With a shootout loss to the New York Islanders on Nov. 1, the month of November may not have started the exact way the Pittsburgh Penguins would have liked, but they still find themselves with only two regulation losses through their first 11 games. After dominating a four-game Canadian road trip, where they outscored their opponents 23-6 en route to four consecutive victories, the Penguins entered a home and home series with the Islanders, where they only captured one out of a possible four points.
As the leaves begin to finally change colors and the effects of fall finally start to take place, the Penguins will be focused on continuing their surge to stay atop the Metropolitan Division. Arguably the most difficult division in the NHL, the Penguins now sit tied for first place, but for a team that has won two Stanley Cups in the last three years, there is much more to be desired.
As November progresses, here are three players to keep an eye on, who all seem to have hit their stride early in the season.
After spending the last few years bouncing back and forth between the Penguins and their AHL affiliate, Dominik Simon has established himself as an every-night player for the high-scoring Penguins. After just 12 points in 33 games last year, Simon already has eight points in his first 11 games this season. Add a plus-5 rating to his stat line, and Simon has quietly become a force to be reckoned with.
As his production increases, so has his ice time. Through the Penguins’ first nine games, Simon’s highest time on ice was 13:39, which occurred way back on Oct. 6 against the Montreal Canadiens; moreover, he was only averaging right around 12 shifts per game during that stretch. In the Penguins last two games, Simon has averaged 18:12 TOI and 21 shifts.
Simon started the year being shifted around among the Penguins’ bottom-six forwards, but he has played the last two games with Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel. The chemistry between Guentzel and Crosby has had a couple of years to develop, so it’s a difficult spot for Simon to jump in and immediately make a positive impact, but that’s exactly what he’s done. If Simon stays on the Penguins top line consistently throughout November, he is going to be on pace for a career year.
It’s no secret that the Penguins’ defensive unit is led by Kris Letang, but after Justin Schultz suffered a lower leg fracture, Brian Dumoulin has had to play a bigger role. Dumoulin is the Yin to Letang’s Yang. While Letang is the flashier, offensive defenseman who has magical hands and impeccable vision on the ice with the puck, Dumoulin is a more typical, stay-at-home-type defenseman that goes under-appreciated when solely looking at the stat sheet. Similar to how Jamie Oleksiak has found his role with the Penguins, Dumoulin is excelling in his role as well.
Through the Penguins’ first 11 games, Dumoulin is yet to register a goal. In fact, in 254 career games, Dumoulin only has seven career goals to his name, but that doesn’t mean that he doesn’t make an impact in other ways. While Letang earns his paycheck by jumping into offensive rushes and playing quarterback on the power play, Dumoulin earns his by blocking shots on the penalty kill, orchestrating accurate breakout passes, and logging well over 20 minutes per night.
Often overlooked when breaking down the Penguins back end, Dumoulin has stepped up in Schultz’s absence and continues to be a safe and reliable defenseman as the season has progressed. As November continues, look for Dumoulin to continue to dominate in his current role.
While I believe that Dumoulin may be one of the more overlooked players on the Penguins’ roster when breaking down their success over the last few years, Evgeni Malkin just may be the most under-appreciated superstar in NHL history. He’s played his entire career in the shadow of Sidney Crosby, but when Malkin’s game is on, there is no one more dominant than he is.
Malkin has shown remarkable chemistry with linemates Carl Hagelin and Phil Kessel and has been a force on the power play. His five power-play points lead the Penguins—who have converted on 29 percent of their power-play chances this season, good enough for sixth-best in the NHL. While Malkin undoubtedly controls the pace of the Penguins’ second line, he recently joked about how important Kessel is to his success.
Malkin says his good play is all about Phil. Gives him full credit. But…”When he’s lazy, I can’t do myself. He’s flying right now.”
Quote of the year candidate, I would say.
— Josh Yohe (@JoshYohe_PGH) October 28, 2018
With 20 points through the first 11 games of the season, Malkin is on pace for 52 goals and 97 assists if he can avoid injury and plays all 82 games. Of course, it’s impossible to ask Malkin to average nearly two points per game over the course of an entire season, but he hasn’t shown any signs of regression and only seems to be getting better night in and night out. Often overlooked, but always feared, Malkin will continue to bring his offensive firepower to the lineup and is set to have a huge month.