It’s a new month already and 2022 is really rolling along. As we prep for another March of the Penguins, let’s hand out the monthly awards for February. The Pens slogged their way through February, with a 6-3-1 record that was OK but prone to swings of winning and losing streaks.
They actually gave up more goals (28) than they scored (27) thanks to that poor 6-1 loss to the Devils. The power play (27.0%) is heating up, being the NHL’s third best in Feb with the return of Evgeni Malkin re-energizing and lifting that group.
However, without Teddy Blueger the penalty kill has cratered (75.0%), just 22nd best in the league last month. One silver lining is the team was only shorthanded 24 total times in the 10 games, which helped the Pens win the overall special teams battle by only allowing six goals while down a player. Best to stay out of the box when the PK is struggling, and Pittsburgh has been able to do that, at least.
NHL Player of the Month: Kris Letang
Sidney Crosby and Bryan Rust tied for the team-lead with 12 points in 10 February games, but I’m giving the player of the month to Letang. The defender had eight points (1G+7A) this month, and played a whopping 26:12 per game. Letang’s goal was a highlight, he bullied Claude Giroux, knocked him over, stole the puck and scored against the Flyers in OT. Letang was on the ice for 10 Pittsburgh even strength goals this month, which was more than Mike Matheson, John Marino and Marcus Pettersson...combined. Although this is a monthly award, it’s tough to not notice Letang is sixth in assists across the whole league right now at the end of February. It’s been a tremendous month in the bigger picture Letang is putting together one of the finest single seasons of his whole career this year.
Honorable mentions: Sidney Crosby, Bryan Rust, Evgeni Malkin
Player to watch: Jake Guentzel
Guentzel only scored two goals in the 10 February games (he did add eight assists though, to produce at a point-per-game level). Guentzel currently leads Crosby by three points, 53 to 50, in the team scoring race. A few months ago it looked like Guentzel might finally take Dick Tarnstrom’s title of “last player not named Crosby or Malkin to lead the Pens in a season for scoring” trivia. Now? Maybe not. It’s doubtful Guentzel stays cold for very long (he shot 6.5% in February, he’s a career 15.9% shooter), but he’s about as cold as he gets for shooting right now. Let’s look to see if Guentzel breaks out and scores more goals in March (even though with his passing and power play work, it’s not as if he’s struggling by any means with his overall game).
AHL Player of the Month: Pierre-Olivier Joseph
Joseph has really been coming on strong lately in the AHL with 4G+6A in 11 games in February from his position on the blue line. He’s in his third pro season, but due to the pandemic and various call-ups (including at the moment) it’s been impossible for him to really sink his teeth into getting a lot of action on the ice in his pro career. A month like February where he was playing on the top pair, in all situations and pitching in a lot of offense will go a long way into showing that he is ready for the big time.
Player to watch: Valtterri Puustinen
Puustinen had 4G+3A in February, finishing the month strong with three points in two games. WBS coach J.D. Forrest had some great quotes talking about Puustinen’s development and improvements in his first season as a pro in North America with the Tribune-Review:
“A lot of the stuff that he’s been doing has been off the ice, just developing himself as an overall athlete,” Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins coach J.D. Forrest said. “Increasing his conditioning level, his speed, his strength and his overall fitness. (Strength and conditioning coach) Mike Joyce has done a lot of work with him and (Puustinen) has put in a lot of hard work and a lot of time to kind of dedicating himself to that area, just kind of learning how to be a pro. We have a lot of resources for him within the organization. He’s used them and has been real committed to that part of it. That has led to increased speed on the ice. His overall endurance is just better. He can play more minutes at a higher pace because of that.”
“One of the adjustments that a lot of guys have to make coming from overseas — Finland, Sweden, those pro leagues — is that they play such a controlled game,” Forrest said. “There’s a lot of set forechecks, a lot of set breakouts. We’re looking to push the pace to get pressure fast. He can really close on guys faster than they’re anticipating. That’s one area among many that he’s really improved in. It’s helped kind of everything for him.”
That’s some nice input and feedback about how Puustinen has grown and also the challenges that he has faced in his transition to North American hockey. It’s probably still up in the air or remains yet unknown how his game would stack up in the NHL, but the evidence in Puustinen’s career is that he’s been a very productive scorer at every level and league he has been in to date. He ranks 11th currently in rookie scoring (if you were to consider him a rookie, which I guess apparently the league doesn’t on their official site).
Prospect of the Month: Joel Blomqvist
Elite Prospects has Blomqvist’s recent play as two games, 2 goals allowed and a .949 save%. He’s been up and down from the top league in Finland (Liiga) and their top minor league (Mestis) this season, but has a really good stat line in the top league: 14 games, 4-2-2 record, .930 save%, 3 shutouts, 1.34 GAA. He’s still a very young goalie that just turned 20 years old in January. Hopefully he gets more opportunity to play, it looks as if he could be developing into one of the top young goalies in Finland and eventually be in line to jump over to North America.