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Lessons learned in the first half of the Penguins 2019-20 season

What has surprised and what we have learned about players like Brandon Tanev and Evgeni Malkin through the first half of the season

Pittsburgh Penguins v Montreal Canadiens Photo by Francois Lacasse/NHLI via Getty Images

With the Penguins’ 2019-20 season now at the halfway point (last night was game 42 to start the second half of the 82 game schedule), here’s some random thoughts and observations of items learned so far.

It’s kind of interesting that while Evgeni Malkin and Jim Rutherford don’t have much left to prove or accomplish, their seasons are standing out as two really good years, after there was a lot of justifiable concern that would not be the case this year.

Evgeni Malkin has still got it. How 33-year old Evgeni Malkin would or wouldn’t respond or bounce-back was a major key of the last off-season. There were plenty of pixels spilled wondering just how much of the “old Malkin” would be back, or if he was just plain old at this point. Malkin had a dreadful 2018-19 by his standards — he took a ton of bad penalties, coughed up pucks at inopportune times, his scoring was down. It was a rough season.

2019-20 has shown a revitalized Malkin. His current Corsi For% of 56.7% is a career-high. It was barely above 50% last season. Malkin has been on the ice for 33 5v5 Goals For to just 17 Goals Against, a 66.0% GF% that is ALSO a career-high. That GF% had slumped to a near career-worst 48.9% last year, meaning Malkin was on ice for more 5v5 goals against (46) than goals for (44), which is tough to comprehend, and very difficult for a team like the Pens to win when a star like Malkin isn’t a positive-results player at 5v5.

The good news continues everywhere. Malkin’s xGF% this year so far at 63.33%? Another career-high. Malkin has been on the ice for 117 5v5 high danger scoring chances to just 72 HD chances against, a 61.90% that guessed it, another high point of his illustrious 13-year career and way, better than last year.

Malkin is shooting the puck more, he’s on pace for a ton of shots this season. At 11.07 shots/60 in all situations, this is the most he has shot the puck and back in double digits for the first time since 2011-12. Malkin’s total Points/60 in all situations this season is an astounding 4.15 (tying his career high from 2011-12). That’s up big time from 2018-19’s P/60 of 3.38.

It was reasonable that due to age, injury history, a bad season to wonder just how long Malkin could and would be an elite player at the NHL level. However he’s convincingly answered all of those questions, and would have been on pace for a 110 point season based on his production (39 points in 29 games) had he not missed 13 games at the beginning of the season in a fluky type of injury.

It’s very impressive that Malkin could be putting on one of the best performances of his storied career so deep into that career, but that has been the case so far. Of course, it’s only been a half a season, so there’s plenty more to accomplish, it’s not time for a total victory lap, but this is a good place to stop and recognize how solid of a campaign it’s been so far.

Jim Rutherford is a magician. Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good, but the Pens’ general manager has undeniably proven that he is capable of getting himself out of sticky situations that he puts himself into.

Take the Brandon Tanev signing on July 1. There were (and still are) obvious problems about giving a 27-year old grinder a six year contract that offers limited no trade protection. But Tanev has done his part to live up to the deal with 19 points in the first 42 games, and more important than the points provide speed, energy, shot-blocking, PK ability, physicality, the whole nine yards. None of that was really in doubt in the first half of Tanev’s first season that he would be able to contribute elements the team needed.

At $3.5 million, the price tag was high and roundly mocked, but if the world knew then that Rutherford could shed Erik Gudbranson’s $4.0 million cap hit for absolutely nothing, the money for Tanev is no big deal at all.

That’s where the luck comes in, since Rutherford didn’t know on July 1 that he would find the very rare ready-made NHL rookie defenseman in John Marino (who wasn’t even acquired until the end of the month) to make Gudbranson totally expendable on the right side of Pittsburgh’s defense. Rutherford also couldn’t have forecasted being able to use long term injury reserve coming out of training camp when Bryan Rust broke his hand, but that ended up working out well for the team perspective.

Besides the whiff on dropping Phil Kessel for virtually nothing of use — an aspect the team was comfortable with doing to clear Kessel’s salary and presence, let’s not forget — a lot of Rutherford’s moves have come up aces.

  • Tanev is a good piece for the team now (even though, long-term how many 30+ year old expensive lower line players are a good idea? Hardly any, which means Tanev will probably end up the Pens’ Darren Helm - type problem somewhere down the line, but alas, that’s down the line).
  • Acquiring a young, skilled player like Dominik Kahun helped the Pens a lot, since they don’t have much forward talent in the pipeline.
  • Marino’s acquisition for a throwaway pick (that the Pens didn’t even have to give up if they couldn’t sign the player) and integration into the lineup was one of the most favorable developments you’ll ever see in the NHL.
  • Keeping Tristan Jarry instead of trading him over the summer — perhaps more a mistake by opposing GM’s without much interest — means the Pens were able to easily overcome Matt Murray’s struggles by supplanting him with the league’s best goalie this season to date in Jarry.

Pretty much every button Rutherford has touched has worked. The ones he’s stayed away with pressing haven’t bit him either. Imagine the backlash and negativity if Jarry was (shudder) a .935 save% goalie in Toronto this fall?

Well, we don’t have to imagine that, because by luck, skill or a combination of both, Rutherford has found a way to navigate tricky waters.