Through the first 15 games of the season, the Pittsburgh Penguins have been wildly inconsistent. After starting 4-0-1 through their first five, the Penguins dropped seven consecutive to get buried in the standings with a 4-6-2 record. After the team made some drastic lineup changes, they have now gone 2-0-1 in their last three games to post a record of 6-6-3, and are currently out of the playoffs sitting 13th in the East. Here is a look at four players that have either outperformed their expectations or have fallen short after about 20 percent of the season.
Jason Zucker’s Exceptional Play
Jason Zucker has been a player that many have critiqued, and rightfully so, throughout his time with the Penguins. They paid a hefty price to acquire him during the 2019-20 season from the Minnesota Wild, as he was traded for Alex Galchenyuk, Calen Addison, and a first-round draft pick. Since he arrived in Pittsburgh, he has had a difficult time staying healthy and producing to be able to justify his $5.5 million cap hit through the 2022-23 season. However, this season has been much different through his first 13 games, as he is rolling at a point-per-game pace with four goals and nine assists. In addition, he is the only Penguins player that has registered 30-plus hits and 30-plus shots to start the year.
When taking a look at his analytics, it is no surprise to see that he is among the leaders on the team in various areas. Zucker leads the team with a 57.3 CF% while being on the ice for 205 shot attempts and 153 against. Next, he leads the team with a 63.18 xGF% (expected goals for percentage.) According to MoneyPuck.com, there have been 397 players in the NHL that have played 160 minutes at 5v5. He ranks 7th in Expected Goals per 60 Minutes, with 1.34. This shows that he is getting his fair share of chances and performing at an elite level to generate quality shot attempts and high-danger chances with the best. He has absolutely been worth every penny of his $5.5 million deal this season and if he stays healthy, it could be a huge boost for the team.
Marcus Pettersson’s Turnaround
Marcus Pettersson is another player that has often been criticized by Penguins fans largely due to his $4 million salary through the 2024-25 season. Although he has never been “bad” by any means, he has not quite lived up to his expectations. This critique couldn’t be further from the truth to start 2022-23. He started the season on the second defensive pair alongside Jeff Petry, but has recently been playing so well that Penguins’ coach Mike Sullivan rewarded him by moving him up to play on the top pair with Kris Letang.
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Pettersson is known more for his play on the defensive side of the puck, however, he has taken strides offensively so far this season. Out of all defensemen on the team, he ranks first with a 59.48 xGF% and has been on the ice for the most scoring chances for with 128. He has basically been leading the Penguins’ defense in all analytical categories through the first 15 games of the year. According to MoneyPuck.com, there have been 67 defensive pairs that have played 100 minutes together. The Pettersson-Petry pairing ranks 7th with 61.7% expected goals. Along with this, he has put up seven assists to start the year, which is well on the way to a new career-high.
Kris Letang’s Rough Start
After having a career year and putting up 10 goals and 68 points in 78 games last season, Letang earned himself every penny of his new contract at $6.1 million through the 2027-28 season. The start of this year has certainly not been kind to him as he has yet to find his groove at both even strength and on the powerplay, which could be a cause for concern. On the powerplay, he has played around 60 minutes and only registered three shots on goal. This is simply unacceptable for a point man on the first powerplay unit. He needs to do a better job of getting shots through on a struggling powerplay so that rebounds and deflections can be generated. Sadly, his 5v5 play has not been much better.
As good as Pettersson has played, his numbers significantly dropped when he got paired with Letang. Through 59.6 minutes at 5v5, the Letang-Pettersson pairing has a 39.6 CF% with 44 shot attempts and 67 shot attempts against. This is certainly more on Letang than Pettersson as Pettersson has excelled with every other partner he has played with such as Jan Rutta and Petry. Letang is sitting a 45.8 CF%, which is the worst out of all defensemen on the team. In addition, he has been getting demolished in scoring chances with 117 for and 142 against for a SCF% of 45.17. Both of these numbers are in the bottom half of the league when it comes to defensemen, which cannot happen for a player of his caliber.
Kasperi Kapanen’s Invisibility
After Kasperi Kapanen put up 30 points in 40 games during his first year with the Penguins, Ron Hextall decided to protect him in the expansion draft over Jared McCann. This decision would come back to haunt them as Kapanen went on to score 11 goals in 79 games during the 2021-22 season. As he became a restricted free agent (RFA), Hextall resigned him to a two-year $3.2 million contract, which had many fans confused. Somehow, his play has regressed even further during his first 13 games this season. He has already been a healthy scratch for two games, and it likely would have been a third if Filip Hallander didn’t catch an illness. In addition, he only has three goals in his last 52 games, in which he has been nearly invisible.
Kapanen scored a goal in his first game this season versus the Arizona Coyotes, however he has been held without a goal in his last 12 games, while only taking 16 shots. This is less than every single forward on the team besides fourth-line center Ryan Poehling. Kapanen is an interesting player because it seems as though whatever line he gets put on immediately struggles. There is not much to say about him because you don’t know that he is playing half the time. It is clearly time to part ways.
This Penguins team needs to find consistency among its players in order for them to pull out of this funk. Additional players not mentioned that have struggled include Brian Dumoulin, Bryan Rust, and Tristan Jarry. The team has a lot to take care of for them to string wins together and it starts with playing a simple game, forechecking hard, and playing together to have success.
Jake Decker has recently graduated with a Master’s in Sports Management from Florida Atlantic University. As an avid fan of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Analytics, he will be writing for the Pittsburgh Penguins and combining those Analytics into his pieces to give a unique perspective on lines, players, and trades. With a well known Twitter account within this Penguins community, he has worked hard to gain a strong following. Currently, Jake works with Sportradar and the Florida Panthers as a Data Journalist, in which he attends home games and tracks statistics that occur throughout the game such as goals, shots, penalties, puck location, and other interesting metrics.