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The First 82: Grading each Penguin for their regular season

Everyone knows the next 4 to 28 games of the season (or however many in between) are what really count, but the regular season is over. And for the Penguins, it was largely a successful one. They piled up 108 points, not quite enough to beat out the New York Rangers for the uber-tough Atlantic Division crown, but good enough for home ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs.

Grades are based on expectation of player role and ability. So a top price veteran expected to play a lot of minutes, or produce points will be graded more harshly than a younger or new player in a limited role. (And a tip of the hat to Japers Rink for the formatting that we borrowed from [friends borrow] for this post.)

Goalies Thumbs up or down Notes
Marc-Andre Fleury 42 wins, .913 save percentage. If not for that Russian scoring leader, MAF would have been the clear cut team MVP. As usual though, he's been over-shadowed. But with a quite wounded defensive corps for most of the year, Fleury held the fort and on most nights did enough to keep the team in the game. If not earn the win. He's the rock the Penguins are built from, and he had a stellar season.
Brent Johnson The trusted veteran stumbled, getting pulled from too many of his games and not looking all too reliable. Johnny's a great teammate and an awesome backup, but he showed his age and why he's only a backup.
Brad Thiessen Thiessen had his chance to establish himself as the NHL backup of the future, but his play certainly did not inspire much confidence in his first taste of NHL regular season action. It's hard to judge in such a limited role, but Thiessen raised more questions than answers for his quest to stick in the big leagues in a Pittsburgh jersey next season.
Simon Despres He gets graded on a curve for being young. Despres showed flashes in the NHL of his talents- size, skating, positioning. But he also was exposed at times for some weaknesses- youth, inexperience, turnovers. There's no doubt the future is bright, but he also wasn't quite ready (or needed) to be a top 6 defenseman in the organization this season.
Deryk Engelland .In 72 games the rugged defenseman had only 56 penalty minutes and just 8 fights. He played smart, and at +11, he was good enough on the 3rd pair to see a lot more goals go in the right net. Still, what you see is what you get: Engo is limited with playing the puck, prone to turnovers in his zone and at times made mistakes. Still, all in all, Engelland did what he was generally supposed to do. Not much more, not much less..
Kris Letang If not for one (never officially two) concussions, Letang was on his way to a Norris Trophy worthy season. He established himself this season as truly a #1 defenseman: capable in all three zones and in all three situations (even, short-handed, power-play). And despite shots being blocked or missing net, he still tied a career high in goals. The sky is the limit for Letang.
Ben Lovejoy It had to be a disappointing and frustrating season for Lovejoy. He battled various injuries, and when all d-men were healthy, he often found himself the odd man out in the #6 defenseman battle with Engelland and only appeared in 34 games. At best, it seems he's a 7th D option on a team with a pretty stocked pipeline of young defensemen.
Paul Martin No player took more heat, or started slower than Martin. Yet, on the whole, he did not have a bad season, aided by a particularly good second half. Martin found some chemistry with Letang, and while his slow pace and lack of scoring ability (and occasional lapse in position) will be noted by fans, he also made great outlet passes and largely defended well against some tough competition.
Zbynek Michalek A little bit of regression from his awesome season last year, Michalek failed to gain chemistry with Martin, saw an early season slump and didn't seem as dominant of a defensive force as he could have been. His offensive numbers, though not a staple, were also not as good and it didn't seem like he had much confidence with the puck on his stick. That said, he was mostly reliable and usually solid.
Matt Niskanen An encouraging season for Niskanen. When injuries ravaged the team, he was often times leaned on and came through showing off some of his versatile skills. He's got size, can skate, pass and defend pretty well. Doesn't do anything great, but does a lot really well, and Nisky put a bunch of consistent efforts out there and was relied on more and more as the season went on, earning some well deserved trust from the coaches.
Brooks Orpik The rock of the defense, Orpik played his usual and expected brand of physical hockey. He's never flashy with the puck, and at times it seemed he was looking to make a big hit, taking himself out of the play. Still, more often than not, Orpik's positional defensive play was right what you'd want, and in the room he's one of the most vocal and honest voices to keep the team in-line.
Brian Strait As a call-up, Stait got some shielded 6th D minutes, and played largely like an inexperienced player at the NHL level. Defense is the toughest position to play, especially for a defensive minded guy who has to adjust to the advanced speed of the NHL level. Strait wasn't totally out of sorts, but he didn't exactly make a case that he's a clear-cut NHL'er for next season.
Craig Adams In his third full season as a Pen, Adams set his team high for a year in goals, assists, and points. But we all know CFA's job isn't scoring, it's anchoring the 4th line, blocking shots, playing with energy, taking the body, and playing postional hockey. He did that as he always does, so we'll give him an up arrow for all-around work, and being able to do it in all 82 games.
Arron Asham Asham's role to be a protector who can play is a valued part of the NHL these days. He did his job to hit, fight when needed and chip in the occasional point. A solid "meets expectations" grade for the vet.
Matt Cooke What a turn-around for Cooke. The most marked man in the NHL totally changed his ways, shedding the dirty hits and playing a full season of honest hockey. 19 goals marked his career high. 44 penalty minutes was the lowest since his second season in the league. Cooke found a way to toe the line, showing that any NHL player can re-think his game, play smart, and be a positive player for his team. He also drew more power plays for the Pens than anyone not named Malkin, demonstrating that he can still effectively agiagtate without the non-sense and dangerous hits.
Sidney Crosby With a better points per game average than any player in the league, it's with a heavy heart we still give the injury band-aid game to Crosby, who still missed 60 games with his head/neck injury. Still, the beauty for hockey (and Pens fans) is that Crosby was able to return to the game in March and has been every bit as dangerous and productive as he's ever been in his career. All we can hope to do is see more from the best player in the game and pray the concussion/headache symptoms are a thing of the past.
Pascal Dupuis If I could give a rare double arrow up for Dupuis, I would and it'd be well earned. Dupuis ended the season ona 17 game point streak, the best in the league this season. He can play on any line, in any situation and played well. Fewer players hustle harded, fewer still can make it count as much as Dupes who set a personal high in goals (24), assists (34) and points (58). And 54 of those points came at even strength! For a guy getting not much PP time, he was a ball of energy and a force every game.
Dustin Jeffrey Out of kindness, we'll give Jeffrey the injury exemption for coming off his ACL surgery. Not everyone can be a freak like Malkin and return so soon with seemingly no drawbacks. Still, Jeffrey became a healthy scratch and the flashes of production we saw last season pre-knee injury were long gone. Jeffrey, once a coach's fave, quickly became a healthy scratch. And as a natural center (and not very good as a winger digging pucks out of corners, skating well and forechecking hard) it seems his future in this organization could be in limbo. We'll grant this year a mulligan for major injury, but it remains to be seen his future here.
Tyler Kennedy Coming off a 20 goal season last year, TK fell to earth notching just 11 in 60 games and battling some injuries too. He didn't quite get the prime PP minutes this year, no doubt, but he wasn't as impactful this season either. All in all, not a huge disappointment, but certainly not a step forward for him either.
Chris Kunitz As the lowest spoken member of the best line in the league, Kunitz brought the intangibles in spades. Driving to corners, playing the body, net-front presence, winning pucks, creating space, positioning himself always there. That's Chris Kunitz. And, somewhat quietly compared to his star liney's he tied his career high in points (60) and set a new mark for himself in goals (26). Not bad for the guy no one ever talks about.
Evgeni Malkin Simply put, the MVP of the league. Expanded upon, Geno won the Art Ross trophy with 50 goals and 109 points, while coming off a February 2011 ACL/MCL surgery. The offense he created from November on, once his knee allowed, was without peer. Malkin also quietly made great gains on faceoffs, winning 52.4% at home, and 47.5% on the year, both career highs. Again, in the simplest terms, no one was better. And especially considering a year coming back from injury. The sure-fire Hart Trophy winner.
James Neal 40 goals for a budding star who found immense chemistry with Malkin. Neal has size, can skate, will hit and forecheck. And his release and wrist shot is arguably the best in the game. Neal did it consistently and at times was down right dominant and earned a six year, $30 million contract from the Pens. If he can keep this level up, he'll earn every penny of it.
Richard Park The savvy vet provided energy and a little bit of scoring punch. He was the consumate pro, accepted the occasional healthy scratch and when he got a jersey he won faceoffs, threw his body around and made smart plays with the puck.
Jordan Staal Injuries robbed Staal of career numbers, but he still was able to find a great groove, scroing 25 goals and a career high 50 points in an abbreviated 62 game campaign. Throw in the pre-requsite long reach, great defensive skills, PK work, positional D and you've got easily the best 3rd line center in the league and definitely an above average 2C if needed in that role.
Steve Sullivan Nifty with the puck, useful on the point on the PP, Sully was able to play in 79 games and his 48 points were good for 6th on the team for the season. To make matters better, somehow the 37 year old got stronger as the season went on, especially as a linemate for Crosby late in the season. If he can continue to play well in the playoffs, the Pens ought to fare very well, but with a late season injury, it's proper to wonder just how much gas is in the tank. The hands, head and heart are definitely there, but how will his legs and injuries hold up in the post-season?
Eric Tangradi 24 games, 0 goals, 2 assists. Granted, Tangradi got mostly 4th line minutes with grinders and very little PP time, but he simply didn't create any sort of offense or demonstrate much away from the puck either. He's got size and shows desire, but the results haven't been there. Hard to imagine he gets a jersey for playoff games, so what does that say for his status next season?
Joe Vitale The new little ball of hate. Vitale's everything you want in a 4th line center- boundless energy, unafraid of contact in the corners, above average in faceoffs. He gets under the opponent's skin and plays worthy enough to earn the contract extension he signed earlier in the year. Not bad for his first year in the NHL.