At this point we know the Pittsburgh Penguins players having the best seasons. Jake Guentzel is great. Evan Rodrigues is having a breakout season nobody anticipated. Tristan Jarry has bounced back in a big way. Sidney Crosby is starting to play like Sidney Crosby. Kris Letang is still playing like Kris Letang. All great, important stuff that is helping the Penguins play some great hockey.
They are not the only players having strong seasons, though. There are also a handful of players quietly sneaking under the radar that are having very strong seasons.
We are going to take a look at some of them here.
This is one that is not getting enough attention right now. When I looked at the Penguins’ penalty kill recently I noted that Ruhwedel had some of the best PK numbers in the league in terms of suppressing shot attempts, scoring chances, and goals against. It is still true now.
Of the 214 skaters that have logged at least 40 minutes of PK time this season Ruhwedel has the following rankings.
Shot attempts against per 60 minutes: 6th (64.9)
Shots on goal against per 60 minutes: 4th (30.4)
Expected goals against per 60 minutes: 11th (4.46)
Scoring chances against per 60 minutes: 7th (31.2)
High-danger scoring chances against per 60 minutes: 3rd (8.29)
Goals against per 60 minutes: 2nd (1.38)
It is a smaller sample size (43 minutes) of course, but he has taken advantage of that opportunity in a significant way and been one of the most impactful contributors to the best penalty killing unit in the league. It is quite a surprise given the rest of his career, which could probably best be described as “serviceable” for his role. Not going to hurt you, not going to make a huge impact, probably best as a 6th or 7th defenseman. He has taken a significant step forward this season.
It is not just on the PK though. His 5-on-5 numbers have also been excellent, with a better than 55 percent share of shot attempts, expected goals, and scoring chances when he is on the ice. He is never going to produce a ton of offense, but he has been rock solid in every other aspect of the game this season. Ruhwedel has never played more than 44 games in a single season (he has topped more than 40 games just two times) and has never really had much of an opportunity to be a regular. He is getting that opportunity so far this season and running with it.
I was not always happy with Pettersson’s game a year ago, but maybe the issue was me having expectations that were too high. So far this season he has been pretty outstanding while he and John Marino have been one of the Penguins’ best and most consistent defense pairs this season. That is an important development on both fronts because the Penguins have so much money invested in them for quite a few more years.
As a pairing Pettersson and Marino are in the top-10 in shot attempt differential, goal differential, and scoring chance differential among the 50 defense pairings across the league that have played more than 250 minutes of 5-on-5 hockey together (for what is worth, all of the Penguins defense pairings, including Ruhwedel and Mike Matheson, are among the tops in the league this season).
This is an important pairing for the Penguins both this season and in the future because of their ages, role, and salary cap numbers long-term. They are 24 and 25 years old respectively, account for $8.4 million in salary cap space together through the next three years after this season (and Marino has a fourth year at over $4 million on his own), and need to be the foundation of a top-four pairing on defense. There is going to come a point where they might have to be THE top pairing. This is the kind of play they need to give the Penguins. They have been very solid this season.
Mike Matheson is my favorite player because he just brings CHAOS to games. He can be amazing on one play, maddening on the next, and never really anything in between. At least that is what he has been in the past. That is what he was in his first season with the Penguins. But I think he has kind of toned down the chaos a bit this year and has been more consistently strong. He had that one game a few weeks ago where he brought maximum Mike Matheson chaos, but for the most part this season I think he has avoided the defensive zone meltdowns that stood out. His underlying numbers are strong, and he has played very well alongside Ruhwedel. Do not hate this as a third defense pairing.
Going off the board a little bit here for a forward, and I know he has not really produced much offensively since the first four games he played this season, but I really like his game and the way he plays. Not sure where he fits when everybody is in the lineup (he probably does not at this point) but I think he is an NHL player. His underlying numbers are strong (and excellent), he obviously has some skill, and he plays really hard. There is a place for him in the bottom-six of a contending NHL roster.
[All data in this post via Natural Stat Trick]