Now that we’re past the Winter Classic, time to circle back and take care of some usual business with the prestigious PensBurgh players of the month throughout the organization.
The Penguins posted an 8-3-2 record in the month of December, which considering the down-turn that they finished the month on might be a little better than one could remember. Overall this season has been prone to extreme streaks of winning and losing, but generally speaking, 8-3-2 over 13 games is a full-season pace of 114 points. Any NHL team would gladly welcome that kind of end result.
NHL Player of the Month: Evgeni Malkin
Malkin led the Penguins in assists (10) and points (14) in the month of December. 10 of his points came by way of the power play, where he helped boost Pittsburgh to a 32.0% power play in December, no doubt a key factor in why they won the majority of their games. Malkin scored two game winning goals on the month, one more painful than the other.
And, for what you think it’s worth or even mentioning, Malkin has played all in 37 of the Penguins’ games so far this season. Durability has never been a calling card, but he’s at least temporarily quieted any doubts and complaints about missing time so far this season.
It was also a notable month with Malkin making this great play to surpass Sergei Fedorov on the all-time list of Russian NHL scoring players.
AHL Player of the Month: Valtteri Puustinen
Puustinen is now back where he was at the end of last season: leading the Wilkes-Barre Penguins in scoring. The Finn tallied 5G+3A in 10 December games to boost himself up the rankings (and also get some help when Drew O’Connor earned a promotion to the NHL).
That promotion has yet eluded Puustinen, and the Penguins are arguably deepest in the right wing spot that he plays, so nothing might be on the horizon there either. Which makes it interesting and debatable for just how the Penguins’ organization sees this small, scoring forward. Do they think he has NHL upside? Or is he a player with the skills seen as more the AHL scorer that can’t find an NHL niche in the future?
Seemingly on the surface, Puustinen has done a lot of what he’s needed to do, he’s piled up a lot of points on an AHL team that is hardly stacked with high-end skill or point producers. Yet after 1.5 seasons in the Pens’ organization, ample opportunity for upward progression hasn’t been available. Will that change soon? Or ever? The AHL is stacked with a ton of smallish, very productive players who didn’t get too much of an NHL chance, is Puustinen in that realm? Or is this a slow play to a potential real chance somewhere down the line in this organization? Unfortunately now, there are more questions than known answers and the clock on the 23-year old impending free agent is starting to tick ever so louder.
Prospect of the Month: Sergei Murashov
Between Andrei Vasilievskiy, Ilya Sorokin and Igor Shesterkin (and possibly Pyotr Kochetkov if early results continue to hold), many of the very tippy top elite goalies to develop over the last decade have come out of Russia. Could Pittsburgh’s fourth round pick from 2022 be the next in line?
Playing in the Yarsolavl organization, the 18-year old Murashov started the season in the MHL, which is a kin to the junior ranks of Russian hockey. There in 26 games he has put up an eye-popping .957 save% on the season, 1.25 GAA, nine shutouts and 17-5-3 record to lead the MHL in every major statistical category. The youngster also made his KHL debut in December, which again considering his age and the typical path/progression of the Russian system is very, very impressive. There he stopped 18/19 shots, allowing one goal and winning his lone appearance there.
As Dobber Hockey wrote this summer, Murashov is not a physically imposing goalie, unlike many top prospects. He also catches the “wrong” way with his right hand. However, he’s doing something that is working based on his athleticism and level of play.
At 6-foot, 168-pounds, the Yaroslav native is considered a relatively small netminder. Instead, he is heavily reliant on his speed and agile mobility in order to make up for the lack of net space taken. Additionally, he is known to be very aggressive and challenges his opponents early, forcing shooters to make quick and uncertain decisions. This, being just another area in which he makes up for his smaller stature.
According to Elite Prospects, in Murashov’s last five games he has only surrendered two total goals to go along with a .975 save%. Elite Prospects also says his KHL contract lasts through 2023-24, and given broader geopolitcal current events and issues, who knows when or if Murashov will be joining Pittsburgh. In even the better of circumstances, it can an extreme waiting game filled with many stops and starts in the process of an NHL team getting a great Russian goalie (it took Sorokin draft+7 seasons to get to the Islanders, though his case was extreme. It took Shesterkin draft+6). It may or may not take quite that long to get Murashov to America, but if he keeps playing the way he is now, it will be worth the wait for the Penguins no matter how long it might take.