At the beginning of the year, many NHL experts counted the Pittsburgh Penguins out, saying this would be the first time since the 2005-06 season they would miss the playoffs. Not only did the Penguins quiet the critics and make the postseason, but they finished first in what was looked at as the toughest division in the league.
After the 56-game 2020-21 NHL season, the Penguins finished with a record of 37-16-3 for 77 points, top in the MassMutual East Division. It wasn’t easy, and it took the entire squad to contribute, but now we look back at the top players on the team.
Let’s take some time to recognize the players that helped the Penguins reach the postseason with some team 2020-21 team awards.
Rookie of the Year: Pierre-Oliver Joseph
The 2020-21 season didn’t feature many standout rookies for the Penguins; Most first-year players were brief call-ups with not much time to make an impact. While guys like Radim Zohorna and Anthony Angello showed bright spots, defenseman Joseph stood out from the slim crowd.
In 16 games in the NHL this season, Joseph showed why he is among the Penguins’ top prospects. He played much better than just a goal and four assists, and he had to fill in when many Penguins defensemen went down with injuries early in the season. Forcing to average 16 minutes of ice time per game, Joseph, for a few games, had to play with Kris Letang on the first unit.
The future is bright for Joseph, as this year’s brief stint in the NHL is only the first chapter in his story.
Best Goalie: Tristan Jarry
Jarry may be the easy answer, but he played well for his first season as a full-time NHL starter. And remember, there was a time he was the head of trade rumors when the team hired a new general manager. He played a career-high 39 games and was able to bounce back from a frighteningly slow start. Jarry was 2-4-1 with a .857 save percentage (sv%) through the first month of the season.
From that point on, however, Jarry was a completely different netminder. He would finish out the season 25-9-3, stopping a clean 1000 shots for a .909 save percentage and a goals-against average of 2.75. Tack on a pair of shutouts and some contributions offensively with four assists, you have one of the better seasons put up by a Pittsburgh goalie in recent memory.
Best Newcomer: Jeff Carter
In only 14 games with the Penguins, Carter already showed that he is the best acquisition the team made this year. He may have been the only trade deadline move, but new GM Ron Hextall played smart and didn’t make the rash decisions that could have negatively affected the team. Carter has already won over the hearts of Pens fans and they will be watching for him to make a big impact in the playoffs.
In his 14 games with Pittsburgh, Carter put up 11 points (9-2—11) which included a four-goal game against the Buffalo Sabres just before the end of the season. He sits one goal shy of 400 on his career but has said he plans to keep playing next year.
Biggest Surprise Impact: Cody Ceci
No one expected anything good to come from the Ceci signing. Many fans quickly wrote him off as another Jack Johnson situation. But Ceci, after being healthy scratched early in the season, found a groove and hasn’t left it since. In 53 games he has averaged 18:31 minutes of ice per night and that’s exactly how he should be utilized.
The problem teams like the Toronto Maple Leafs and Ottawa Senators had with Ceci is that they were using him in the wrong roles. Toronto had him on the first defensive unit with Morgan Rielly; that’s too much for a player like Ceci, who has thrived in Pittsburgh on the second, sometimes third pairing. He scored four goals and 13 assists for 17 points in 53 games this season.
Breakout Player: Kasperi Kapanen
He was primed for a breakout year from the beginning, Kapanen may have arrived to the team late, but he didn’t miss a step in producing winning hockey. No matter where in the lineup he played, he proved to be worth bringing back to Pittsburgh. He and linemate Evgeni Malkin have formed such incredible chemistry on the ice, despite Kapanen being acquired to play with Sidney Crosby. For a time, Kapanen and Malkin could have been looked at as the best second line in the NHL, no matter who played with them.
Thanks to a visa issue early on and an injury in the latter stages of the season, Kapanen was only able to play in 40 games this season but was a noticeable force in each one. 11 goals and 19 assists for 30 points sit him at sixth in team scoring and one of five players to hit 10 goals.
Best Defenseman: Kris Letang
The best defenseman this franchise has ever seen, Letang added to his resume with another spectacular season. The 2020-21 season may have started rough for Letang, but he was able to bounce back to reach fourth on the team in scoring and shut down opposing forwards. Only missing one game this season, he scored seven goals and 38 assists for 45 points, the third-most on the team.
When you consistently average over 24 minutes of ice time per night, mistakes are bound to be made. Letang’s issue for a while was the number of mistakes that would be made, but he was able to reel in his game and return to elite form despite being on the plus side of 30. It may not have been a Norris Trophy caliber season, but it was enough to be looked at as the best the Penguins saw this year.
Taxi Squad MVP: Frederick Gaudreau
The Penguins made good use of their taxi squad, especially in a season that saw a near-league lead in injury numbers. Frederick Gaudreau used his opportunity as a taxi squad member to reach the NHL and possibly become a regular in the lineup heading into the playoffs.
Gaudreau worked his way back into the NHL and earned the right to stay there. In 19 games he scored two goals and eight assists for a career-high 10 points. Not bad for a fourth-liner with very little prior experience.
Team MVP: Sidney Crosby
Selected as team MVP by his teammates and could be in the running for the Hart Trophy as the league’s MVP, Crosby continued his dominance with the Penguins. Also, only missing one game, he put up 24 goals and 38 assists to lead the team with 62 points. He, alongside Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust, formed one of the best first-lines in the NHL, at one point being the only trio to each have over 20 goals on the season.
It should go without saying that Crosby is consistently the Penguins’ best player every year, this year was no different. A huge factor that played into his great season was his ability to stay healthy, despite most of the lineup going down at one point or another. Sid only missed one game and that was for COVID protocol reasons. If he was forced to miss time due to a different injury, who knows what happens with this team. His steady presence was a big reason the Penguins stayed afloat all season.
With only one postseason victory in the last two seasons, the Penguins look to right the ship with a first-round series against the New York Islanders. While the Penguins don’t have a great history against the Isles in the playoffs, maybe this time around can be different.
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.