The Penguins have played slightly more than a half of a season now at the All-Star break, completing 46 of the 82 games in the season, but this stoppage is a natural place to split the halves of the long season. Hockey is the ultimate team sport and game, but each individual has their ability to shine or frustrate as much as anything.
Grades are determined in part due to factors that are somewhat outside of a player’s control such as role, usage and general expectation, but we will also consider and grade based on actual on-ice performance mixed in. As in, you expect Sidney Crosby or Jake Guentzel to be good, and they were good, so they also get credit for playing well. Just because a third pair defender gets a better grade than a top-pair player, it doesn’t necessarily mean he is “better”, just performing that way.
Anthony Angello, Louis Domingue, Pierre-Olivier Joseph, Juuso Riikola, Radim Zohorna, Kasper Bjorkqvist
—With only a handful of games for all the names above, there isn’t enough of a sample to rightfully grade or spend much time with any of these players. At this point Domingue is the most intriguing based on his past NHL experience, and the fact he stole the show for the Pens in San Jose in his only game. But we haven’t really seen enough of any of these players to say too much more.
Bryan Rust - the only negative for Rust this season is that he’s missed almost as many games (22) as he’s played (24). He has been a difference-maker in most his appearances and is having another super-productive season with 32 points (14G+18A) in just 24 games. He fits hand-in-glove with Crosby and the top line. It’s getting to the point where the Pens have to consider moving other pieces around and giving him a longer extension than they may want to in term. He has been that good.
Jake Guentzel - Perhaps somewhat quietly, Guentzel leads the Pens in goals (23) and points (46). He is a true All-Star in every sense of the word and one of the best goal scorers in the game today. Like Rust, Guentzel is a perfect Crosby linemate with the hockey sense to get to the right spot at the right time and has the world-class finishing ability to turn chances into points. Truly an elite player at his prime right now.
Sidney Crosby - After a slow start where he basically had a personal training camp in the regular season (two points in first seven games), Crosby now has 38 points (11G+27A) in his last 27 games played, a 115-point full season pace. Ever since he geared up, the captain has shown few signs of slowing down and is still a consistent force on the ice and as dangerous creating offense as about ever.
Evan Rodrigues - Rodrigues has hit a points slump in the last dozen games, but in the big picture he has 32 points (15G+17A) and importantly has also played in all 46 games this season. He’s been invaluable playing any of the three forward positions and on any line with all sorts of rotating sets of linemates. Rodrigues has already had a career-year in just half a season, and he has been legitimately the best player on the ice (or close to it) in several games. When the Pens were at their most depleted, they badly needed someone to step up — and it was Rodrigues who answered the call.
Tristan Jarry - A lot has been said about Jarry’s performance, and deservedly so. Not much needs to be repeated here besides again emphasizing that Jarry has been one of the top goalies across the whole league in just about every category and has been the backbone of the team.
Kris Letang - a tough player to grade, his offensive production (41 points in 42 games) is as good as it ever has been. Decision-making and defensive mistakes have been occasional, as always. Still, at age-34 Letang remains one of the best and most influential defensemen in the entire league.
Jeff Carter - now with a contract extension, the trade to Pittsburgh had doubtlessly extended Carter’s career. His production is solid (12G+14A) and his role has morphed as needed, now into more of a key penalty killer/matchup center with Blueger out. Carter just celebrated his 37th birthday, but if you didn’t know that you wouldn’t think it watching him get around the ice, seemingly as effectively and smoothly as ever.
Evgeni Malkin - Malkin has 13 points (5G+8A) in just 12 games, and has been excellent at boosting the power play. But even as he put it, “I know I can play better, and I will,” where he will look to be more of a force at even strength (he only has two ES goals). But coming back at age-35 with everyone else on the ice in mid-season form, Malkin has performed admirably. A big compliment is that he has looked like, well, Malkin.
Teddy Blueger - incremental improvements have been the name of the game for Blueger for the last decade since the Penguins drafted him in 2012. He just slowly and continually grows his game every week, month and year. Blueger is near his career-high in goals and points, and for the first time in his career is well-above having a 50% faceoff season (54.8%).
Chad Ruhwedel - perseverance has paid off for Ruhwedel, who was a swing/reserve 7D for the Pens for an amazingly long five seasons from 2016-21. Now at age-31, he’s finally gotten the chance to be an “every day” player that is not at risk of coming out of the lineup, and he’s not coming out of the lineup because he has done a really nice job. His role on the PK (1:40 per game) has grown into quietly being a key part of a really strong unit. Ruhwedel is the opposite of a stand-out player, but he has fit in exceptionally well.
Brock McGinn - has to be considered exactly as advertised: a good all-around player, can score a fair amount (10G in 43 games), reliable PKer, postionally sound. Not much of a standout in any area, but a perfectly honest and capable middle-line winger that is very solid in all aspects and situations.
Mike Matheson - The Mike Matheson experience is never boring, but on the ice he has performed better this season. With six goals (five of them ending up as GWG’s) he’s finally putting some production. Defensively he’s prone to mistakes, but has generally done well in his role and what the team has asked of him. Adding a bit more consistency would be nice, but he is what he is, and one has to take the good with the bad.
Danton Heinen - Heinen was electric starting out the year with a goal in each of the first three games (and 4G in the first eight) but has fallen off a bit as the season has gone along (just 5G in last 32 games, one in last 14). He’s been a great and useful player to plug in around the lineup, but has been hit or miss as far as burying scoring chances and maintaining.
Brian Dumoulin - mostly passable play, but for his standard it hasn’t really been that great a season so far. His Corsi% (47.7%), Scoring Chance% (48.9%) and xGF% (49.4%) are all at the lowest levels that they ever have been since he’s become a full-time NHLer. Some of that could say more about team play than the individual, but Dumoulin’s play has been..Just OK by his standards.
Marcus Pettersson - a subtle player that can be tough to appreciate and perhaps easy to pile on, Pettersson has been effective in his role as a defensive defender. His offense is non-existent, but his defensive progression (especially after ending last season on a down note) has been fairly encouraging to fill a role.
John Marino - this could be a harsh, but I don’t think Marino has made the best of impressions so far. After grading out as legitimately one of the top defensive defensemen in his rookie season, his advanced stats have not held up well. Still can be and often is a solid player who carries a lot on his shoulders at now over 21 minutes per game, but we’ve seen him play better.
Brian Boyle - has been fine as a player, which is a pleasant surprise. Great teammate and veteran presence. Painfully slow but it’s clear he knows what he’s doing and you can’t teach 6’7 and having a massive wingspan to impact the defensive end and middle of the ice.
Mark Friedman - has only played 12 games, healthy scratched for a ton more. Chaotic is a good one word synopsis of Friedman, who has a lot going on from free-roaming to physicality, to taking and drawing penalties. He hasn’t had much an opportunity to show more, perhaps because his game isn’t smooth enough, especially in comparison to the super-steady Ruhwedel.
Dominik Simon - the man who can’t score (2G+6A in 40 games) but is great away from the puck and has been a lineup mainstay because of it. Simon is not a very exciting player, good along the boards but offering very little in the way of production. The positive is that he’s been cast in a lower-line role at all times this season. His grade based on spreadsheets would be higher, overall just kind of goes about his business without being very noticeable. That can be a good thing, but isn’t necessarily a compliment either.
Jason Zucker - Zucker’s had terrible finishing this season (6G+7A in 31 games), tried to play through an injury, wasn’t able to score and finally got his core surgically repaired. The Pens badly need more from him in the second half of the season. This is perhaps a generous grade since he tried to gut (pun intended) through an injury and played for a while, and didn’t always seem as ineffective as his stats with the chances generated, but finishing more is an absolute down the stretch.
Zach Aston-Reese - great defensive metrics but his offensive game (1G+8A in 38 games) seems to regress every season, which hasn’t been fun to endure. Aston-Reese just is a “guy on the team” at this point. He’ll add to the PK, throw some hits, keep the puck going in the right way, but he’s never able to offer any more than that. In a perfect world, Aston-Reese might have grown into closer to what Brock McGinn actually is, but he always seems to leave one wanting a bit more.
Drew O’Connor - due to injuries or bouncing around, O’Connor hasn’t gotten much of a toe-hold in the lineup (3G+2A in 22 games). He’s been fine at times, but hasn’t taken a big leap forward this season as a strong camp seemed to promise.
Kasperi Kapanen - his stats aren’t bad (9G+15A in 45 games) but the vibes sure are. Kapanen often gets demoted from lines and his ice time slashed during games. His confidence and body language shows signs of obvious concern. For long stretches he isn’t very visible and he doesn’t help a ton away from the puck. One of the Pens’ big challenges will be figuring out how they can get the most out of him in the second half of the season.
Casey DeSmith - His stats put him near the bottom of the league in effectiveness. One perspective: per Hockey-Reference, DeSmith only has 3 “quality starts” out of 10 (.300%, was a .586% in his previous reasons). In his prior NHL years he only had 5 “really bad starts” in 58 starts. This season, it’s already 4 really bad starts in just those 10 games, and he has been saved by getting pulled from having everything look worse. Dreadful season so far for the earlier standard he had set of being a quality backup. A strong last performance against Detroit saved him from a failing grade.
Sam Lafferty - 10 games, zero goals and six penalties taken led to a trade that ended the Lafferty era in Pittsburgh with a whimper.