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Mid-season Penguin defensemen and goalie grades

Wrapping up our first-half grades with the defenders and goaltenders

Arizona Coyotes v Pittsburgh Penguins Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images

Yesterday we graded out the forwards, today we shift gears to the defensemen and goaltenders to put a bow on the unofficial first half of the season bye week for the Penguins.

Marcus Pettersson (42 games played, 1 goal, 15 assists, 16 points), A: It took Mike Sullivan a little while to fully wrap his arms around Pettersson, but by now he’s well-entrenched as a key player on the team and rewarding them with consistently solid play. It’s no coincidence or surprise that both Karlsson and Letang have been at their best this season when paired with No. 28, Pettersson has been smooth, reliable and is by far the team’s top defensive defenseman these days.

Erik Karlsson (42GP, 7G+24A, 31 points), B: Karlsson has been a difficult player to boil down to a simple grade. And I could see opinions varying greatly on a polarizing player. On one hand, his advanced stats are off the charts: he’s carrying a 56.2% expected goals% and has been more than passable defensively (and perhaps better than advertised there). But despite some quality play at times, the “wow” factor isn’t there. His points are down, his power play impact can only be considered a net negative for the Pens so far. Karlsson has been pretty good at times, but not truly a dynamic player you look at and think “yeah that guy won the Norris trophy last year”. It’s the rare gift of a star player where the head tells you is playing 24+ minutes a night to positive results, but the heart still is looking for that little bit more.

Kris Letang (42 GP, 3G+26A, 29 points), B: Gotta give Letang a lot of credit for his changing role in losing his place on the top power play, shifting to kill penalties more prominently in the wake of Karlsson’s addition. Not an easy pill to swallow for a guy who has been “the guy” for a team for so long. Aside from that, pretty good but not incredible out of Letang. His 54.2% goal share is nice. Ironically, I think despite the narratives about his game change that he’s not truly playing great defensively these days — and his offense hasn’t really suffered too much despite losing power play time. So it’s kinda the opposite of the current storyline, but Letang’s game and styl has never truly lent itself to playing lockdown defense. But, as has long been the case for a player like Letang, you can probably talk yourself into whatever you want to think you’re seeing with his style of play, but overall for a 36-year old still logging almost 25 minutes per game and getting (far) more good than bad happening under his watch is an impressive accomplishment.

Chad Ruhwedel (28 GP, 1G+1A, 2 points), C-: Endlessly reliable up to now, can’t say I’ve been a big fan of Ruhwedel’s game this season. He probably has raised his game a level since coming back from injury on December 19th that kept him out for a month. Suddenly 33, Ruhwedel is looking more like he could be replaced/upgrade than ever before. He’s stuck with the Pens in a depth role since 2016, almost unheard of staying power for a player in that position.

Ryan Graves (42 GP, 2G+5A, 7 points), D+: Graves hasn’t been a good fit for the first half of his first season in Pittsburgh. That’s not breaking any news since the player and coach have admitted it openly. The scary thing is that the Pens’ goalies are posting a .945 save% for Graves (highest on the team). If that was lower (and you’d have to think it’s bound to come back to earth sooner or later) the perception of his play might be even worse. After starting out the year on the top pair, Graves was demoted to the second pair and then the third, but in hopeful news, he’s been moved back up to the second. Graves is not the first good defender on a new team to struggle adapting, but the Pens will need to hope he can show improvement and get his game back to a solid level quickly.

John Ludvig (19 GP, 0G+1A, 1 point), D: I know Ludvig a fan favorite for having a physical edge and being willing to fight (even though he hasn’t fared well at the actual act of fighting), but I don’t really see it with Ludvig. His metrics are in the toilet (47% expected goal share, and a 27% actual split), he has no upside playing the puck (team’s expected goals generated are by far the lowest with Ludvig on the ice). Fun style aside, he hasn’t been effective at playing defense (3.4 Goals Against/60 is brutal). Ludvig is a true NHL rookie, so maybe his next 20 games will be better than the starting point, but there’s a lot more sizzle (hits) than steak (effective play) with what has been on display so far. That’s all well and good but isn’t truly going to help an NHL team.

Pierre-Olivier Joseph (15 GP, 0G+2A, 2 points), D: An injury didn’t help, but it’s been the type of season for Joseph where at this point you’re just waiting for the next shoe to drop and news to break about what’s next for him in his career. While he’s fine as depth (which is all he’s been counted on for most of the season so far), any progress or building Joseph up as a viable NHL player has seemingly gone out the window by the Pens.

Ryan Shea (22 GP, 0G+0A, 0 points), D: In some ways, it’s hard to believe that Shea played half of the games that the Penguins have. He’s not a big minute player or in a huge role, but being so vanilla and bland isn’t necessarily a good thing either. Just seemed like a player the coaching staff liked due to his size (6’2”, 200 pounds), having some pro experience (though none at the NHL level before this year) and having the door left open by injuries and other players not exactly playing great. Shea didn’t do or add a lot and is now back in a depth/minor leaguer type of role that’s probably more fitting.

Tristan Jarry (12-12-4, 2.48 GAA, .916 save%, 5 shutouts, 1 goal) A-: Jarry had some clunker performances early in the season, but it’s difficult to knock him too much. 18 of his 28 starts (64.3%) are considered “quality starts”. That’s a tremendous stat where league average was around 53% years ago when goaltending was better. Jarry’s five shutouts lead the league. And he’s a top-10 goalie in Goals Saved Above Expectation right now. Add it all up and it’s a fine body of work and start for Jarry’s season. But as everyone knows, the knack on Jarry hasn’t been how he starts seasons, it’s been how things go for him health and performance wise at the END of the year. That’s important, but for right now it would be difficult for Jarry to set himself up with a better launching point into crunch time than how he has this year.

Alex Nedeljkovic (8-3-2, 2.66 GAA, .916 save%, 1 shutout), A-: In further proof goalies are voodoo, Nedeljkovic was poor for Detroit in 2021-22, then buried in the AHL for most of 2022-23. With that recent form in mind, it seems illogical that he could be playing so well and looking so collected and confident with the Pens, but that is the nature of goaltending for ya. Eight of Nedeljovic’s 13 starts (61.5%) have been to the standard of quality starts. His goals saved above expected is in the positive range (always a good sign). And, best of all, Nedeljkovic has been good enough to get in a few games in December/January that has Jarry only on pace mathematically for 54 starts at this point. That’s one of the best gifts a backup goalie can give to a team when he can be relied on for more than just back-to-backs and the rare start, and perhaps against all odds and common sense given his career trajectory, Nedeljkovic has turned the page with a very impressive start in Pittsburgh.