With the Pittsburgh Penguins at the All-Star break, which is the unofficial halfway point of the 2023-24 season (the official halfway point was five games ago), let’s take a look back at the first half of the season and the best and worst players of the season so far.
MVP: Sidney Crosby
The easy choice, and quite honestly, there is an argument to be made he is one of the top MVP candidates in the entire NHL. I don’t think he has a chance to win it, and he probably shouldn’t given how great Nathan MacKinnon has been in Colorado, but he is absolutely deserving of some votes and consideration.
Not only for the way he has played, but for how he is also doing his best to drag this team into playoff contention at the age of 36. He is on pace for 48 goals and 89 points over an 82-game season while his line has been the one consistently great aspect of this team. The only thing that he deserves a knock for is how bad the power play has performed as a group, and nobody should escape blame for that.
When it comes to 5-on-5 play, however, there has not been anyone better in Pittsburgh and only a few better in the entire league. If this team makes the playoffs, he will be on the short list of the biggest reasons why.
Most surprising player: Tristan Jarry
When the Penguins re-signed Jarry to a long-term contract this offseason there were a lot of doubters and critics for the move. And for good reason. Goaltending had been one of the Penguins’ biggest issues the past three years when it came to the team’s lack of playoff success, and Jarry’s durability and inconsistency when he was on the ice played a key part in all of that.
Through the first half of the season he has played better than expected and has a .914 save percentage going into the All-Star break. He has shown this ability in the past (he does have two All-Star game nods, by the way) and it has been a huge development to see him get back to it this season. He is right up there with Crosby in terms of most important and valuable players on this year’s team.
Most disappointing player: Erik Karlsson
I don’t want to say that Karlsson has been bad, because I don’t think that is entirely accurate. But it is not unfair to say that he has been disappointing. After reaching the 100-point mark and winning his third Norris Trophy a year ago, Karlsson has not played at anything close to that level this season.
From a big picture perspective a lot of his overall numbers are fine. His underlying and possession numbers (as well as his goals for and against numbers) are very good during 5-on-5 play, and he is still on pace for 60 points which is an outstanding number for a defenseman. But over the past few weeks there has been a noticeable dip in his play, while he has seemingly been one of the biggest culprits in the failures of the power play. If nothing else the power play performance alone puts him in this category. He was supposed to help fix that unit. His arrival has not only failed to do that, it arguably made that unit worse. He has been pretty good overall. He arrived with the expectation to be great. Given the salary cap number and the expectations, I think we all probably expected more and want to see more in the second half.
Best defenseman: Kris Letang
The thing that stands out about Letang’s performance this season is that his point production is nearly identical to what it was a year ago on a per-game basis, despite the fact his power play usage has been dropped and his penalty kill usage has increased.
He has taken on a more defensive role and is still producing, while also excelling defensively. Especially on the penalty kill. I want to see more of him on the top power play to see if that makes a difference for that group.
Best offseason addition: Alex Nedeljkovic
I honestly do not think anybody expected this, and frankly, I am not sure what it says about the offseason overall if the backup goalie that nobody had any expectations for has arguably been the best addition to the roster.
Nedeljkovic has been more than anybody could have reasonably hoped in net, owning a .918 save percentage going into the break while counting just $1.5 million against the salary cap. Goaltending has been one of the biggest reasons this team has stayed in the playoff hunt this season and both Jarry and Nedeljkovic have contributed to that performance equally.
Worst offseason addition: Ryan Graves
This probably is not much of a surprise because I think the Graves signing was the one that drew the most criticism when it happened. Not necessarily for the player that he is, but the contract he came with. I tried to be cautiously optimistic about it because he seemed like an upgrade over what Brian Dumoulin had become, and he had a track record of playing at a reasonably high level alongside top-tier defensemen in Colorado (Cale Makar) and New Jersey (Dougie Hamilton). It has not worked out that way at all here, and he is failing both the numbers test and the eye test.
He has been the common denominator in the struggles of every defense pairing he has been a part of, while Letang and Karlsson have both seen their performance sharply increase when they play next to anybody that is not Graves. It just simply has not work out the way the Penguins hoped, and so far that contract is looking like a significant missed evaluation by the new front office.