The Pittsburgh Penguins are more than halfway through the 2020-21 NHL season. Where do the forwards rank halfway through the season, and who have the surprises been?
Through 38 games this season, the Penguins are firmly in the playoff hunt. With a 14-year playoff streak, and Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin — at times — in the lineup, it should be no surprise at this point.
Four points behind the Washington Capitals, two points behind the New York Islanders and seven points ahead of the Boston Bruins in the East division, the Penguins are well-positioned to either make a run for the No. 1 seed or fall back to the fourth seed. I’d lean more toward the former though.
The Penguins have scored 123 goals this season, seventh-best in the NHL, and the lineup boasts two players in the top-16 in scoring (can’t be Edmonton, sorry).
Overall this season, the Penguins’ forwards have earned a B+ rating from me. This is purely objective, using the classic eye test, stat totals and advanced stats.
In the effort to grade the Penguins without just using the eye test, I took a dive into some advanced statistics and loved what I found. For reference:
- CF% — Corsi For Percentage = Corsi is a plus/minus that exclusively measures shots attempted. This might seem pretty basic, but it shows how well a team did in driving play over the course of a game. Raw Corsi scores are often presented in a percentage form, which allows teams and players to be measured over the course of a season. Simply put, a player’s CF% is measured by dividing the number of shots generated by the total number of shots. EX – 15 shots and 11 opposing shots equal 57.7%, and that’s exceptional for an individual rating. To calculate individual CF%, do the same as above but only when a particular player is on the ice.
- Relative Corsi — A players’ Corsi score is one thing, but the relative Corsi compares it to the sum of the team Corsi. So, if a player has a 50 CF%, but the team CF% is 54.6, that player is actually lagging way behind his teammates in driving play while on the ice. A positive relative Corsi shows just which players actually drive play while on the ice.
- oZS%/dSZ% — offensive and defensive zone start percentages show where players take a majority of their faceoffs. An offensive player will generally take a higher percentage of offensive zone faceoffs and a defensive player will do the opposite. A player with a high dZS% and a high CF% shows a truly strong two-way player. And a player with a high oZS% will generally have inflated CF%.
There is no perfect way to grade players, so a mixture of their offensive production, the eye test and some advanced statistics is a good way to gauge their value in a few different areas. So, let’s jump into the grades:
Anthony Angello – 19 games played, 2 goals, 2 assists, 4 points / C+
Angello, outside of scoring one rather gorgeous goal against the Buffalo Sabres this season, hasn’t found the scoresheet too often — just three other points on the season.
However, in recent games, he’s become an increasingly valuable player for the Penguins.
In just under eight minutes of ice time a game this season, he’s made his impact in other ways. With 51 hits, Angello ranks fifth on the team despite far less ice time and actual games played. And his advanced stats paint an even brighter picture.
With a 44.3 oZS%, his 51.7 CF% is especially encouraging. Despite playing mainly in shutdown, defensive situations, the Penguins actually control play more often when Angello is on the ice — even if only slightly.
What’s truly astonishing is Angello’s relative Corsi of 4.3 — even if only in a small sample size.
Angello may not be scoring much this season, but he’s playing well and providing the “grit” that Ron Hextall and Brian Burke so desperately desire.
Zach Aston-Reese – 27 games played, 8 goals, 2 assist, 10 points / B
With eight goals in just 27 games this season, Aston-Reese has already tied his previous career-high from 2018-19. ZAR’s 17.4 shooting percentage is unsustainable, but if you cut that shooting percentage by a few points, he’s still a player capable of 15-20 goals.
An astounding 73.4 dZS% ranks among the highest on the team, so while his 45.9 CF% may appear low, ZAR is often trotted out against the opposing team’s top lines in defensive situations.
And with the injuries the Penguins have sustained this season, ZAR has been forced to step his game up. He’s delivered.
While he’s never going to be a player who scores at the clip he did at Northeastern University, he’s someone who can score 20 goals and 20 assists while playing on the penalty kill consistently. Teams need players like that to win Stanley Cups.
ZAR has found ways to score this season while providing invaluable penalty killing; the Pens have needed him, and he’s finally showing some of that goal scoring skill from college.
Teddy Blueger – 28 games played, 4 goals, 11 assists, 15 points / A-
After scoring 22 points in 69 games in 2019-20, Blueger has already scored 15 points in just 28 games this season. In addition to driving the third line with his offensive play, he’s been a leading penalty killer for the Pens this season — leading Pens’ forward with shorthanded ice time.
A 79.9 dZS% shows just how much the Penguins trust him to lock down the opposing team’s top lines in the defensive zone, and like his linemate ZAR, his 45.9 CF% is deflated by his heavy defensive zone time.
His breakout season is especially disappointing now considering his current “week-to-week” injury status after picking up an upper-body injury during a game against the Boston Bruins a few weeks back.
While Blueger has more than held his own as the third line center this season, and is expected back before the playoffs, his long-term spot may be as one of the best fourth line centers in the league.
With a somewhat disappointing season in 2019-20, Blueger’s stellar play in 2021 has been a much, much-needed boost to an injury-plagued lineup this season. If only he could stay healthy himself…
Sidney Crosby – 37 games played, 15 goals, 28 assists, 43 points / A
Like clockwork, Sidney Crosby is once again inside the top 10 in points in the NHL.
Crosby leads the Penguins in assists and points this season (ranking second in goals), and he’s climbed up to a tie for seventh in the NHL in points. While Crosby may never challenge Edmonton’s Connor McDavid for the Art Ross again, there’s not a more complete player in the league — even at 33.
With a 52.4 CF% and a 3.3 relative Corsi, he continues to drive play for the Penguins, and the Pens continue to be better with him on the ice.
There isn’t much more to say about Crosby; he’s simply Sidney Crosby.
Jake Guentzel – 38 games played, 16 goals, 22 assists, 38 points / A-
After a six game goal-less streak as the months changed from the freezing cold of February to the… freezing cold of March, Guentzel couldn’t have been hotter.
Guentzel has points in 12 of his last 14 games, including four in his last two games. His 16 goals lead the Penguins. At this point in his career, Guentzel is the premier goal scorer on the Penguins’ roster — and one of the best in the NHL.
The chemistry between Crosby and Guentzel has continued to prosper this season — extending to Rust as well — as the Pens’ top line drives a potent offense.
With a 51.9 CF% and a 2.9 relative Corsi, Guentzel’s offensive impact on the Penguins is apparent.
Like Crosby, Guentzel doesn’t need much explaining. He’s a stud.
Mark Jankowski – 31 games played, 3 goals, 4 assists, 7 points / D-
Jankowski was signed in the offseason with the expectation to slot into a spot in the bottom-six. He’s mainly played on the fourth line this season, but even that feels too high for him.
Once everyone is healthy, Jankowski should rotate between the taxi squad and Wilks-Barre Scranton.
Seven points in 34 games just isn’t going to cut it for Jankowski. With a $700K cap hit for his lone contractual season, it wasn’t a terrible investment, but Jankowski has been an anchor on the ice since a very solid debut on opening night.
His advanced stats are less than flattering (43.8 CF% with a 28.7 oZS%) and his -7.8 relative Corsi shows just much better the Penguins have been with him off the ice.
Jankowski is a one-year investment that didn’t pay off, no shame in that. However, that doesn’t mean he hasn’t played poorly this season and should continue to keep playing.
Kasperi Kapanen – 30 games played, 7 goals, 14 assists, 21 points / A-
The prodigal son has returned home.
After spending a few years in Toronto with Auston Matthews, Kap returned to Pittsburgh to play with Evgeni Malkin. From one generational center to another. Although, through 30 games, it’s clear Malkin is the better fit.
It’s no secret that Malkin began the 2021 season on a cold streak, and it’s no secret that Geno really began producing once Kapanen was placed on his line. The two appear to be perfect complements for each other. Now… if only they could stay healthy.
Kapanen’s speed, quick release and high work ethic might remind you of a few other players on the Penguins’ roster, but those traits really helped unlock Geno. Kapanen’s advanced stats (48.3 CF% and -1.9 relative Corsi) don’t stand out, but his eye test is extremely encouraging.
Maybe he’s not a complete two-way forward, but his burning speed and quick release fit perfectly with Malkin. That in itself is reason enough for a high grade.
Sam Lafferty – 27 games played, 0 goals, 5 assists, 5 points / F
Lafferty has a strong claim as the worst player on the Penguins’ roster this season.
After a solid debut last season, with six goals and 13 points in just 50 games, Lafferty appeared poised for the next step with consistent fourth line minutes this season. That hasn’t quite worked out.
With no goals and just five assists through 27 games, Lafferty has not passed the eye test. He’s prone to making risky plays in the offensive and defensive zones and his blinding speed has been virtually useless. His advanced stats paint an even darker picture.
His relative -7.3 relative Corsi ranks second-worst on the Penguins’ roster this season, only worse than his linemate, Jankowski.
Lafferty has indeed picked up some assists over his last handful of games, but that cannot excuse his play over 27 games this season.
Evgeni Malkin – 29 games played, 8 goals, 16 assists, 24 points / C+
What a season it’s been from Malkin. Through 29 games, Malkin has effectively done the following:
- Gone through an early slump where fans have called for his head
- Gone through a subsequent stretch of play where he’s been among the best in the NHL
- Suffered an injury that has sidelined him for multiple weeks of play
It’s fitting for the mercurial Russian machine. With 24 points in 29 games, his play doesn’t jump off the page. But his play directly before his injury does.
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Before exiting a game against the Boston Bruins a few weeks back due to injury, Malkin had been in the midst of an eight game point streak. Those 12 points through the eight games pushed Geno back toward point per game pace.
However well Geno was playing in the games leading up to his injury though, his play to begin the season was inexcusable. There were points where he probably shouldn’t have been on the ice for the Pens, his offensive play was lackluster and defensive play was completely shot.
Despite Geno’s struggles, his advanced stats pointed to a turnaround. A 51.8 CF% and 1.8 relative Corsi pointed to Malkin actually being due for a resurgence.
Once he’s back on the ice, his eight game point streak may be over, but he should be primed for a new one — and the Pens are so much better off for it.
Jared McCann – 25 games played, 9 goals, 8 assists, 17 points / B+
McCann is a player who has never truly cemented a place in the Penguins’ lineup — whether that’s been through injuries or shoddy lineup fits.
With his play this season, he’s smashed through any lineup woes and demanded the Penguins finally play him — in the top-six and on the powerplay.
With nine goals and 17 points through 25 games, McCann would be on pace for 30 goals and 60 points in a normal season. His play over the last handful of games has shown the Penguins why he shouldn’t be shunted down the lineup once everyone is healthy.
McCann will be a perfect fit on a line with Malkin and Kapanen — another quick, hard-working forward with a strong shot. And once finally fitted on a line with the duo, the Pens will have 1A and 1B lines.
Injuries — funny enough — have finally allowed McCann to showcase just why the Penguins acquired him nearly two years ago, and he’s allowed the Penguins to thrive over the last handful of games despite those injuries. It’s been a productive relationship.
Maybe it doesn’t matter if there isn’t a perfect lineup for McCann, just play him. His advanced stats (53.8 CF%, 3.3 relative Corsi in 50.0 oZS% is remarkable) back that up.
Evan Rodrigues – 22 games played, 4 goals, 4 assists, 8 points / C
Rodrigues has been the definition of mediocre for the Penguins this season.
He’s scored a few goals, he hasn’t been an anchor on the ice but he’s been completely invisible at times. I suppose invisibility is better than constantly being in the spotlight for the wrong reasons.
Rodrigues is a player with value, he can be slotted across all four lines, and his underlying numbers aren’t bad — 49.7 CF% and 0.1 relative Corsi with a 56.6 oZS%.
Once everyone is healthy, Rodrigues should be a bottom-six forward. And he’s someone who will score the occasional big goal.
Bryan Rust – 38 games played, 14 goals, 14 assists, 28 points / B+
I’ve made my feelings for Rust very clear already. He’s the piece that holds the Penguins together.
Since debuting as a Penguin in 2014-15, Rust has only gotten better. His season last year was remarkable, but he’s been even better this season — even if the stats don’t point to it.
Rust’s goal-scoring has flashed at times this season, and his playmaking has thrived alongside Crosby and Guentzel, but his defensive game has truly been the difference-maker in providing value for the Pens this season.
Even when Rust isn’t scoring goals or generating chances, he’s tracking back to backcheck and take away chances from the opposing teams.
Rust’s 53.6 CF% and his relative Corsi of 5.3 show his value — his CF% ranking only being McCann among players who have played double digit games and his relative Corsi the highest among all Pens. He’s turned into an absolute star, and it’s been to the benefit of the Pens.
Colton Sceviour – 28 games played, 2 goals, 2 assist, 4 points / D-
Sceviour has been one of the worst Penguins while Patric Hornqvist has been one of the best Panthers. Let’s goooooo!
I know that Mike Matheson was the main return, but it still hurts seeing Horny play so well while Sceviour barely treads water. While Horny has scored 27 points in 35 games, with a 55.1 CF%, Sceviour basically hasn’t left Florida.
Sceviour’s 47.0 CF% and -2.8 relative Corsi show just how the Penguins have fared far better with him out of the lineup.
If advanced stats don’t show how bad Sceviour has been, then his actual stats do.
With just four points in almost 28 games, he’s not been good enough for a roster spot.
Brandon Tanev – 32 games played, 7 goals, 9 assists, 16 points / B+
Tanev AKA Turbo was originally a sketchy Jim Rutherford free agent signing who has turned into an invaluable player for the Penguins.
While the terms of his deal ($3.5 for six years) initially scared fans — and still might toward the end of the deal — Tanev has been a crucial bottom-six forward and penalty killer for the Pens.
In the midst of the best season of scoring in his career, half-point per game pace, Tanev leads the Penguins in hits — by far — and plays the second most minutes shorthanded among Pens’ forwards.
Tanev’s advanced stats don’t jump off the page, but 72.7 dZS% speaks for a lot of that. Tanev’s heart and soul style of play has endeared him to fans, and his offensive production on the third line has provided secondary scoring.
Stanley Cup winners are built on the backs of players like Brandon Tanev… a la Nick Bonino.
Jason Zucker – 20 games played, 5 goals, 3 assists, 8 points / D+
What to do with Zucker…?
An expensive trade deadline acquisition last season (at the expense of Alex Galchenyuk, Calen Addison and a 2021 first round pick), Zucker has not lived up to his price. Expected to play with either Crosby or Malkin, he hasn’t found a fit with either.
He did score 12 points in 15 games with the Pens after last season’s deadline on Crosby’s line, but he was ousted for Rust this season. Playing with a subpar Malkin to begin the season, Zucker experienced an expected slow start.
With just eight points in 20 games, the Penguins need much more from Zucker. While his price and pedigree show a top-six forward, his play has not.
Zucker’s 50.2 CF% is passable, but with inflated offensive zone time (62.6 oZS% and a -2.2 relative Corsi), the Penguins have been better when Zucker isn’t on the ice.
Once everyone is healthy, the top-six is suddenly too crowded for Zucker, and he’s not paid to be a bottom-six forward. The Pens have a dilemma on their hands.
To Be Determined
Gaudreau – A+
How has this man not been an NHL forward since 2018-19?
In nine games with the Penguins, he’s scored a goal and added three assists while providing excellent penalty killing. He’s been exactly what the Pens have needed as the fourth line pivot.
His 57.1 CF% and 9.1(!!!!) relative Corsi, albeit in few minutes, have been incredible. And that’s been with just 30 oZS%.
O’Connor – F
O’Connor clearly isn’t ready for the NHL yet. He needs to spend a season or two with Wilks-Barre.
With just one assist in 10 games, and awful underlying numbers, O’Connor needs more time.
Currie – N/A
Just one game played, not gonna grade.
Zohorna – N/A
Just two games played, legendary moment though.
The pieces are in place for the Penguins’ forwards, and with a move likely being made to bolster the forwards AND players due to return from injury in the weeks to come, the Penguins are in good shape.
I, for one, am happy with the Pens’ forwards. There may have been some defensive struggles early this season, but as a whole, the Pens have settled down nicely. This is a very, very good roster — with solid depth.
What are your thoughts on the Penguins’ forwards? Have they performed up to your expectations this season? Let me know in the comments below!