretch, but they have exceeded expectations. They may not contribute at a high level offensively, but as a third pairing (or second at times), they aren’t supposed to. As long as they are on the ice for more goals for than against, they can pass this season.
Ceci has been especially surprising given his poor performance last season with the Toronto Maple Leafs. New scenery in Pittsburgh and being used in the proper role have elevated his game to a new, respectable level. He may not be worth re-signing after this season, but a good year of service came at the right time.
Marcus Pettersson – John Marino: C-
The two youngest blueliners on the Penguins roster have pulled in the lowest grade among the defensive pairings. Maybe expectations were too high for Marino and Pettersson going into the season, but they haven’t been difference-makers so far. Marino has been especially disappointing given his performance as a rookie in 2019-20. Hopefully, once he returns from injury, he will have kicked his sophomore slump and can return to form.
With a logjam on defense, Pettersson continues to be among the most talked-about players to be traded before the deadline. A deal involving the 24-year-old makes sense. He’s young with a respectable contract and still has a ton of upside, despite some inconsistent play recently.
Chad Ruhwedel: B
The perennial seventh defenseman, Chad Ruhwedel has been a pillar of consistency on the blue line, even if he isn’t an NHL regular. A long list of injuries to the team’s defense has forced Ruhwedel into 16 games this season, and they’ve all been positive outings for him. He has two assists and the third-highest Corsi for percentage on the Penguins at 54%.
Tristan Jarry: B
To think fans wanted to trade Tristan Jarry because of his slow start. Now, he seems to have completely returned to form and is only getting better. After 20 games, he has a record of 12-7-1, with only one loss in March. He is playing with more confidence, and the numbers are showing it after going 2-3-1 in January.
Jarry’s save percentage (SV%) has returned to being over .900 with a .906, and a goals-against average (GAA) that has dropped to a 2.89. The numbers still aren’t tops in the league, but they are trending in the right direction.
Casey DeSmith: B+
This grade doesn’t mean that Casey DeSmith is the better goalie, rather that he has played better compared to expectations this season. When Jarry struggled early, DeSmith held down the fort and earned some wins. Through 10 games, he has a 6-3 and record and a .915 SV%. He picked up the team’s first shutout stopping all 24 shots against the lowly Sabres on March 13.
Overall Team Grade: B
The Penguins land between the B and B-, but we’ll round up since many players have improved, and the schedule will soon be easier, with eight games remaining against the New Jersey Devils and six left against the last-place Sabres. Some injuries to key players may cause some issues, but the Pens have been through the injury ringer before. The “next man up” mentality touted by Sullivan is sure to be the difference-maker in the second half.
Nick Horwat is a graduate of Point Park University and was born and raised in Pittsburgh. A lifelong Penguins fan that has been watching and going to games for as long as he can remember.