Every week during the season I am going to take a look at the Penguins’ roster and highlight three players that are trending up, and three players that are trending down.
Now that we have one full week of the regular season in the books it is time to take a look at our first installment.
Overall, it’s been a fairly exciting start to the season, especially if you like goals and no defense because that’s what you’ve gotten with a 7-6 overtime win, a 5-1 loss, and a 4-2 bounceback that included a hat trick.
To the lists!
Phil Kessel — Like we said back in the preseason with Kessel: New year, same old shit. After being perhaps the Penguins’ most consistent producer a year ago, Kessel is right back at it and has already recorded five points in the team’s first three games.
That includes Thursday’s hat trick against the Vegas Golden Knights where he was the difference in the game.
His first goal was a howitzer of a wrist shot off a face off (the old James Neal play), and then he somehow found himself in all alone behind the Vegas defense for not one, but two breakaways goals. Even in the Montreal game where the entire team laid an egg I thought he at least stood out and made some plays (he was the lone man back on the shorthanded goal and handled it as well as he could have ... only to be let down by every one else).
Logic says he should be starting to slow down at this point in his career, but after a career-high 92 points a season ago and a fast start to this season he looks as dangerous as ever.
Kris Letang — The Penguins need Letang to be at his best, and while I’m not ready to say he is back to the highest level we have seen from him in the past, he has already looked infinitely better than he did at the start of last season.
Quite honestly, I think he’s been pretty outstanding.
He had a couple of giveaways early in the season opener against Washington that made you scratch your head and wonder what in the hell he was doing, but he rebounded with a pair of goals that night including the game-winner in overtime.
Objectively speaking, the numbers are everything you want from a top-pair defenseman.
He is controlling the pace of the game from a shot attempts perspective, he is playing big minutes, and he’s averaging a point per game. He is not all the way back yet, but he is getting there. That would be a massive development for the Penguins because when Letang is at his best there are only a handful of other players in the league that can make the impact he does.
Jake Guentzel — This was going to be a huge year for Guentzel because of the value his entry-level contract gives the Penguins under the salary cap, and for what it could mean for his wallet over the summer in contract talks. He has responded with three goals in the first two games, including two in the opener.
The goal that really stood out, though, was the one he scored on Thursday against Vegas because it highlight just how good his shot is when he has a chance to unleash it.
We still don’t really know how good he is when he isn’t playing alongside Sidney Crosby, but playing alongside Crosby presents some challenges and carries a ton of expectation (the expectation being, you damn well better produce).
He has met those expectations.
Olli Maatta — Olli has become a whipping boy of sorts over the past few years among Penguins fans, and I kind of get it. And I also kind of don’t. When he gets beat, it often times looks bad, and when a defenseman looks bad, it stands out in your minds and you never let it go no matter what else happens with that player over the course of a game or season.
But I also thought he was pretty good last season and hasn’t been as bad as his most vocal critics will try to get you to believe.
He doesn’t do anything exceptionally well, and while he has limitations physically he seems to have adjusted his style of play to those limitations. In other words: He knows what he can do, and he knows what he can’t do. He’s a smart player, and he can be a pretty good one.
That said, he struggled over the first two games alongside Jack Johnson and that earned him a spot in the press box for Thursday’s game against Vegas. Given what happened to Justin Schultz’s possession numbers on Thursday when paired next to Johnson (they were bad!) I’m not quite ready to say that it was all Maatta’s fault, either.
But this is where we are, and considering how well Juuso Riikola played in his absence (and the fact the team won 4-2) he might have another game to watch on Saturday.
Matt Murray — This is just the result of a tough start to the year on the ice and some more bad luck with his health. After giving up 11 goals in his first two games (not all of them being entirely his fault) he was diagnosed with what is already the third concussion of his career. Because of that I actually feel bad about putting him in the “who’s down” section because his health and well being is the primary concern. But, having said that ... he had a shaky start before the injury and that is where the focus here is.
Patric Hornqvist — I don’t want to say that Hornqvist has been bad to start the year (because he really hasn’t — he does, after all, have 12 shots on goal through the first three games), but he also hasn’t really been noticeable with just a single point (an assist in the season opener) and a demotion to the third line in the second half of Thursday’s game.
Overall, I’m not too worried about Hornqvist because you know what you’re going to get from him: A balls to the wall effort that is going to infuriate every defensemen and goalie in the league, and 20-25 goals at the end of the year.
The fact he’s still getting pucks on the net is also encouraging. He doesn’t have a particularly good shot, but he’s always been a volume shooter that gets his goals because he throws everything he can at the net and parks himself right on top of the blue paint. Eventually one of those shots will go his way, or he will get a deflection or bang in a rebound, or puck will bounce in off of his butt.
The goals will come. He just hasn’t been all that noticeable to these eyes ... yet. That will change.