With the Penguins resting up at the moment before playing their final five games, now is as good of a time as we will get to look back at the start of the season. The regular season ends on Friday April 29th, and the first playoff games begin on Monday May 2nd, so it will be a quick turn at that point to get ready for postseason action.
Today, I’m focusing on an article written in September titled, “The five Penguins players I am most curious about in 2021-22”.
Malkin had knee surgery in early June, over four months before the start of the season. Yet the team is still being vague about his status, with an update expected soon. There’s already whispers that Malkin will be LTIR bound and miss the very 10 games, and possibly a significant number more. That’s enough to be interested, what does Malkin have in his knee? Is he able to still capture some of the 2019-20 magic, where he was one of the league’s best offensive players?
Malkin ended up missing the first 34 games of the season, not making his debut until January 11th in Anaheim (where he scored two goals and added an assist). Overall, it was a very impressive seven-ish month recovery for a 35-year old who we came to find out had surgery to repair multiple knee ligaments.
The Pens missed Malkin early on, they were 22nd in the NHL on the power play without him, converting only 17.5% of their chances. That power play got a boost to tied-8th in the league at 23.9% from Malkin’s return date through when he got suspended, with Malkin picking up 19 power play points (8G+11A) along the way.
At even strength, however, Malkin did not find a grove this season, scoring only 14 points (9G+5A). The low assists number especially sticking out with Geno having to work with a bevy of rotating wingers who weren’t capable of scoring goals, or out with injuries themselves.
Then there is that four game suspension, which was a lapse of self-control and cost himself and the team mightily down the stretch when they couldn’t call up players and also had a flu bug racing through the locker-room.
Malkin’s contract status remains unresolved, with it still not seeming like either the organization or player expecting to figure out exactly what the future holds. An unresolved contract doesn’t necessarily have to mean an unsettling situation, but what do you pay an aging star center at the tail-end of his playing career when he also has a significant history of missing a ton of games? It’s been a riddle that hasn’t yet been cracked and probably will persist a while longer still.
What roller coaster does he have in store next season:
The goalie in the middle was as good as about anyone, and for a very large portion of the season. Jarry started cold and slow, in a period that coincidenced with so many defensive injuries, but then was great. Then he took a minor injury in early May, and looked at times like he had never played goalie in the Islanders series. It’s all over the place.
NHL goaltending is clearly such an obvious important point that can make or break teams. Goalies are famously volatile but Jarry is even more unpredictable right now. Can he fix what ended wrong or will his performance as the season starts keep the goaltending picture murky?
Six months into the season, it’s a credit to Jarry that it’s getting tough to remember him being a question mark. His play was pretty much “good Jarry” all season long, even though very much like last year he suffered an injury late in the regular season that is more serious this time around and throwing his playoff redemption arc into doubt.
Total shame, but what can ya do?
After settling in with a new team, not much training camp and an early injury, Mike Matheson appeared to be settling in as a Penguin. From March 29th until April 30th, Matheson recorded 11 points (3G+8A) in 16 games going into May 1st. That was quite the turn from his first 27 games of the season up until 3/27, when Matheson only had five points (2g+3A).
In year 2 with the Pens can Matheson get back to how he played in April? Time and again, we’ve seen talented defensemen struggle in a first season in Pittsburgh (from Sergei Gonchar to Paul Martin, and to an extent Justin Schultz) and then improve drastically in the second season. Could Matheson add his name to that list?
Mike Matheson has been something of a moderate pleasant surprise, already hitting personal season bests in goals (11) and points (29). Those aren’t eye-popping numbers, but anytime a defenseman gets to double-digit goals — especially with little input on the power play — that is an impressive achievement and offensive contribution that really helps a team.
At his best, Matheson is a dynamo on the breakouts and jumping into play and often getting shots on goal (his 127 shots are t-55th highest among NHL defensemen). At his worst, he’s still unreliable defending in his own zone with limitations that can cause adventures against the team.
Pittsburgh is starting to lean on Matheson a little more, he’s averaging 20:11 in 19 games since March 1st (compared to 18:15 from season start - Feb. 28th). Overall Matheson has been pretty good this season as a middle-of-the-lineup defender and unlike some of his defensive teammates, he’s at least been getting stronger as the season has gone along, which is another badly needed aspect the Pens have relied on.
I wouldn’t call him a total revelation or breakout player or completely resetting the bar on what comes next like Justin Schultz did when he revived his career with a 51-point season in 2016-17. But Matheson certainly has not a disappointment on the ice either, and his game wasn’t as broken down as Schultz was upon joining the Pens, either.
It’s not a flashy name, but he’s the biggest off-season addition. New things are fun to discover exactly how they will fit in and offer to the team. McGinn got a fairly significant four years of contract term to play a middle or lower six role, and a decently-sized salary as well. Is he going to steal the hearts and minds of fans like Brandon Tanev did?
As a contract, this already looks poor, with McGinn commanding three more seasons after this one at $2.75 million cap hit. That’s not extravagant, but it’s paying a premium price for a lower line winger who is more “just a guy on the team” than being a standout that moves the needle on most nights. It would be better to pay less for a younger player in that role than give out a UFA term and price, but what’s done is done in that regard.
McGinn has been perfectly fine on the ice, chipping in 12 goals in 59 games and missing a large chunk of the season with injury issues. He’s playing the way he is supposed to, and filling a role totally adequately — but truth be told McGinn was not one of the more interesting players on the team, just a new face.
On one hand, Kapanen’s successful first season in Pittsburgh with 30 points in 40 games might prove to be in-line for some regression and might not be sustainable. On the other hand, the 25-year old is in his prime, thriving in a system where he can use his speed to generate offense and could be seeing increased usage at the start of the season since Kapanen is surely one of the more skilled and better healthy forwards on the team right now.
Imagine a time where Kapanen was considered one of the better forwards on the team! It wasn’t that long ago when Mike Sullivan offered such an optimistic outlook on Kapanen in the preseason. This is some glowing praise that he almost never lavishes to this degree on a player (who isn’t Sidney Crosby or Jake Guentzel, anyways).
Coach Sullivan on Kapanen: "The sky is the limit for his game. Kappy has the ability to be an elite player. He's one of the fastest skaters we have, he has great offensive instincts... We think there's another level to his game, and we're going to try to help him get there." pic.twitter.com/gfEziT8wEo— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) September 24, 2021
The way this season has unfolded makes the above look as if Sullivan isn’t even talking about the same player. Since the All-Star break Kapanen only has two goals in 30 games. Perhaps worse, he has only generated 40 shots on goal in that timeframe. That blazing speed has all but disappeared with every zone entry these days invariably comes a player that pulls up and looks for a pass, far from the days when he would confidently drive to the net.
He was a healthy scratch earlier in the season, has been dropped during games from a scoring line to a lower line more times then one can count, and in the last two games he’s played his season-low in ice-time (5:39 vs NYI, 7:06 vs BOS).
In September, the sky was the limit for Kapanen when Sullivan envisioned he might become the team’s next Bryan Rust type story to establish himself as a legit high-end player in the league. By April, the basement has been discovered.