Pittsburgh Penguins Becoming Legitimate Stanley Cup Contenders

What a difference a few months can make. Before the 2021-22 season began, there was a ton of uncertainty surrounding the Pittsburgh Penguins. They were coming off a postseason where some started to question if the team had a true number-one netminder. There were also the injuries to both Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby, which we knew were going to keep them out of the lineup to start the season. There was a slew of question marks with limited answers, quite frankly, the Penguins were written off. Well, everything has changed, the team is the hottest in the NHL, and make no mistake about it, Pittsburgh should be considered legitimate Stanley Cup contenders.

Unsung Heroes Have Emerged for the Penguins

Thanks to the career season from Evan Rodrigues, some serious production out of Jake Guentzel, Crosby, and Bryan Rust, to go along with the dominant goaltending of Tristan Jarry, and wouldn’t you know it, the Penguins sit 20-8-5 on the season heading into Saturday’s afternoon affair with the Dallas Stars. The Penguins are comfortably in a Wild Card position and are only three points back of the division-leading Washington Capitals.

Evan Rodrigues Pittsburgh Penguins-Pittsburgh Penguins Becoming Legitimate Stanley Cup Contenders
Evan Rodrigues is on fire, scoring eight points in his last five games (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Rust has started 2022 off in historic fashion with 11 points in his first three games this calendar year. The only players in NHL history with more points in their first three games to start a calendar year are Wayne Gretzky with 15 and Mario Lemieux with 12. Some decent company for the pending free agent who will not be getting traded before the deadline. He’s showing an uncanny ability to help drive the offense and it just seems like night in and night out, Rust dominates the game.

Back to Rodrigues though, as the pending unrestricted free agent picked the absolute perfect time to find a new level to his game. Before this season, his career-high was scoring nine goals and he already has 15 in 33 games. His 30 points puts him second on the team in scoring and if anybody told you before this season that they saw it coming, they would be lying right to your face.

Related: Penguins News & Rumors: Malkin’s Future, Trade Targets & More

The 28-year-old making $1 million on the salary cap is the NHL’s most improved player and with all the hard work he put into his shot paying off, the sky is the limit this season. Wait until Malkin is back to center the Penguins’ second line and Rodrigues’ game may take off even more. This could be one of the league’s best second lines when everyone gets healthy and will certainly be a weapon heading into the playoffs.

Penguins Coaching Staff Deserves a Ton of Credit

Head coach Mike Sullivan never seems to get enough love and that needs to change this season. He should be right there at the end when the Jack Adams award is announced for the league’s best head coach and Sullivan has shown this season perhaps more than any, that he’s capable of getting the most out of his players. It’s about time the rest of the league notices the impact he’s able to have on his hockey club and with a mindset like this, it’s no mistake to see the team’s succes:

Trust, playing as a group, not having a care about the standings, preach coach! With all the injuries including to the team’s best two players, to go along with all the COVID absences and other injuries to the likes of Guentzel, Rust, Jason Zucker, and Brian Dumoulin, it’s pretty wild to see the Penguins sitting where they are in the standings. The team has yet to even roster its best lineup. Think about that. 10 wins in a row, 20-8-5 on the season and not once has their best lineup dressed together. It sounds like that could be happening sometime later in January and you can bet management is going to be watching very closely to see if there are any holes they can help plug before the trade deadline on Mar. 21.

Penguins Open to More Moves Before the Trade Deadline

Ron Hextall and Brian Burke are two executives who aren’t shy about making moves. They’ve shown since the two of them have arrived together in Pittsburgh that if they see a player out there that’s going to make the team better, they will pay the price tag to acquire them.

Alex Nylander Chicago Blackhawks-Pittsburgh Penguins Becoming Legitimate Stanley Cup Contenders
Alex Nylander is the newest Pittsburgh Penguin (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

The latest deal with Chicago to land Alex Nylander was a great under-the-radar type of hockey trade that could pay some serious dividends in the long run. They dealt a player in Sam Lafferty who was likely going to be a healthy scratch on a regular basis once everyone gets healthy or even someone Pittsburgh needed to waive to make room for the healthy bodies. So essentially, Hextall and Burke turned a potential waiver wire player into a former top-10 draft pick who has shown flashes of brilliance with a very high ceiling offensively.

The Nylander deal was a smart gamble. Look for the 23-year-old crafty winger to get some major ice-time in the American Hockey League and likely be the first call up once a lineup spot is vacated for whatever reason.

Some areas of focus management will likely zone in on include the backup goaltending position, a depth defenseman, and another winger for the bottom-six. All of which will likely be players who have serious playoff experience, much like we saw with the Jeff Carter acquisition last season.

With the holiday pause and hopefully the worst of the COVID absences behind them, you can expect to see the trade chatter pick up in a major way as we roll through January and creep close to late March. The Penguins will be active, even without a ton of financial flexibility and a number of important contract extensions looming. When you have Rodrigues and Rust, you go all-in for the Stanley Cup. Or, something like that.