It is not officially the halfway point of the 2019-20 season just yet, but we are close enough that we are going to use this week’s Penguins’ stock update as a halfway point review of the season. Especially since the Penguins have not actually played in a game since Saturday.
It was a mostly successful weekend as the Penguins continued a strong Western Conference road trip that saw them go 2-1-0 with big wins in Calgary and Edmonton, and a bizarre game in Vancouver to wrap it up.
Tristan Jarry kept playing well, Jake Guentzel is still scoring points, and Jared McCann started to find the scoresheet again.
It all has the Penguins within striking distance of the second spot in the Metropolitan Division when they return to play on Friday.
That said, it is time to take a look back at the best performers from the first half, as well as the most disappointing performers.
Who Is Up
The Big Three — Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang have all missed time this season due to injury, and they have rarely been in the lineup together, but when they have played they have all played at a high level. Crosby looked like an MVP candidate before he was sidelined, Letang has had a few hiccup games but has been a stud offensively and controlled the pace of games in a way that few can, and Malkin has been having a bounce-back season.
Jake Guentzel — He is doing his best to show that 40-goal season a year ago was not a fluke. He has a chance to join a very select group of players. That group: players to lead the Penguins in scoring for a season. He has a chance to be the first non-Crosby or-Malkin player to lead the team in scoring since Dick Tarnstrom, while only Crosby, Malkin, Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr, Alex Kovalev, Tarnstrom, and Mark Recchi have led the team in scoring since the 1984-85 season.
Jim Rutherford — The criticism of him the past two years was valid, but he has redeemed himself in a big way over the past year and helped get the Penguins back on track. He rediscovered their identity and made a serious of strong moves to replenish the depth of the roster. McCann, Dominik Kahun, John Marino, Brandon Tanev, and Marcus Pettersson have all been outstanding complimentary players this season and all belong in the “who is up” section. So we will just include all of them together and give credit to the general manager and front office staff that acquired them. McCann, Kahun, Marino, and Pettersson have been especially strong additions, not only because they have been the exact type of complementary players the Penguins needed, but because all are young, cheaper talents (for now) that have brought more speed and skill to the lineup, while also still having the ability to continue to improve and be parts of this team for several years.
Mike Sullivan — You would not have been wrong to place Sullivan on the hot seat over the summer, if for no other reason than the team had seemed to hit a ceiling. Most of that the past two years was due to the shortcomings of the roster, but the head coach is always the first one to change when things get stale for a hockey team. But Sullivan not only has a new contract extension, he has proven emphatically that he is the right person for the job. He has had Crosby, Malkin, and Letang in the lineup together for only four games this season. That means he has been without at least one of them in 32 of the team’s 36 games. He has been without two of them in eight of them. The Penguins have earned a point in seven of those eight games (they have 4-1-3 record in those games, which is a 112-point pace over an 82-game season). The Penguins are one of the best defensive teams in the league and look like legitimate Stanley Cup contenders.
Tristan Jarry — His brief NHL experience before this season was solid, if unspectacular. Not bad, but nothing to really stand out, either. He made the opening night roster because of a salary cap crunch that sent Casey DeSmith to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in the AHL. It seemed like backup goalie might be a question mark. Not only has it not been a question mark, Jarry has taken over the starting job for the time being and been one of the best performing goalies in the league. Jarry always had pedigree (he was the first goalie taken in his draft class) and was a highly regarded prospect, but I do not know that anyone saw this sort of performance coming this season. He has been outstanding.
Who Is Not
Alex Galchenyuk — My expectations were not very high at the start, simply because I did not see him as anything more than a one-year, short-term solution on the wing, and I did not see his numbers seeing much of a boost just because of the new system and better talent around him. After 500 games and six years in the league you probably are what you are. Having said that, I still thought he would be a little more noticeable than this. He is the classic “if he is not scoring goals or producing offense, he is not helping you” player, and he has not scored goals or produced offense this season. Just two goals and eight assists in 27 games and has not been able to crack the top-six of the lineup even with all of the injuries to players throughout the season.
Matt Murray — He had a similarly slow start a year ago, and it was around this time that he started to get things turned around. It would be very helpful if that happened again this season. Not only because it would give the Penguins two quality goalies, but also for Murray’s sake when it comes to a new contract.
Justin Schultz — Just a really tough season across the board for Schultz. Another round of injuries have taken him out of the lineup, and when he has been in the lineup he just has not been all that impactful.
The Power Play — It is not just the fact their success rate is in the bottom-10 for the season, it is the fact that it just looks awful more often than not. Injuries have definitely impacted things here, and it is clearly the one area they are missing the impact Phil Kessel can make. The good news is that a strong power play is not really a requirement to win and go on an extended Stanley Cup playoff run, but it would be helpful if the Penguins were able to find a way to get a little more from this unit at some point this season.