Pittsburgh Penguins Mid-Season Report Card: The Grades Are In


As the NHL season approaches its halfway point, I thought it would be interesting and appropriate to assign mid-term performance grades to the Pittsburgh Penguins’ players. 36 games provides a reliable enough sample size to produce evaluations that are both fair and valid. I have only graded players who have appeared in a minimum of 30 games, and all corsi for percentages will be derived from 5 on 5 situations in which the score was close.

General Manager, Jim Rutherford           Grade B –

Rutherford is a strong advocate of using advanced statistics to help make hockey decisions. His trade of James Neal to Nashville for Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling has paid substantial dividends. The signings of Blake Comeau, Steve Downie, Christian Ehrhoff and Thomas Greiss have definitely enhanced the Pittsburgh Penguins. Locking up 30-year-old goaltender, Marc-Andre Fleury until 2019 was not a prudent decision, however, especially considering his well-documented troubles in the post season since 2009. Also, trading a talented young defensive prospect like Philip Samuelsson for Rob Klinkhammer, a 28-year-old forward with just 20 career goals smacked of desperation. His tenure with the Pittsburgh Penguins has been solid so far but he has made some mistakes.

Nov 8, 2014; Buffalo, NY, USA; Pittsburgh Penguins head coach Mike Johnston watches play from behind the bench during the first period against the Buffalo Sabres at First Niagara Center. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

Head Coach, Mike Johnston                       Grade B –

Johnston has coached at all levels and possesses one of the league’s top hockey minds. Although he has a clear vision of what the  Pittsburgh Penguins need to do strategically and tactically to achieve success in the post season, he can’t seem to get his superstars to buy in to his scheme. In spite of this fact, his Penguins rank second in the Eastern Conference with a 22-9-5 record.

Goaltender, Marc-Andre Fleury                Grade A

Up to this point, Fleury is having the best regular season of his career. He has posted a 19-6-3 record, a 2.16 goals against average, a .927 save percentage, and six shutouts. Also, he seems to have addressed some of the long-standing flaws in his fundamentals, improving the overall consistency of his game.

Center, Sidney Crosby                                   Grade C +

Although Crosby led the league in scoring over the first few weeks of the season, he has since plummeted to 11th in the NHL points standings. He is currently a plus 9 and has a corsi for % of 53.8 — both healthy numbers. Unfortunately, he does not seem to have fully committed to Mike Johnston’s puck possession scheme which may explain why he’s tied for second on the team in giveaways. On top of that, Crosby has only scored two goals in his last 13 games. Detractors of Crosby have long claimed that he tends to disappear for extended stretches during a season and that he is easily neutralized in the post season.   If he wants to dispel that perception, then he must do it on the ice. For just about any other player, the overall performance described above would grade high, but not so for the best player in the world.

Center, Evgeni Malkin                                     Grade B +

Malkin leads the team in scoring and ranks fifth in the NHL in that category. Even so, he is currently just a plus 1! He possesses a corsi for % of 53.5 but is tied for second on the team with Sidney Crosby in giveaways. As with Crosby, Malkin seems to be having a hard time accepting Mike Johnston’s strategic philosophy. That aside, he has been the more consistent producer of the Pittsburgh Penguins two superstars.

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Forward, Patric Hornqvist                            Grade B +

Hornqvist has been a fantastic acquisition for the Pittsburgh Penguins who has proven to be a better all-around hockey player than James Neal. The Penguins’ early season power play success can be largely attributed to his gritty play in the low post. He is currently a plus 12 with a corsi for % of 54.2, and his 13 goals are only second on the team to Evgeni Malkin.

 Forward, Chris Kunitz                                    Grade B +

Kunitz has been limited a bit by injuries, but has still managed to be very productive, totaling 22 points, including 10 goals. He is currently at a plus 10 with a team-leading corsi for % of 57.6. As with Hornqvist, Kunitz’s presence in front of the net did much to enhance the effectiveness of the Penguins’ power play early in the season.

Center, Brandon Sutter                                  Grade B

Sutter has established himself as the Pens’ top penalty killer, and is a major reason why the team ranks third in the NHL in that catagory. Players who devote  large amounts of ice time to killing penalties must necessarily sacrifice their plus/minus numbers, and Sutter is no exception – currently a plus 0. Sutter continues to be a great two-way player and his flexibility has allowed head coach, Mike Johnston to utilize him in a variety of ways this season. Sutter’s offensive production this season – 7 goals and 14 points – has him on a pace to match his 2013/14 totals. If any criticism could be leveled at Brandon Sutter, it would be for his disappointing corsi for % – 46.3.

Forward, Steve Downie                                  Grade B –

He hits, he fights, and he intimidates, but he also possesses some solid hockey skills, chipping in 17 points, including 5 goals. He is currently at a plus 8, but only has a corsi for % of 46.5. Considering that last season in Philadelphia, he only totaled 17 points and was a minus 3 in 52 games, his performance this season, by comparison, is a smashing success. 

Forward, Blake Comeau                                 Grade A

Comeau has far exceeded expectations. Less than halfway through this season, he has amassed 19 points, including 11 goals. Compare that to the 5 goals and 16 total points it took him 61 games to accumulate last season. As a matter of fact, it has been six seasons since Comeau has seen the type of production he is currently enjoying. He is currently at a plus 6 with a corsi for % of 51.4 for the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Forward, Nick Spaling                                    Grade B

Spaling is essentially matching his production from last season. At this point, he has 15 points, including 6 goals. Last season in Nashville, he finished with 13 goals and 32 points. He has been extremely versatile, at one time or another playing on each of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ four lines. He is currently at a plus 2 with a corsi for % of 51.3, and has been a regular on a penalty killing unit that ranks third in the NHL.

 Center, Marcel Goc                                           Grade C +

Goc has the highest winning faceoff percentage of any of the Pittsburgh Penguins starting centers – 54.8%. As with teammate Craig Adams, Goc’s most significant contribution is made as a penalty killer. He has also been very committed to protecting the puck with only 6 giveaways thus far this season. Disappointingly, the offensive production has not been there for Goc this year – 1 goal and 3 points. Throughout his career, Goc has typically been good for about 10 goals and 20 points per season. Perhaps his role as a fourth line center and penalty killer here in Pittsburgh accounts for this drop in production to some extent. At this point in the season, Goc is a minus 2, but again, his extensive ice time on the penalty kill probably has a lot to do with that.

Forward, Craig Adams                                    Grade C +

General Robert E. Lee referred to General James Longstreet as, “My Old War Horse.” If ever an expression fit an NHL hockey player it is Craig Adams. This season, the 37-year-old Penguins’ forward broke a franchise record for consecutive games played. A mainstay on a Pittsburgh Penguins penalty killing unit that currently ranks third in the NHL, Adams selflessly does the dirty work necessary for the team to win hockey games. His plus 1 standing is respectable considering that he accrues the majority of his ice time against the opponents top lines and when his team is shorthanded. Throughout his career, Adams has rarely been much of an offensive factor, and this season is no different as he has just accounted for 1 goal and 4 points.

Dec 13, 2014; Columbus, OH, USA; Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Kris Letang (58) celebrates a goal against the Columbus Blue Jackets during the third period at Nationwide Arena. Columbus defeated Pittsburgh 4-3 in a shootout. Mandatory Credit: Russell LaBounty-USA TODAY Sports

Defenseman, Kris Letang                              Grade C +

Letang appears to have made a full recovery after suffering a stroke last season. He is the Penguins’ fourth leading scorer with 8 goals and 23 points, and is currently at a plus 5 with a corsi for % of 54.2. Unfortunately, the defensive component to his game has not always been as consistent as you would like. Too often, he lapses into an undisciplined style of play that finds him out of position when his goaltender needs him most. At times, he seems disinterested in physically engaging opponents in front of the net. Also, he is leading the team in giveaways – not good if you are supposed to be the franchise’s top defenseman. If I was rating him as a forward, his grade would be higher. For an elite defenseman, I would expect him to rank better than 53rd in the NHL in plus minus by this point in the season.

Defenseman, Christian Ehrhoff                 Grade B

Ehrhoff is currently at a team-leading plus 15 with a respectable corsi for % of 50.8. Although touted as an offensive defenseman, he hasn’t chipped in much scoring thus far – 2 goals and 10points. That being said, there can be no complaints about the job Ehrhoff has done defensively. He has definitely been one of the most reliable Pittsburgh Penguins’ defensemen, and has shown himself to be a very effective point man on the second power play unit. 

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Defenseman, Paul Martin                               Grade B –

Martin is a solid professional who consistently employs a disciplined approach to playing defense. Although he hasn’t contributed much in the way of offense – 1 goal and 7 points – the stability he brings to the blue line enables Mike Johnston to confidently insert his young defensemen into the lineup, knowing the team’s defensive integrity will not be compromised. Martin is currently at a plus 8 with a corsi for % of 51.1.

Defenseman,  Rob Scuderi                             Grade C +

Scuderi is a cagey defensive presence from whom the young Penguins’ blue liners are learning a lot. After a sub-par performance in his return to the Pittsburgh Penguins a year ago, he has enjoyed a bit of resurgence this season. His speed and quickness diminished by age, Scuderi remains effective by taking correct angles, maintaining proper positioning, and anticipating the flow of action. His shot-blocking skills are still as sharp as ever, as he regularly demonstrates, especially on the penalty kill. Unlike the other Penguins’ defensemen, Scuderi no longer has the quickness to join an attack in the offensive zone without compromising his defensive responsibilities. Subsequently, his scoring contribution has been essentially nonexistent – 0 goals and 5 points. He is currently at a plus 4 with a corsi for % of 49.9.

Oct 30, 2014; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Simon Despres (47) on the ice against the Los Angeles Kings during the first period at the CONSOL Energy Center. The Penguins won 3-0. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Defenseman, Simon Despres                       Grade B +

Despres has had a really strong first half of the season. He is currently at a plus 7 with a corsi for % of 52.3., and has contributed a goal and 9 points. The knock on Despres last season was that he wasn’t physical enough. I never felt that to be the case, but the Penguins must have, as he was mentioned to be part of the package offered to Vancouver in an attempt to acquire Ryan Kessler at the trade deadline. Regardless, this season, Simon Despres is certainly one of the Penguins’ most physical players, and I would argue has established himself as a top four defenseman. He is rarely caught out of position in his own end, and has developed a good sense for when to join the offensive attack.