The Pittsburgh Penguins are 20 games into the 2023-24 NHL season and that means the first quarter of the season is in the books.
Overall, it has probably been a bit of a disappointment given the expectations following the offseason, the talent and the roster, and the fact all of that has produced a team that is — so far — on the outside of the playoff field with a .500 record.
There are some encouraging signs within all of that and there is still plenty of time to get things turned around, but there is a lot of work still do to do.
So let’s get into some of the early standouts, early duds, and biggest surprises and disappointments through the first quarter of the season.
Best player: Sidney Crosby
The easy answer. I do think that the struggles of the power play need to knock down the overall grades of both Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, but both have still been mostly great. Especially Crosby, and especially during 5-on-5 play. He is still one of the best players on the ice every single night, and at age 36 is still on pace for over 100 points and is leading the league (entering play on Tuesday) in even-strength points. A remarkable player.
Just need to get things fixed on the power play.
Worst player: Jansen Harkins
He has not played a ton, but when he has there has been nothing that has stood out. Especially nothing that would indicate that he should have had a spot on the opening night roster, a role on the third line, and doing all of that over Radim Zohorna. He has no points in five games and some of the worst overall 5-on-5 numbers on the team.
Biggest surprises: Tristan Jarry, Lars Eller
Jarry has had a handful of clunker games, but for the most part I have been pretty pleased with his overall performance. He has also had some truly standout games as well. Among goalies that have played in at least 10 games so far, Jarry’s .918 save percentage is sixth best in the league among that group. If he can keep giving the Penguins that level of play it should be more than enough over the course of an 82-game season.
Eller has also been a pleasant surprise in the way he has helped them form (when healthy) a formidable third line.
Of all the depth forward, bottom-six additions the Penguins made over the summer he was the one I had the most expectations for, and overall I think he has been even a little better than I expected. When paired up with Zohorna and O’Connor they have given the Penguins the makings of a reliable and decent third line, while he has also done a nice job on the penalty kill.
He can still play a little. He has been a nice add.
Biggest disappointment: Rickard Rakell
Acquiring — and re-signing — Rakell was one of the only good things former general manager Ron Hextall did during his time in charge of the team. A year ago there was an argument to be made that Rakell was one of the best overall players on the roster, making every line he played on better. His playmaking, creativity and his shot all made an impact on the players around him, and he did everything well.
We have not yet seen that player this season.
He is injured at the moment, but before going out of the lineup he had no goals and only four assists despite playing on a line with Evgeni Malkin and Reilly Smith that was scoring quite a bit. When he gets back in the lineup they will need a lot more from him, at both 5-on-5 and on the power play.
Biggest question going forward: The power play
Obviously. It has to be the power play.
The Penguins are getting respectable goaltending. Their 5-on-5 numbers both in terms of scoring chances and expected goals, as well as actual goals (48-37 in their favor) are outstanding and among the best in the league.
The penalty kill has been solid.
The only thing that has consistently held them back is the overall incompetence of the power play. It not only fails to score, it fails to score in big moments with the game on the line and seems to actively take momentum away from them. It has to fall on the players. With Crosby, Malkin, Jake Guentzel and Erik Karlsson the top unit has three future Hall of Famers and a consistent All-Star on the roster. It has Kris Letang, Reilly Smith and (when healthy) Rakell and Bryan Rust as options.
That level of talent needs to make it work. Figure it out. I can confidently point to two games where that unit actively cost them regulation wins (the Anaheim game and the New York Rangers game the night before Thanksgiving). Even competent power play work in those games gets them an additional two points total at a minimum, and perhaps even an extra four points.
How much different are you looking at the Penguins season today if they are 12-8-0 right now. Or even 10-8-2 at the moment? Probably very differently.
Get it fixed. Figure it out.