The Pittsburgh Penguins are now officially at their All-Star break and it probably is coming at the absolute perfect time. They have played a tough stretch of games, have a condensed schedule ahead, and are in the middle of their longest losing streak of the season (four games, with three of them coming in overtime or a shootout). This is a good time for a week away from the rink.
So here are some random thoughts on where this team is at the unofficial halfway point of the 2021-22 NHL season.
Big picture outlook
They are way ahead of where most people expected them to be this season. The preseason expectation seemed to center around them being a fringe playoff team that would have to fight just to make Stanley Cup Playoffs. This may have been overstated a bit. While they did lose Brandon Tanev and Jared McCann this offseason, with the incoming replacements being question marks, this was still a team that won its division a year ago and was a goalie meltdown in the First Round away from a potentially significant playoff run. It was still a good team. Guess what? It is still a good team now. The Penguins are in contention for the Metropolitan Division title at the halfway point and even with the current slump still look like one of the better teams in the league despite a seemingly never-ending run of injuries.
Short term outlook
Losing four games in a row stinks, even if you still collect three points in them. It especially stinks when three of the games were against teams in the bottom half of the standings. Maybe it was a chance to collect a couple of more points. But I am not going to get too concerned about it. The season is full of peaks and valleys and they had just won 17 out of 19 games before that stretch. Even with the four-game skid they are still 23-5-4 over their past 32 games. That would be a 128-point pace over an 82 game season. That is good. Really good. The concern might have been that their overall play took a small step back at times, especially in the games against Detroit, Seattle, and Los Angeles. The good news is they seemed to find it a bit more against Washington on Tuesday night. Simply did not get the result.
Best player so far
Jake Guentzel. With honorable mentions to Sidney Crosby, Tristan Jarry, Kris Letang, and Bryan Rust.
Guentzel just continues to excel and cement himself as one of the best wingers in the NHL and one of the best pure goal scorers in the NHL regardless of position. Future captain.
Biggest surprise so far
Tristan Jarry. With an honorable mention to Evan Rodrigues.
After the playoff performance a year ago Jarry was by far the biggest question mark heading into this season, especially when the front office did not really bring in anybody to challenge him for the starting spot. They trusted he would bounce back and play well, and he has. His play has been a big part of the Penguins’ success, earned him a trip to the All-Star game, and right now might even have him on the fringes of the Vezina Trophy conversation.
Biggest disappointment so far
His overall production is always fine for a middle-six player, but you would like to see more from him given the investment. Especially since he was protected over Jared McCann, who has been outstanding for the Seattle Kraken. Still want to see him be reunited with Evan Rodrigues for a bit to see what they can do after playing so well together the past two seasons.
Biggest question in the second half
He has struggled for much of the season, and with the schedule in the second half being a little more condensed and not wanting to run Jarry into the ground they are going to need more from DeSmith. Or a different backup goalie. It is pretty obvious the coaching staff does not have a ton of trust in him right now given his usage and the quick goalie pulls in some of his recent starts. A better safety and insurance policy would be nice to have. Perhaps something to look at before the trade deadline.
Best offseason addition so far
Evan Rodrigues, with Brock McGinn as an honorable mention.
Is it cheating to say Rodrigues given that he played on the team a year ago? Maybe. But he still want to the unrestricted free agent market and could have gone anywhere else. He returned to Pittsburgh on a bargain one-year contract and has been one of their best players this season. He has definitely regressed a bit over the past few weeks (which had to be expected at some point) but his play earlier this season helped carry the Penguins through some tough injury situations. McGinn has always been an outstanding pickup, almost perfectly replacing the Brandon Tanev role and production for a slightly cheaper number against the salary cap. Between those two, Danton Heinen, and all of the bonus play they have gotten out of Brian Boyle the Penguins did very well with their free agency additions this past offseason.