Micah Blake McCurdy gave us perhaps the best summation of the Pittsburgh Penguins month of October when he wrote that the “Penguins have decided to drive their fans the final dozenth of an inch into madness”. The Pens went just 3-6-0 in the opening month of the season, despite driving any and all partial observers to the brink of craziness by finding new ways to lose games that they ought not have lost.
I choose "STL 5v5 xGF cratering" pic.twitter.com/pM1psWAqsq— Micah Blake McCurdy (@IneffectiveMath) October 31, 2023
As a result, Pittsburgh enters November in a big hole. Which means grades aren’t going to be very pretty this month.
Evgeni Malkin, A: Malkin has been the Penguins’ most visible and consistent threat all season long. Despite being 37, he’s playing some of his finest hockey these days.
Bryan Rust, A-: I was very worried that Rust’s best days were behind him after a frustrating and under-performing 2022-23 season. A lot of those fears have been assuaged in the opening month. Rust scored five goals — important to prove and re-prove his finishing wasn’t totally gone. He’s skating well, impactful all over the ice.
Reilly Smith, B+: It’s been a very encouraging start for Smith in his first year with the Pens (4G+3A). Everything about him is above-average but his best trait might have been finding immediate chemistry with Malkin - something not always easy for players to do.
Radim Zohorna, B+: In hindsight, he should have made the team out of camp. 2G+1A in five games back up in the NHL, which for this bottom-six is almost McDavid-esque production. Zohorna’s skating ability has really impressed lately, he’s looking like an answer for one of the team’s biggest problems when it comes to creating a viable third line.
Sidney Crosby, B: Crosby’s points are there (10 in nine games) and his five goals have been a pleasant and needed boost for the club. But something looks off about his game, a lot of his setups are getting knocked off target by opponents far more than when he’s truly at the top of his game. He’s been fine, and better than most his teammates, but not quite right. You can see it in his body language too at times, and not just for the over-arching losing, but it isn’t working quite right out there for him now.
Jake Guentzel, B: A lot of Crosby’s report applies here too. Guentzel’s points are there (nine in nine games). But the goals aren’t with only two. As he has admitted, he’s got to finish on more chances. It’s a positive that he didn’t miss any games after an August ankle surgery, but the Pens need him to start hitting the back of the net.
Lars Eller, B-: For his role, Eller has been solid. He’s not a dynamic skater or player with the puck but can keep it going in the right direction. The hockey IQ is certainly there and in spades. Eller is showing that he will be a player that can contribute positively to the team.
Drew O’Connor, C-: He’s looked better and more impactful since Zohorna has rejoined the team, but this was supposed to be a 15-20 goal breakout type of campaign for O’Connor. For as much as the Pens want him to step up and be that type of guy, is that really in the cards?
Rickard Rakell, D: The poster boy for “good process, bad results”, which hurts because Rickard doesn’t get paid for process, he gets paid to put the puck in the net. With no goals and only one assist, Rakell has not doing that remotely enough. There can be reason to hope he can shake free and rebound next month, but it was an October to forget for Rakell.
Noel Acciari, D-: Wasn’t he supposed to play with energy, be physical and chip in some goals? We’ve seen almost none of that so far. Very disappointing start.
Matt Nieto, D-: Can apply almost all of Acciari’s feedback here as well. Hard not to think of the scene in Office Space when the consultants ask, “what would ya say..you do here?”. What is Nieto accomplishing? Not much of anything so far.
Jeff Carter, F: Carter isn’t hurting the team in a low TOI role on the wing, but he’s doing nothing to help either. It was obvious he was shot as an NHL caliber player over a year ago and has only gone downhill from there. There’s no reason he should still be dressing every game, or any game, even if contractually the Pens do not have the ability to cut him. Carter is the second oldest forward in the league (pnly Joe Pavelski is older) and Carter is looking like it on every ineffective shift he takes.
Marcus Pettersson, B+: As usual, Pettersson is quietly and subtly doing a tremendous job with defensive impacts to keep the puck out of his own net through play that doesn’t jump off the page but gets results. His 1.87 GA/60 is by far best on the team.
Kris Letang, B: Letang has been OK so far. Not great, had a few mistakes and bumps in the road along the way, but is still playing over 24 minutes and sliding into a more defensive role adding more PK to his plate.
Erik Karlsson, C+: Karlsson has had a tough month to sum up in a grade. Which in this case probably isn’t a good thing. He’s had some flashes to show why he is so supremely talented. But he hasn’t exactly been an instant success. Only two PPP in the month and didn’t exactly light the world on fire at even strength either.
Ryan Graves, C: A repeated theme among defenders on new teams is having some struggles or difficulties early on. That’s been the case for Graves. Hasn’t stood out as looking that comfortable with the Pens yet, but hasn’t been bad either. Hopefully can keep adjusting and acclimating as the season goes on.
Ryan Shea, C-: The team likes him a lot, and it takes a close watch to see why. Shea is capable of making little plays around the ice, skates well, has decent size. Other than getting burnt badly on a goal against in his first game, he’s looked OK as a low-minute defender.
Chad Ruhwedel, D: When bad bounces happen on the ice (like Anaheim’s first goal last game), it’s uncanny how often Ruwhedel is on the ice. He played himself down to being a healthy scratch and though his metrics are fine or encouraging, something about his play just isn’t these days.
P.O. Joseph, F: After a -3 night in Detroit (playing less than 12 minutes) Joseph has been a healthy scratch ever since. With no return to the lineup in sight. Tough to imagine a worse possible month for a player who was seemingly on the verge of establishing himself as a regular lineup player.
Tristan Jarry, D: To be fair, I either liked or didn’t mind Jarry’s first five games of the season as they happened. He had two shutouts on the month, where the defense made his job fairly easy. It’s worth pointing out there were plenty of times when they did not make his job easy. The last two games have been absolutely dreadful. Overall though, Jarry’s sitting 44th in save percentage and 51st in Goals Saved Against Average. That’s simply not good enough.
Alex Nedeljkovic, C-: One good game, one bad game, but I thought Nedeljkovic submarined his team’s chances to comeback against Dallas with a bad decision to leave the crease and play the puck (which might have also been the play that injured him).
Magnus Hellberg, incomplete: Didn’t see enough to know much.
Coaching and special teams
Mike Sullivan, D: For all the cries about Sullivan’s system, when setting aside emotions and frustration, the system is still pretty much is working perfectly. It is putting the team in position to pile up chances, players aren’t converting. Sullivan tweaked things to put the clamps down on Colorado (which he might need to do more) but slips and inattentive moments are washing out all the good.
I still can’t shake the sequence in the second period against St. Louis, a 1-1 tie quickly became a 3-1 Blues lead. Sullivan called timeout, heartily yelled at his players in an effort to regroup — only to see the Pens surrender a scoring chance off the rush immediately afterwards. Things like that are not a good sign for a struggling team. Sullivan is going to have to find some ways to tighten up the defense and then hope his shooting+saves regresses to where it should, then suddenly he’ll look like a good coach again in the reactionary mode of coaching appraisals. Until then, he’s got to own where they’re at, and figure out a way to stop digging and start climbing.
Power play, F: 14.8%, and literally turned a win into a loss by failing to score against Anaheim with a long 5v3 and then turning the puck over for a goal against in the closing seconds. The power play opportunities are down (only 27 in nine game), the timing has been awful (7 out of the 9 games the Pens have zero PPG). The team lacks an identity, rotates a fifth player ineffectively and has lots of talent but little in the way of results. A worst case scenario and nightmare start for what was supposed to be a strength of the team.
Penalty kill, B: At 82.1%, the Pens are 12th in the league here. That’s actually and honestly not bad considering the defenders they’re using out there isn’t exactly the most stout group. Pittsburgh can sign up for an 82% PK over the long-haul (would have ranked in the top-10 last season) and be OK if they fix the more broken and pressing elements of their squad.