It’s already (past) time to flip the calendar for the first month of 2022, and a new month brings a chance to look back at what happened in January. (Results from last night’s game against Washington not included).
January will be the month we look back at the Penguins really charting their course to an eventual 16th straight postseason berth later this spring. Pittsburgh put up a a 10-3-2 record playing 15 games in 29 days from Jan 2-30. They weathered a long western road trip and the ever-present difficulties of the latest COVID surge and injuries, whether or not they wanted to and still found a way to get results. It was the month of the successful return of Evgeni Malkin, and seeing Tristan Jarry and Jake Guentzel earn well-deserved All-Star selections.
NHL Player of the Month: Bryan Rust
Rust missed four games in January due to injury and COVID, but still set the league on fire scoring 21 points (10G+11A) in just 11 games. He may have had this wrapped up after just the first three games of the month, putting up an eye-popping 8G+4A in all multi-goal and three+ point games. Rust has missed a lot of time this season, missing almost as many games (22) as he’s played (23) as of the end of January, but still has 30 points and is chugging towards a big payday in the off-season. Rust was named the NHL’s third star of the month overall in January.
Honorable mentions: Sidney Crosby, Kris Letang, Jake Guentzel
If not for Rust, this would have been a great month for Crosby (8G+12A) or Letang (4G+16A) to take the honors for player of the month. All of them are obviously inter-connected at even strength and on the power play, the big guns have been firing and working extremely well in tandem to create offense and fuel the engine of what was a very good month for Pittsburgh in January.
Player to watch: Tristan Jarry
Jarry won’t get much rest in the Pens’ week off, as he has to fly to Vegas and back and perform in the very unfriendly (for goalie anyways) skills competition and 3v3 All-Star game. After starting 10 of Pittsburgh’s 15 games in January, and appearing in 12 overall, Jarry has had a heavy workload ranking among the league leaders in goalie games played this season. Jarry’s performance and usage will be very interesting to watch unfold in February, a fairly slack month for the Pens with just 10 games and only one back-to-back in the month (Feb 26-27).
AHL Player of the Month: Alex Nylander
After coming to the Pens organization in a trade earlier in the month, Nylander has wasted no time showcasing his skill and adding some badly needed production to the WBS Pens. In January Nylander put up 6G+5A in 13 games for WBS and scoring at a rate that is at least making his progress interesting to note. Almost 24 and not under contract for next season, it remains to be seen just what the long-term plans are for Nylander, if any opportunities will present themselves at all, in now his third NHL organization. But, so far so good for Nylander to establish himself as no less than a very good AHL player.
Player to watch: Sam Poulin
Down in Wilkes-Barre it is interesting times for the Pens’ last first round draft pick. He’s been a healthy scratch recently, but also ended the month on a four game point streak. Overall he’s got nine points (2G+7A) in his last 10 games and has been working more as a center, which is a positional switch from the left wing where he typically had been playing. It feels a little like the player and team are still trying to figure out where the best path ahead may lie. And to show just how fast the NHL is moving these days, all 20 picks selected ahead of Poulin in the 2019 draft have already made their NHL debuts. And of the 20 picks selected immediately after Poulin, eight have already played in the NHL. For hockey prospects it can get early pretty quickly as the great Yogi Berra once said, and even though Poulin celebrates his 21st birthday later this month, the clock of his development is starting to tick.
Prospect of the Month (Lower Leagues): None!
The Penguins don’t really have a lot to offer for their non-professional prospects in the first place, and none are performing well enough to be recognized right now. Goalie Joel Blomqvist has been loaned from the top Finnish league down a level to Mestis, where he hasn’t played very well (his stats are electric in the top league, ironically, but playing time is scarce). WHLer Lukas Svejkovsky is in a good spot as an overager now traded to a strong Medicine Hat team but has no goals and six assists in six games there, good but not exactly hitting the ground running for what he should be doing. 2021 second rounder Tristan Broz isn’t standing out or getting a lot to do as a freshman at Minnesota, not the biggest deal in the world but not exciting. And most the other prospects just aren’t moving the needle much.
Pretty depressing, but the Penguins are not really a developmental team, and haven’t been a while with very few high draft picks to tear up junior and European leagues. That might change in the near future, but for now the cupboard looks as bare as perhaps it ever has now midway through the 2021-22 season. There’s still good reason to hope Blomqvist, Svejkovsky, Broz and Calle Clang could all develop into good pros one day, but that day is not right now.