The first calendar month of the 2020-21 NHL season has come and gone. While it may not have been a full month, the Pittsburgh Penguins had themselves a roller coaster of a start; From not looking good on the ice through nine games, to their general manager resigning, to losing five defensemen to injury, yet somehow still picking up 11 points in the process.
The Penguins have been able to weather the storm so far and have their eyes on turning things around and being a dominant team in the East Division. It may be a shortened season, but for the time being, it’s still early and the team has some bright spots to look at.
Despite the season starting on Jan. 13, these are the Penguins’ three stars for the month.
Third Star: Pierre-Olivier Joseph
In the matter of a week, Pierre-Olivier Joseph went from the taxi squad to the first pairing with Kris Letang. The situation isn’t ideal for the team or Joseph as he is still developing as a player, but he has looked phenomenal wherever he is in the lineup or on the ice. The 21-year-old has had to take a lot of responsibility, and has handled it really well. Fans of the Penguins have been waiting to see Joseph in the NHL and now he is quickly becoming a fan favorite.
In the five games Joseph has played with the Penguins, he’s put up four assists, including a huge three-assist night against the New York Rangers. While he has looked great offensively and is making plays on defense, he has yet to record a shot block. Not ideal for a defenseman, but that will fix over time. Averaging around 16 minutes of ice time per game, the numbers should continue to steadily incline with the more he plays.
One of the Penguins’ top prospects has been proving himself to be NHL ready. The debate for Joseph going forward will be if he should remain in the lineup once the defense is healthy. If he stays at this pace, there will be no reason to take him out of the lineup. It’s early to have this conversation, but he could put up a fight for the Calder Trophy as the league’s rookie of the year.
Second Star: Kasperi Kapanen
Another new player making an impact right away, the long-awaited arrival of Kasperi Kapanen is past us and he has already made a difference on the ice. His breakneck speed has helped open up the ice for himself and his teammates no matter what line he plays on. He broke through for an assist in his first game on the fourth line making his presence felt immediately.
When the Penguins made the move to re-acquire Kapanen, the goal was to have him on the first line with Sidney Crosby. Since joining the team and getting acclimated, Kapanen may have found a home with Evgeni Malkin and Jason Zucker on the second line. The sort of speed that Kapanen possesses can help revitalize the game of his linemates, which has been sluggish to start.
Through his first six games in a Penguins’ uniform, Kapanen has picked up two goals and three assists for five points. The connection on the second line has already been felt, as both of Kapanen’s goals were assisted by Malkin.
First Star: Sidney Crosby
Of course, it’s Crosby as the first star to start the season. He’s the team leader on the ice and on the score sheet. Through the Penguins’ first nine games, he has four goals and four assists for eight points. While it isn’t Connor McDavid’s 22 points in 11 games, Crosby’s eight points are arguably more important. More than just leading the team in goals and points, Crosby has a pair of overtime goals to help keep the Penguins in the win column.
It has been more than just producing points and goals for Crosby so far this year. The Penguins, as a team, have struggled in the faceoff dot to start the season. Of the team’s centers, Crosby is the only one above 50% in faceoff wins. Fans may not think about it much, but winning key face-offs is integral to the success of a team. While the Penguins are struggling in that category, Crosby is keeping the team afloat.
Crosby may not have looked his hottest at times, and with a new general manager stirring up conversations of a (highly unlikely) trade, it is hard to argue the team-leading numbers. He is the heartbeat of the team, just like he has been since 2005, and just like he will be until he retires.
Players to Watch in February
Aside from the three men listed above, the Penguins are a team trying to improve their game. They are yet to win a game by more than one goal and have only won once in regulation. The team needs to right the ship and do it quickly, as February will be an important month. Look for players like Malkin, Tristan Jarry, or Brandon Tanev to be difference makers in February.
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.