The Pittsburgh Penguins have been blessed with an absurd level of talent for the past three decades.
If you were to ask the average Penguins fan which players would make their “must-see” list you know almost all of them are going to list one (or all) of Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr, Sidney Crosby, and Evgeni Malkin. They are the obvious choices. The easy choices. The choices everybody will make.
So we are going to exclude those four, assume they are givens on such a list, and look beyond them. Let us put together the list of players that YOU absolutely loved to watch.
There is no right or wrong answer here.
This is your opinion.
Maybe it is a player that has a specific skill that you like. Maybe it is highlight reel goals. Maybe it is a quiet dominance. Whatever you like watching.
Who makes your list?
Here is mine. It is, admittedly, a little all over the map.
Kovalev has always gotten a raw deal because the expectations for him in every city were unreachably high. Because he never really met those insane expectations, he always seemed to carry around an “underachiever” label.
Let me tell you: That label is some serious bullshit.
The reality with Kovalev is that he put together a borderline Hall of Fame career and was one of the most electric players of his generation. And I do not think the former point there is an exaggeration. When you take into account his role in league history (first Russian-born player to go in the first round of the NHL draft; one of the first Russian-born players to have his name on the Stanley Cup; his role in winning that Stanley Cup) and the numbers he put up offensively in the dead puck era and there is a compelling argument to be made for him.
Kovalev had two different stops in Pittsburgh, but it was his first one where he made my must-see list.
He was always one of those players that could make NHL defenders look completely helpless on any given shift, and he remains one of the most mind-bending players I have ever seen play in an NHL game with the puck on their stick.
If you were to ask who the best defensemen to ever wear a Penguins uniform is, the correct answer is Paul Coffey.
But if you were to ask “who is the best defensemen in Penguins history” then the answer shifts to Kris Letang.
Yes. They are two different questions. Yes. They warrant very different answers.
Letang may have his share of extremely vocal critics, but there is no denying his impact on the Penguins organization during his career.
He has absolutely climbed to the level of “all-time great” in franchise history.
He is also one of the players that I have always loved watching.
When it comes to pure skating ability Letang has few peers, and when he is at his peak and playing at his best he is one of the biggest game-changers in the league. His ability to join the rush, create offense, and sustain that offense is an invaluable tool. He scored some massive goals in the 2009 Stanley Cup run, and was a monster during the entire 2016 postseason with a Stanley Cup clinching goal.
The other thing that has always stood out to me about Letang at his peak, is on the occasion where he does get caught up the ice in the offensive zone and is still able to chase the play down from behind and disrupt it in the defensive zone, then starting it back the other way.
He was just a fun player to watch.
An “undersized” forward in an era when every NHL team was trying to get bigger and stronger in every possible way, Straka still managed to put up great offensive numbers at the height of the dead puck era and was always one of the fastest players in every game. He made things happen all over the ice and for a brief time helped form a dominant offensive line alongside Kovalev and Robert Lang.
Am including him for one reason, and one reason only: the speed. I love watching fast hockey, and in all of my years watching the NHL I have never seen a player skate faster than Koltsov.
He was a lightning bolt every shift and it was fascinating to watch.
Did it work out for him as an NHL player? No it did not.
But that does not mean he did not have a very specific skill that was not extremely fun to watch.
He may have been frustrating with his nightly breakaway that did not result in a goal, but there is something to be said for two-way hockey. And forward on the 2015-16 and 2016-17 teams demonstrated that better than Hagelin.
At his best, he was causing havoc on the ice for opposing teams and helped give the back-to-back Stanley Cup winning Penguins teams a huge part of their identity. An elite defensive forward and penalty killer, one of the fastest players in the league, and a big-time playoff performer that always shined on the brightest stage.