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Looking back on 2017-18 season surprises for the Penguins

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Some over-performed, some under-performed and some we never saw coming or going.

NHL: Washington Capitals at Pittsburgh Penguins Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Just before the season started back in September (you know, the last month without snow or so it seems), we took a poll on predicting which player would be the Penguins surprise. Here were the results

As always, looking back shows just how much things can change in the NHL and how tough forward-looking projections are, being as three of the four best candidates aren’t even on the team any longer.

Ryan Reaves was a polarizing player as one of the last of the enforcers. He played 58 games with the Pens, scoring 4 goals and adding 4 assists, a bit below what his most fervent fans predicted. He was traded in February to Vegas, mainly for salary purposes so the Penguins could afford to get under the salary cap enough to add Derick Brassard.

Olli Maatta is definitley the right answer to this quiz as it was presented, which 26% of the folks called. Maatta has played all 80 of the Pens games and set a career high in assists (21) and also fired in seven goals. The case could be made he’s had the steadiest season of any Penguins defenseman. It’s been a great year individually for Maatta.

The long saga of Derrick Pouliot ended shortly after this poll, traded to Vancouver for a 4th round pick. Pouliot remains what he was in Pittsburgh, struggling with inconsistency he’s been a healthy scratch at times, but also showed good offensive instincts (3g+19a) and making some bad defensive mistakes that’s caused him to bleed goals against. His -22 +/- rating is among the worst in the league.

Antti Niemi flamed out of Pittsburgh spectacularly with three terrible goaltending performances that earned him a trip to waivers. However, given how the Pens were totally sleep-walking early in the season and under back-to-back situations, one wonders if Niemi got a fair shake or showcase. He does after all have a .931 save% in 18 games with Montreal. At the same time, it’s tough to fault a team for trying something new when the goalie had a GAA north of 7 and a save percentage south of .800.

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So what other options could there have been that we didn’t see at the time?

Sticking in the net, I didn’t see Casey DeSmith having it in him to provide .913% goaltending in the NHL level for 13 games as he has this year. I’d be equally shocked back in September to learn Tristan Jarry would have a 14-6-2 record in the National this year.

Perhaps the true winner of the Pens surprise player of the year is Jamie Oleksiak. Like Pouliot, Oleksiak is a former first round pick that needed a change of scenery. Like Pouliot he was traded for a 4th round pick. Oleksiak has shined in Pittsburgh carving out a full-time spot in the lineup and scoring 4g+9a in addition to 67 PIMs and being a +13 on the season.

Up front, Riley Sheahan has 11 goals and 31 points as a Penguin which well exceeds the doom-and-gloom many Pens fans were preaching about upon his acquisition. Phil Kessel setting a career-high 87 points at age-30 is also something of a slight pleasant surprise. Evgeni Malkin cracking 42 goals wouldn’t have been all that expected either due to past durability and games played amounts being lower. Despite missing some time to injury, Patric Hornqvist’s 27 goals (and being tied for 2nd in the league in PPG) would also be an unexpected brighter than expected spot.

Prospect wise, Zach Aston-Reese has really progressed and made strides and Dominik Simon got way more NHL games (33) and points (12) than I would have guessed at the beginning of the season.

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On the flip side of the coin there are some negative surprises too. At the beginning of the season I thought that Matt Murray could be a Vezina finalist. He’s had trials and tribulations to deal with the season from injuries to the loss of his father to bad defense but he hasn’t been nearly as good as he was in past seasons.

I thought Jake Guentzel could be at least a 30/30 guy this season and at 21g+26a he’s not terribly far off but his season hasn’t been impressive (and he’s only got 10 goals in his last 54 games played since 12/1 and just one goal in the last 17 games).

Conor Sheary followed up a star-making 2016-17 season (23g+31a) to drop down to currently 17g+12a, despite playing well over 50% of his 5v5 time with Sidney Crosby. Speaking of Crosby, his 86 point season in 80 games is down-right pedestrian for his lofty standards and his goals dropped from 44 last year to 28 currently, thanks in large part to a huge dip in shooting percentage.

Defensively Kris Letang hasn’t looked like his once “in the Norris conversation” self following neck surgery last year, and Matt Hunwick, the team’s most expensive free agent signing from last summer, has been a bust and relegated to healthy scratch territory for most of the stretch run.

For prospects, Daniel Sprong has been mired in the AHL after a mostly forgettable eight game audition in the NHL. Former second rounder Teddy Blueger has made great strides in AHL production but still didn’t make his NHL debut despite the Pens being very weak at depth center spots for most the season.

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Every season has its own twists and turns, so we’ll run the poll again since it is easier to look back.

Poll

Looking back, which player had the most surprising 2017-18 season?

This poll is closed

  • 18%
    Olli Maatta
    (211 votes)
  • 20%
    Riley Sheahan
    (237 votes)
  • 38%
    Jamie Oleksiak
    (442 votes)
  • 6%
    Tristan Jarry
    (73 votes)
  • 15%
    Casey DeSmith
    (183 votes)
1146 votes total Vote Now