To open up the 2021-22 NHL season, the Pittsburgh Penguins played all three of their first games against Vezina-winning goaltenders. Game one was against Andrei Vasilevskiy and the defending Stanley Cup Champions Tampa Bay Lightning, game two was against Sergei Bobrovsky and the Florida Panthers, and game three was against Marc-Andre Fleury in his new home with the Chicago Blackhawks.
Those three games are hard enough for a fully healthy Penguins roster, but they had to do it without multiple key stars. Centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are yet to play a game this season recovering from their respective offseason surgeries. Defenseman Mike Matheson also has not played a game suffering a lower-body injury prior to game one. Forward Jake Guentzel missed the first game of the year due to COVID protocol. Zach Aston-Reese had to sit out a pair of games for the same protocol. Bryan Rust didn’t finish the game in Florida and was placed on injured reserve with an undisclosed injury.
Three teams with successful goalies and a depleted Pens team sounds like a recipe for disaster, right? Wrong, the Penguins walked away with a 2-0-1 record to open the season. What has been the team’s key to success after a week of the season? The depth players that are forced to play throughout the lineup. From the first line forwards to the third pairing on the blue line, Penguins’ depths pieces have been making a huge difference.
Penguins’ Depth Stepping Up
The Penguins are routinely a team that finds success when their bottom-six forwards or bottom pairing defenders are thriving. And so far that is exactly how the season has gone. Names that wouldn’t normally be in the lineup have been key contributors; Players like Drew O’Connor and Evan Rodrigues are a pair that have started the season on a great note.
O’Connor played 10 games in 2020-21 and was mostly disappointing. But a few factors could have led to that including no preseason and a truncated training camp. This year, after a year in the minors, a full camp, and preseason, the young forward looks light-years improved. His stint in the American Hockey League was solid for his development. In 20 games he scored seven goals, 12 assists for 19 points.
In the NHL this year, in a two-game sample size, O’Connor has scored his first career goal and picked up another two assists for three points. More than just picking up a scoring pace, he looks like a faster, smarter player. Getting to the right areas of the ice and finding openings are not only benefitting him but the team. His first NHL goal is a perfect example; Dom Simon out-muscles Fleury for the puck finding a streaking O’Connor who utilizes the empty net.
Thanks to injuries in the 2020-21 season, Rodrigues played in a fair share of matchups with the Penguins. He played in 35 of the 56 games and played just about everywhere in the lineup. From the first line with Crosby to sitting on the fourth line, Rodrigues has shown to beat expectations on multiple occasions.
Rodrigues isn’t exactly a world-beater on the ice, but he is NHL level talent and a perfect fill-in player. Filling in is what he’s had to do every game this year and he’s looked good doing it. He’s been at a point-per-game pace through three games (1-2-3) and that comes as the second-line center. Not a fan favorite, and not someone you think of when you think Penguins’ hockey, but surely a useful tool in the lineup. Rodrigues, like O’Connor, is making a compelling argument to stay in the lineup with a fully healthy roster.
The Danton Heinen Effect
Opening the season at an 82-goal pace is one way to make yourself known in a new city. Sure, it’s early in the season but Danton Heinen currently leads the team in goals with three and is already starting to show signs of what made Pascal Dupuis so useful in Pittsburgh. He is not a skater who is going to grab the highlights or lead any points races, but the important everyman who can slot in anywhere and contribute.
When the Penguins acquired Heinen, they were hoping to see him return to his Boston Bruins form rather than remain the Anaheim Ducks self. In Boston, he scored 103 points (34-69) in 220 games. With the Ducks, the numbers dipped and he collected 18 points (10-8) in 54 games. That is two completely different levels of teams, but it’s safe to say the Penguins are closer to the ranks of the Bruins over the Ducks.
And maybe being put back onto a good team is exactly what Heinen needed. The Bruins were fighting for a Stanley Cup while he was there while the Ducks finished last in their division last year.
Heinen has played three games with the Penguins and has not only scored in each one but played on the top line, as well. He started in Tampa Bay on the left side, got moved up to fill in for Rust when he got hurt and started on the right side during the home opener. Heinen has not only proved he can move up and down the lineup with ease, but he can play on either side of the faceoff dot.
As long as Heinen can stay healthy himself, there is no reason why he shouldn’t be utilized as one of, if not, the most important movable tools for the Penguins this season. He is an NHL regular who can slot in literally anywhere if someone goes down.
More than Just the Penguins’ Depth
When the Penguins announced they would start the season without Malkin or Crosby, there were a few names that needed to step up and find a new level to their game in that absence. Jeff Carter was the big name given his new role almost right away with a new team. After three games he is tied with Kris Letang for the team lead in points with four. Carter’s first goal of the year was also the 400th of his career.
For what it’s worth, Carter was acquired by the Penguins to be a depth piece. Ideally a third-line center, but now moved up into the middle of the top line. And he has looked great in that spot. He made his impact immediately upon arriving in 2020-21, was one of the few solid performers in the disappointing playoffs, and has gotten off to a fiery start for the 2021-22 season. Four points (1-3) in three games as the first-line center, the veteran leader is filling in nicely and will be a key bottom-six center when there’s a fully healthy lineup.
The early success of the team has not only been depth or Carter but also the bounce-back of a young starting goalie. Tristan Jarry is playing the 2021-22 season hoping to rebound from a disappointing playoff, and so far he has done just that.
In his first two starts, Jarry has impressed and shown to be much better than his playoff performance. 2-0 record and a .917 save percentage is a good start to the season. More than just winning games, and maybe this is new goalie coach Andy Chiodo working some magic, but Jarry has gained confidence in net. Confidence is what he deserves after this past offseason.
From the moment the Penguins lost to the New York Islanders after six games, the front office expressed their confidence in Jarry as their goalie. Despite people attempting to read between lines or begging for a trade, general manager Ron Hextall and team president Brian Burke stood behind Jarry. They decided to swap goalie coaches rather than the goalies themselves.
Sometimes, when a team’s top players get put on the shelf, that means the end for them. Not the Penguins, though, who have nearly always found success with call ups or bottom liners. This year’s team is no different and the lower-level guys are keeping the team afloat while Crosby, Malkin, and Rust are awaiting their return. For Pens fans, it’s fun watching the stars, but you should watch guys like O’Connor, Rodrigues, and Heinen and understand how important they are right now.
First-line center Carter said he himself isn’t going to replace what Crosby and Malkin can do, it’s going to take the whole lineup. And so far, after a week of the season, it has been the whole lineup helping contribute to wins.
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.