After a disappointing first-round exit at the hands of the New York Islanders two weeks ago, there’s lots to talk about with the Pittsburgh Penguins, including how players performed. I’ve decided to go with a couple of players at a time and give them each a player grade. I already went over the new additions from the season, and now it’s time to continue with some of the star players.
Sidney Crosby: A
There was one player who was consistently good all season long, and that was Sidney Crosby. The Cole Harbour native produced 24 goals and 62 points through 55 games, leading the team and securing his 16th straight point-per-game season. His presence helped elevate the performance of Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust, as the trio stayed together as a line for almost the entirety of the season, and were extremely valuable to running the offense. He put up Selke-level defensive metrics for the majority of the season, but they regressed slightly as time went on, and he finished with a modest 1.2 even-strength defensive goals above replacement (EVD_GAR). He was very valuable to the team in more ways than one.
Production-wise in the playoffs, Crosby struggled against the trap-system Islanders team, with one goal and two points through six games. However, he was creating high-quality scoring chances, with a 3.3 expected goals for per 60 (xGF/60) – he just could not find a way to capitalize on them.
Crosby’s regular season was tremendous and he was in talks for the Hart Trophy, among many others. However, his lack of taking over in the playoffs for the third straight year keeps him from bumping his grade up to an A+.
Evgeni Malkin: B
Evgeni Malkin had a very up and down season. He started off very slow and looked like a below-average third-line centre at one point, but then he finally found chemistry with linemate Kasperi Kapanen and the pair erupted offensively. This allowed his production to improve mightily, and he ended up finishing with 8 goals and 28 points through 33 games played. Obviously, we are missing a large portion of his season due to him missing 23 games due to lower-body injuries, however, he showed that although the horrific start, there is still a glimmer of hope for Penguins fans when it comes to Malkin.
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In the playoffs, Malkin actually looked solid in the limited time he played, with one goal and five points through four games against a defensive shut-down team, not to mention he played through a serious injury which will have him out until at least September. He was arguably the best Penguin out there in the postseason, which helps his overall grade.
Malkin’s horrific first half of the season being followed up with an elite second half makes him very hard to grade, but I would say a B is a fair enough grade for him, as it’s right in the middle.
Kristopher Letang: A-
Kris Letang had a terrific season, and did basically the majority of what you could ask from a 34-year old offensive defenseman. His skating was still magnificent, he could still quarterback the power play, and he had 7 goals and 45 points through 55 games played. While he was not a defensive stalwart by any means, his mistakes in his own end were very limited compared to what we’ve been used to seeing from him the last couple of seasons. While I wouldn’t go as far as saying he was a Norris-level player, I would definitely say that he has earned the right to keep his status as one of the top-15 defensemen in the NHL for at least another season. His grit and high intensity also bring lots of energy to the Penguins when he is on the ice.
In the playoffs, Letang was probably the team’s best defenseman. He recorded one goal and six points through six games played, was not a liability defensively, and was one of the only valuable defensemen on the Penguins throughout the series. He played some of the best hockey we have seen in the playoffs from him ever, and it’s unfortunate the Penguins had to be cut down quickly.
Letang heavily improved from recent seasons, and if he keeps this performance up, you can expect Pittsburgh to be right back up there competing for a Stanley Cup championship. He is still a No. 1 defenseman, and as long as he can continue to skate and produce at the level he has, he will be for a very long time.
Jake Guentzel: B+
For the third straight season, Jake Guentzel has proven that he does not need to feed off of anybody for his production. The winger had 23 goals and 57 points through 56 games, good for his second-straight point-per-game season, and he contributed to a ton of the team’s offense. His ability to find open lanes and take high-quality scoring chances put the Penguins in a great position to win every night.
It was evident that Guentzel struggled immensely come playoff time. He had just one goal and two points through six games, and one of these came in the final game of the series. He just could never seem to get anything going, probably due to his need for space on the ice to score, which the Islanders shut-down pairing of Adam Pelech and Ryan Pulock refused to allow. This hurt the Penguins, as he is one of their main sources for offense, and without him going, the team could not produce. This is something that brought his grade down just a little bit.
Guentzel had an elite regular season, and an extremely poor postseason. I doubt he would have struggled this much come playoff time against any other team, but you can’t make excuses for how he did – he just needs to be better.
These four players are the faces of the franchise, and the players the fans tune in to watch. All four, for the most part, handled their responsibilities well – with just a couple of exceptions, they all played their role very well, and I expect all of them to continue on next season.
PIT Penguins Writer THW. Twitter & Instagram: puckempire. Formerly a Florida Panthers writer.