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Penguins 2023-24 mid-season forward grades

Using the break to individually grade the performances of the first half

Pittsburgh Penguins v New York Islanders Photo by Mike Stobe/NHLI via Getty Images

The Penguins played the first game of the second half of their season on Monday, but with the long break this week, it’s close enough to cheat it back and make an approximate half-way point of the season. So let’s look at the individual performances so far.

Sidney Crosby (42 games, 26 goals, 20 assists, 46 points), A: The Pens’ captain is 36-years old and on a 50-goal pace through 42 games. Enough said! But to say more, as of yesterday Crosby had taken 100+ more faceoffs than anyone else in the league and was top-10 in winning percentage. He does all the things little and big that it takes to be successful. He doesn’t get an A+ only because of what burden he was to take on for the failures of the power play.

Jake Guentzel (42 GP, 19G+27A, 46 points), A: The Robin to Crosby’s Batman, Guentzel has been right there every step of the way for why the Pens’ first line continues to be one of the NHL’s top lines. You can set a watch to Guentzel’s consistent point scoring, he’s gotten a point in 32/42 of the games so far this season. The Pens only have a 2-7-1 record in games where Guentzel doesn’t record a point (with one win coming on Monday against Seattle where he was on the ice for two goals for).

Bryan Rust (29 GP, 11G+14A, 25 points), B+: About the only thing Rust has done wrong this season is miss a big chunk of games with injury, which isn’t exactly something he had control over. Otherwise, Rust has been on track for a very impressive bounce-back season in 2023-24 after a disappointing 2022-23. His production is back, he’s playing a well-rounded role on the penalty kill and bringing a lot to the table as a solid supporting player.

Evgeni Malkin (42 GP, 15G+21A, 36 points), B: Malkin isn’t the player he once was, but is often over-critiqued at the same time. Not many teams have a second line center on pace for 30 goals and 70 points, and even fewer 37-year old players can score at that rate. But Malkin offers a little bit of what you want to see, he can be careless and take too many penalties at times. He can fade away at times. But he also can get to his game and still be a driving force and positive difference maker. As it often is and has been with Malkin, a person can easily find the way they want to paint his game.

Drew O’Connor (42 GP, 6G+9A, 15 points), B- The long awaited Drew O’Connor breakout might have finally arrived. O’Connor is fourth on the team in goals since Thanksgiving behind only Guentzel, Crosby and Malkin, which sounds nice until realizing that’s only five goals. Still, it’s something to build on and he is becoming a key player on the team now averaging 14:44 per game (well up from 9:49 he played last season). The Pens have been hoping and expecting O’Connor to take strides and now he is doing that to become a viable middle-line NHL player.

Lars Eller (42 GP, 7G+6A, 13 points), C+: Not flashy, but effective. Eller pitches in a bit offensively but his bigger job is eating tough assignments and his solid all-around presence has gone a long way towards stabilizing the lower lines. Eller is a key cog in the penalty kill, can play power play, 3v3 OT situations, even strength, he’s been a real jack of all trades and quality player to have as a depth center. You’d probably like a third line center to be on pace for a bit more than 25ish points in a season, but the main trade off for lower line construction has been to limit goals against, and Eller’s work has helped to provide that.

Valtteri Puustinen (17 GP, 1G+6A, 7 points), C+: It’s difficult to believe Puustinen only has one goal (scored at the end of the blowout win over NYI). He gave the power play a boost but that proved to be a short-time assignment with the top group. Puustinen has made some nice plays by passing the puck. While Puustinen has been fine (and at times better than that), like many minor league call-ups the question about staying power and retaining a lineup spot will need to be answered through continued strong play.

Rickard Rakell (30 GP, 5G+11A, 16 points), C: Rakell has had Reilly Smith’s season in reverse, with the Swede having a poor start (0G+4A in first 17 games) followed by a stint on IR and then a nice response since coming back (5G+7A in his last 13 games). One area that stands out for Rakell is on the power play, where he had 11 PPG and 21 PPP last season. That’s down to just two PPG and four PP points in the first half of 2023-24 and occasional demotions off the top group won’t help but has been deserved to try Rust or others in that spot.

Reilly Smith (40 GP, 8G+12A, 20 points), C-: It’s tough giving Smith a grade considering his start was so good (6G+5A in the first ten games) and then the next 30 games were so disappointing (2G+7A). Overall that makes for more bad than good and the Pens were undoubtedly hoping/counting on Smith getting to the 25ish goals and 50+ points that he’s been very consistent at over the last decade. That’s out the window now that he’s injured, but there’s still the possibility to have a better second-half of the season than the opening portion.

Jeff Carter (36 GP, 5G+2A, 7 points), D+: At this point, Carter is who he is as a fading old player. To his credit, he’s handled healthy scratches with a great attitude and is certainly giving a lot of effort and even popping a few goals in. The first half of this season has probably been a success compared to general expectations, but as far overall play goes, he’s left a lot to be desired with misplaying the puck and struggling mightily at times.

Noel Acciari (34 GP, 3G+1A, 4 points), D+: Tough grade to give, might be a hair too low. Acciari has been banged up due to his style of play where he will sacrifice and play a gritty physical game. I’d bet the team grades Acciari out a little higher since he’s their top forward penalty killer, doing well as their second best regular faceoff player (54.8%) and bringing that energy and toughness he’s known for. But, overall, it hasn’t been a completely convincing start of the season.

Jansen Harkins (27 GP, 0G+4A, 4 points), D+: Perhaps the definition of a replacement level player, Harkins has had some decent moments in recent weeks but overall isn’t much more than a place filler. He has some good wheels but seems to have limited hockey IQ or ability at the NHL level to capitalize that much on the chances that he can get in position for.

Radim Zohorna (31 GP, 4G+3A, 7 points), D: Zohorna looked like he was going to be a player and a factor in the early going of the season, scoring 3G+2A in his first nine games of the year in late October/early November. Since then, his game diminished and he evaporated to being a healthy scratch for five games, Injuries opened the door recently to give him an opportunity, but he ended up on waivers yesterday with an uncertain NHL future lingering on.

Matt Nieto (22 GP, 1G+3A, 4 points), Incomplete: We’ll give Nieto some grace here, even before he had knee surgery he was frequently missing practices and clearly was playing games less than 100% for a while before they pulled the plug and decided to surgically address his issue. It wasn’t a very good start to the season for him, but perhaps there was that underlying reason as to why he hasn’t been effective yet. Either way, the team will be looking for a bigger impact once he get healthy and comes back in March.

Overall, the fact the Pens are in the thick of the Wild Card chase with this kind of forward performance is a big testament to the load that Crosby and Guentzel are carrying at even strength to often put the team on their backs. The Pens have had to manage cascading injuries to key players (first Rust then Rakell then Smith, all coming just about one right after the other) but has lacked consistent other options. They’ve gotten some flashes and contributions down the lineup (O’Connor, Zohorna and Puustinen at times) but are still looking for that next level to chip in more as the playoff race heats up.