We are already more than a quarter of the way through the 2022-23 NHL season and we are starting to get a sense for what this version of the Pittsburgh Penguins is capable of and what sort of team it is.
Overall, I think a lot of things have gone according to plan.
Sidney Crosby is still legendary and a potential MVP contender (I do not think he will win; but he will be in the discussion).
Jake Guentzel is still a 40-goal guy.
Evgeni Malkin can still produce.
The Penguins are still pretty good overall and should — emphasis on should — be a playoff team.
But within all of that there are still a few performances that have been surprising on both the positive and negative end of the spectrum. Let’s take a look at a few of those performances.
Rickard Rakell is better than I ever anticipated
I had no idea what to expect from Rakell when the Penguins acquired him at the trade deadline a year ago. I loved the deal in a vacuum because he clearly had talent, was having a nice bounce back year, and the cost to acquire him was minimal. Especially for what looked to be a rental.
Then when he got here and I had a chance to closely watch him play every single night it became pretty apparent that this guy has an incredible amount of skill and can make everybody around him better. He has a good shot, he makes smooth little plays in the offensive zone, and every line he touches plays better when he is on it.
He was the one free agent that I figured they had no chance to re-sign so a new contract for him was not even on my radar screen.
But I am glad they worked that out. He is never going to be a huge point-producer, but he produces enough for a top-six role and it is not a coincidence that every line and unit that he touches gets dramatically better when he is a part of it. They found something with him and Guentzel on the top line flanking Crosby and I hope they stick with it.
I expected more from Jeff Petry
I am not going to say that Petry has been bad. Because I think that would be unfair. Very unfair, actually. Because he has been very solid, and his underlying numbers are actually quite strong given some of his deployments and usage. But I honestly expected a little more than solid.
When the Penguins acquired him I envisioned him giving the Penguins another impact defender to drive their second-pairing. The idea of either Kris Letang or him being on the ice for more than 80 percent of the game seemed like a HUGE score. But Petry has, in my view, been a little hit-and-miss. He has had stretches where he has looked like that player, and stretches where he has looked very pedestrian.
Were my expectations too high? Is that cloudy my perception of what he has actually done? Maybe a little of both?
Other defenders have stepped up in a positive way
Specifically Marcus Pettersson and Pierre-Olivier Joseph. And this is important. It is important because Brian Dumoulin has not really bounced back, and now with Kris Letang sidelined there is a big need for more impact players on defense.
Pettersson has been a very important development because he was somebody that was talked about as a potential salary cap dump for the past year, and because the Penguins have so much invested in him. He has been one of their steadiest blue liners this season and has passed both the numbers test and the eye test.
Joseph, meanwhile, has taken full advantage of his first chance to be an NHL regular. He still does not play a huge role or get big minutes, but he looks the part of a top-six defender. He is probably never going to put up huge numbers offensively or be a star, but his skating and ability to move the puck has started to show through. Given the Penguins’ always tight salary cap situation they need young (and cheap) players like this to make an impact.
Those two were big question mark and wild cards for me, and they have been among the best parts of the defense.
Bryan Rust’s slow start
We have seen Rust go through some pretty significant scoring droughts in his career, especially early in seasons, but it had been a few years since we actually experienced it. So that made it a little jarring to see just how much he struggled early in the year, especially after signing a long-term contract to remain with the team.
He just seemed to be really fighting it and it was holding back the top line, the top power play, and everything else that he touched.
It was problematic because 1) he had become such a key part of the team the past few years, and 2) him falling off the map just after signing that contract would have been BAD news, both short-term and long-term.
The good news is that even with his early struggles there were some signs that it was more bad luck than anything else, and his past two games have been a huge step in the right direction. So maybe we are about to see him go on one of his scoring surges to make us forget that slow start.
What has stood out to you as a surprise or disappointment so far this season?