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What a difference a year makes: Four players (and one GM) that have dramatically improved

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These five members of the Pittsburgh Penguins organization have shown some significant improvement over the past year.

NHL: New Jersey Devils at Pittsburgh Penguins Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

With the 2019 calendar year just a couple of weeks away from coming to a close, we wanted to take a look back at some members of the Pittsburgh Penguins that have shown some significant improvement over the past year.

There have been some significant developments over the past year that have started to get the Penguins back in the right direction after a disappointing 2018-19 season and even more disappointing 2019 Stanley Cup Playoff appearance.

Let’s take a look at the improvements.

The Players

Tristan Jarry. At this time last year Jarry was still somewhat of an unknown.

He was the No. 3 goalie in the Penguins’ organization, his brief NHL track record was nothing special, and he hadn’t really played at a dominant level in the American Hockey League. He was still a solid prospect, but he was starting to quickly approach “suspect” status as his name seemed to be mentioned more as a trade chip than a potential solution in the Penguins’ NHL net.

Fast forward to this season and he has been a difference-maker over the past couple of weeks, helping the Penguins get through an absurd run of injuries and some early season struggles from Matt Murray. It seems that his name has — at least for now — been removed from the trade block as he continues to make the case for more playing time.

Among the 53 goalies that have appeared in at least 10 games this season Jarry’s .938 all situations save percentage is tops in the league, as is his .956 even-strength save percentage.

No one should reasonably expect him to continue to play at that level for the rest of the season, but at this time last year I don’t think anyone would have expected this from him during any stretch of games. He has at the very least solidified his spot on the roster and within the organization.

John Marino. No, he was not in the Penguins’ organization at this time last year but I am still going to include him in this because of the fact his overall production offensively through his first 29 NHL games is identical to what he did at the NCAA level. That is kind of wild. To go right from the NCAA to the NHL and be able to produce at the same rate is no small accomplishment, especially when the other aspects of his game beyond point production are all there. He has proven to be one of the most significant additions the team made all offseason.

Bryan Rust. At this time last year it was not hard to conclude that Rust was one of the players that was the subject of Jim Rutherford’s criticism of younger players that got fat and happy. They had their championship rings, got their paydays, and then became content. Exactly one year ago today Rust had just one goal and seven total points through the first 29 games of the 2018-19 season and was looking like his contract might turn into a bad investment that would need to be dumped.

Not so fast.

Since then Rust has been one of the team’s best all-around players, and in the 60 games that have followed that brutal start he has produced 26 goals, 20 points, and been the all-around glue forward the Penguins were paying him to be.

Those scoring numbers project to 35 goals and 60 points over 82 games, and when you combine that with his defensive play and the fact he can literally fit in any role, on any line, and he is looking to be worth every penny of the contract the Penguins signed him to.

Evgeni Malkin. Yeah, I am going to include him in here, too. His final numbers for the 2018-19 season were fine, but there was a noticeable drop in his production after the first month of the season while the defensive and decision-making struggles were well documented. Even he admitted he needed to be better. He has been. He is back to looking like the Malkin of old that can put the team on his back and carry it.

The general manager

Jim Rutherford. Look, the criticism many of us had regarding Jim Rutherford’s performance for that two-year stretch between 2017 and 2019 was absolutely justified and legitimate and deserved. It does not take away from the job he in building a back-to-back Stanley Cup champion, and it does not mean he could not improve. It just means for a couple of years he and the organization kind of lost its way. They looked for the wrong type of players, they made some bad deals, they did not seem to have much sense of direction in what they wanted to be or where they wanted to go.

That has all changed, and the roster moves over the past year have been — for the most part — home runs.

Jared McCann.

Dominik Kahun.

John Marino.

Marcus Pettersson.

Even Brandon Tanev (I can still hate the contract term but like the player).

The only fumble along the way seems to be the return on the Phil Kessel trade, but even that will not be fully known until we see what Pierre-Oliver Joseph turns out to be.

The first four players there are the big ones when you consider how little was given up to get them. McCann required a lot of draft picks, and all of the collateral assets that were spent on acquiring Derick Brassard in the first place, but McCann looks like he can a significant complementary player for the next few years and maybe even have 30-goal potential in him.

On top of that, getting Kahun, Pettersson, and Marino for what amounts to Olli Maatta, Daniel Sprong, and a sixth-round draft pick is a tremendous return.

The team ended up getting younger, it ended up getting faster, it ended up getting the players it needed to play the style of play it needs to play in order to compete for another Stanley Cup.

Everyone always says that one of Rutherford’s best qualities is correcting his mistakes. He spent the past year doing that, and also apparently learning from them.