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Checking in on select individual performances for the Penguins

Who is playing well and who is not almost halfway through the season?

Pittsburgh Penguins v Arizona Coyotes Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

With the season about halfway over, enough data is starting to pour in on how we can breakdown and analyze how different individuals are performance. One handy graphical outlook is JFresh’s visual player cards.

First, here’s an explainer of what these cards mean, which is always handy to refresh.

Let’s take a look at some notable Penguin players so far:

Kris Letang’s defensive impacts have been slipping mightily over the last few years (and not just this window in 2020). The days of him being a top-5 or top-10 defender in the whole NHL are probably in the rear view mirror, but Letang is still required to log a ton of minutes and function as the team’s best defender. While he can and should still be able to fill those shoes, for well over a decade Letang has been a monstrous force as an NHL defender, and almost taken for granted with his consistently high levels of play. As a veteran player, Letang should be a key performer in Pittsburgh for a while. But it’s never been more important to support him with a strong defensive player, which leads into...

It seems like almost every year in the season reviews, we marvel at Marcus Pettersson’s stellar defensive impact but wonder why the coaching staff never trusted him with a larger role. Well, this year he has been put into that large role (due to basically the team having no other options) and Pettersson has rewarded that decision by playing some stellar hockey.

Pettersson’s WAR% practically couldn’t be higher, and he’s held up his end of the bargain in his own end which is nothing new. But what has grown within his game has been moving the puck to skilled players to boost his assists and offensive impact. Individually, Pettersson has to rank as one of the Penguins’ most fulfilling and biggest success stories of the first half of this season for finally arriving as a legitimate top-four defender who is finally being utilized and playing to his full potential.

Can you believe there were any ever questions about Evgeni Malkin’s status or ability for the Penguins last summer? It’s been a strong age-36 season so far for Malkin, by about any degree. He’ll always get nitpicked and honed in for minor mistakes and details, but in the big picture he is performing (still) as one of the elite players in the NHL. Finally healthy and showing some staying power in the lineup, Malkin is off to a very encouraging start — and adding on more even more terrific chapters to a Hall of Fame career.

You don’t need advanced stats to see the struggles of Jeff Carter, but here they are anyways, if you can even stand to look. Often times when players “hit the wall”, there’s a steep drop off that no longer enables them to perform at an NHL level. Unfortunately, it looks like Carter is there. He can still finish and score goals (mostly weighted from the past) but overall it’s a big uphill battle for him at this point of his career to do just about anything right. Reducing his role and minutes to becoming a periphery player is a must moving forward.

Jason Zucker is embarking on what is looking like a classic contract year success story. His WAR% is a rocket ship in that upper right window to become one of the league’s premiere players over the course of this season. He’s stayed on the ice and been able to generate a ton of offense. The question for him (even prior to his Pittsburgh days) has been just how much finishing ability he can bring to the table, and it’s an interesting decision with no clear answer on what to do with him next. But, the good news for that right now is that Zucker is red hot and playing some of the best hockey of his career, and that has been a huge help for the Pens.

On the other side of Zucker’s strong season is how things have gone for Teddy Blueger. His assist numbers are very good, but that’s about it. The defensive impact and PK inputs are strong (though they were even stronger in prior years). Overall there has been a substantial drop off in his play this season compared to prior years. Blueger has also seen his finishing totally disappear — he’s only scored two goals in the last 57 games he has played (counting playoffs) since coming back from a broken jaw. Is that pure bad luck? A reluctance or inability to get to the net? Something is not right and that lack of offense is dragging his WAR% this season to very low levels. It’s not out of the question that Blueger could turn things around and perform better in the second half of the season, which would be a big help to the team’s beleaguered bottom six if he can.

Brian Dumoulin attracts a lot of attention for his decline and his performance this season, but surprisingly enough WAR% doesn’t dislike his inputs and play so much (maybe even too kind to him from considering other factors). I think a big thing is just the overall change and undeniable difference over the past few seasons: what once was a very steady and capable 75%-80% level ES defender (even prior to the 2020 data) is now down to a 55%ish one. As an observer, you’re going to notice that big time. Dumoulin isn’t effective as he once was, but overall he might just be OK with a role and time reduction that puts him against lesser competition.

Tristan Jarry has built up a career resume of consistently being an above average goalie, which he has carried on this season. He is usually and reliably just a little better than the expected goals would think of him. Jarry doesn’t stand on his head and play excellently — but he balances that out by also rarely being poor, which is a very good quality to have. He doesn’t make a ton of the “impossible saves”, but is exceptional at getting almost everything he has a chance on.

And although sometimes thought of as injury prone, it should be pointed out that Jarry is fifth in the NHL for total ice time since 2020 for the data this period encaptures. He’s quietly been a workhorse and a consistent presence in net that is about to make himself a lot of money with his contract coming to an end this season.