As we hit the All-Star break, the Pittsburgh Penguins have to be feeling pretty good about how they’ve been playing recently. They’ve pretty much “flipped the switch” as soon as the calendar got to 2018, putting up a 8-3-0 record and having very encouraging, yet sustainable advanced statistics.
If the Pens are doing well, you don’t have to look far for the stars that are carrying them. And indeed, Phil Kessel is 3rd in the NHL in scoring (people probably aren’t talking about Phil on a 93 point pace this year, which would shatter his career high of 80).
Sidney Crosby is up to 9th in the league in scoring. In the calendar year 2018 he’s got 20 points (3g+17a) in 11 games, tops in the league in scoring. Crosby’s on a nine game point streak and in one of those grooves where he just piles up points unlike anyone in the game can.
Not to be forgotten, Evgeni Malkin has 9 goals in 11 games in 2018, best in the league (tied with Patrice Bergeron in Boston). Malkin ranks 14th in the league in scoring and would be higher if not for missing 4 games.
All of that is pretty much to be expected though. Crosby, Malkin and Kessel are three of the best players in the game and they’re counted on to do the heavy lifting. As every season there have been some surprises in individual performances; some good and some bad. Since it’s more fun to focus on the pleasant, that’s where we’re at today.
The 23-year old started the season in Wilkes-Barre and while he has been a very productive AHL player over the past two seasons, it was unknown if his skillset would translate to the NHL, or even if he would get an opportunity to show it. As the Penguins sputtered through the early months of the season, particularly at left wing, they decided to give Simon a chance. He played well in the AHL scoring 17 points in 21 games and Pittsburgh decided they needed to consider fresh options on the Crosby line.
Simon has made the most of it in recent days, scoring 7 points (4g+3a) in 10 January games. Overall on the season he has 9 points (4g+5a) in 16 NHL games. His hold on a spot on Crosby’s line seems to be increasing. Could he be the surprise of the season in Pittsburgh and play a meaningful role down the stretch?
If he keeps playing well and scoring like he has been, Simon’s on the way to doing that. However, his audition may be short-lived with even a hint of a drop-off in overall consistency so his spot is clearly a tenuous hold at best that will need to be earned virtually every game. That said, Simon’s already out-performed even the sunniest of preseason prognostications and showing no signs of slowing.
After the Antti Niemi debacle of October, the Pittsburgh goaltending depth was a scary sight to see. It looked even scarier when Matt Murray suffered and injury in late November. Enter the 22-year old Tristan Jarry who’s been consistent and playing mature beyond his years and a lack of experience with a season record of 9-4-2 and a much better save percentage than Murray (.919 to .903) and a 2.44 GAA.
Jarry may be a bit of a forgotten man after being out-shined a little by another goalie, but it’s not really because of his performance. Jarry has a 4-1 record and a .917% in the month of January, numbers that are just fine. He’s back in the “minseys” (as Colby Armstrong would say) now, but Jarry’s overall play this season has been well above and beyond the expected both in number of NHL games as well as performance given.
A late blossoming story, but perhaps the best. DeSmith, 26, has come out of obscurity to the rest of the league from the AHL to being one of the league’s hottest goalies. DeSmith has started 4 NHL games in his career, and they are the last 4 games the Penguins have played. He’s won 3 of the 4 and played well in all of them. Overall he’s got a .927 save % on the year in the NHL.
Has he won the full-time NHL backup job? The staff isn’t quite ready to declare that, but with the way DeSmith has played they’re in no rush to send him back to the AHL, for obvious reasons. He’s stopping the puck and keeping it out of the net and the team is performing well in front of him.
As a two-time Stanley Cup champion and a guy who has been around for a while, perhaps an unusual nominee for surprise player of the season. However, Maatta played every game prior to the All-Star game for the first time in his career, which is a surprise. He also has arguably been the most consistent Penguins defenseman on the season with his all-around play blossoming into being a reliable and steady top-4 defenseman.
Maatta is up to 19:10 TOI per game, 3rd among Pittsburgh defensemen and up from 18:03 last year. He’s obviously not a flashy player but one playing well as a positional defenseman and probably playing up towards a “best case scenario” type of season. Maatta’s offense has improved too, the prior two seasons (2015-17) he recorded 19 assists in 122 total regular season games. He’s almost matched that with 15 assists so far in 51 games in 2017-18.
If you’ve got a more compelling case for someone not named, throw in an honorable mention in the comments!
Who is the best pleasant surprise so far in the Penguins 2017-18 season
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