PITTSBURGH PA - DECEMBER 31: Chris Kunitz #14 and Sidney Crosby #87 of the Pittsburgh Penguins have a laugh during the 2011 NHL Winter Classic Practice on December 31 2010 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
We're exactly halfway through the Penguins 2010-11 regular season, which makes a fine point to stop and look at how each player is faring in his role. Grades are based on a player's expected contributions, so if a guy like Craig Adams has a better score then, say, Evgeni Malkin, it doesn't mean Adams is a better player, just that he's executing his role on the team better thus far than the superstar.
Overall, the Pens are first in the NHL with a record of 26-12-3 (55 points), which is a bit misleading, since other top contenders like the Philadelphia Flyers, Detroit Red Wings and Vancouver Canucks also have the same number of points or wins. Still, the Pens are on pace for 110 points, which would be better than their marks in recent years. Dan Bylsma has a balanced and strong squad, and he's kept it motivated and focused. With that in mind, let's break down the players on the team.
On pace for: 64 goals, 68 assists, 132 points
No player is under the microscope Sidney Crosby is, and no player has performed like he has. No one in the entire league is within 10 points of Crosby, who has done it all in the first half of the year. He had a 25-point scoring streak and leads the league in goals and points. Simply put, he's the only choice for league MVP at this point and he's putting up scoring numbers that would dwarf anything anyone has done post-lockout. Crosby earns an A+ for his effort every night, and he's leading the team to another fine season.
On pace for: 12 goals, 60 assists, 72 points
The 23-year-old defenseman has already tied his career high in points this season and we're only halfway done. Letang is currently third amongst all NHL defensemen in points, and his plus/minus rating of +23 is second among rearguards (and leads all Pens). Letang also leads all Penguins with 23:27 of ice time per game, up almost two full minutes from what he played last season. He's playing the puck and skating well, and has relegated the Penguins career of former No. 1 defenseman Sergei Gonchar to the history books. Letang is a legitimate contender for the Norris Trophy as the league's top defenseman, which is a tremendous jump in his play and deserves the highest mark.
On pace for: 30 goals, 38 assists, 68 points
With great talent comes great expectations. Evgeni Malkin hasn't had a bad season, but he's yet to truly find his form. After a frustrating 2009-10 season riddled with injuries, Malkin has again missed time, this year due to a knee injury. Despite that, he's shown flashes of the brilliance and talent that he rode to a scoring title and playoff MVP in the 2008-09 season. Malkin isn't as consistent or dependable as Crosby, but no one really is. When he's on top of his game, Malkin can be the best player on the ice. And if he's healthy, he can easily top his projected stats at this point in the season.
On pace for: 26 goals, 30 assists, 56 points
Chris Kunitz brings a lot of elements to a winning hockey team that don't show up in a box score. Like his work in the corners, his relentless forechecking, and his ability to throw checks and dig up pucks that result in space and opportunities for his line-mate Sidney Crosby. In fact, during the calendar year 2010, Crosby was only held shot-less in five games. In all five games, Kunitz was out of the lineup with injuries. Crosby doesn't need Kunitz to be great, of course, and Kunitz is about a 50-60 point player no matter what. But what Kunitz brings to the lineup every night, when he's healthy and effective, he's as valuable a component as anyone on a winning squad.
CURRENT STATS: 18-9-2, 2.26 GAA, .926 save percentage, 1 shutout
Marc-Andre Fleury easily has the best in-season turnaround on the team. Early in the year he was dreadful and stuck in a rut with giving up bad goals and ending up on wrong ends of decisions. But, as they say, there's a small difference between being in a rut and getting in a groove. Since November, he's 17-4-2, with save percentage and GAA stats that are as good as any goalie in the league. Fleury is the franchise goalie and a proven playoff performer, and he's right where he needs to be at this point of the year for a team looking forward to bigger and better things in the second half of the season.
CURRENT STATS: 8-3-1, 2.14 GAA, .925 save %, 1 shutout
Brent Johnson might as well be a life preserver. When the Pens were thrashing around in an early-season storm, Johnny kept them afloat. His play was almost flawless, but his attitude and calm demeanor were even better. As a veteran backup, Johnson knew his place and always acknowledged that Pittsburgh was Marc-Andre Fleury's team. Johnson did his best to help his partner get back in the groove, while also doing his part to help the team win each time he got out there.
On pace for: 14 goals, 30 assists, 54 points
It's tough to remember sometimes that Alex Goligoski only has 157 NHL games under his belt. He's still a relative newcomer in a league where defensemen usually require 300+ games to figure out how to be effective. Despite that, Goligoski has a lot of talent and often is put in favorable positions. He's the clear No. 5 defenseman on the team, which allows him to take easier minutes at even strength and feast on the power play. As long as he plays with confidence and a purpose, Goose should easily set a new career high in points (37).
On pace for: 16 goals, 22 assists, 38 points
In his two years as a Penguin, Cooke has 13 goals, 31 points and 15 goals, 30 points. His pace this year is slightly higher, but in terms of production, you pretty much know what you're going to get from Matt Cooke. Cooke's role on the team's penalty kill has helped the Pens to be a top-ranked unit even without their best PK'ing forward in Jordan Staal. Cooke has also been great as an agitator. The key for Cooke, whose penalty minutes are up, will be to stay out of the box himself, while continuing to provide a gritty presence to play against.
On pace for: 16 goals, 20 assists, 36 points
Dupuis is a player with great speed and excellent positioning, and he's generally a terrific role player. Unfortunately, he plays a normal shift with Sidney Crosby and he just isn't a guy who will generate a lot of production. It's impossible to knock Dupuis' hustle, work ethic or the way he thinks the game, but you'd definitely like to have more results from a first-line forward. Dupuis is a good soldier type, perhaps the best one on the team, but for the role he finds himself in he must do a better job of getting himself (and Crosby) on the scoreboard.
On pace for: 16 goals, 22 assists, 38 points
In the wake of Jordan Staal's injury, a roster spot opened up for Mark Letestu, and he made the most of it. With his smart positioning and sound overall thinking of the game, Letestu has become a favorite of management and fans alike. A mainstay on the third line, Letestu has played very well and established himself as an everyday cog in Pittsburgh's machine.
On pace for: 12 goals, 24 assists, 36 points
Kennedy's pace is about at his career norms, but the issue is that really hasn't been at an improving rate. TK is good at cycling, grinding in the corners and working the forecheck. But this team is stacked with bigger, stronger players who can do those jobs. They need skill wingers and currently Kennedy is getting a chance to play with Jordan Staal and Evgeni Malkin on the second line to prove he can be a key player who belongs with this team in the future. The book is very much open for Kennedy, and he needs to prove that his hard work can translate into positive results every night.
On pace for: 6 goals, 24 assists, 30 points
Upon joining the team, Paul Martin has fit in almost seamlessly in his role as a key defenseman. While not flashy, Martin maintains great gap control on opposing forwards and uses an active stick to deflect many shot attempts. His offensive game won't garner him a lot of points, but his strengths are in skating and making good outlet passes that shift the game from defense to offense, which has helped the team overall to counter-attack. Martin has been as advertised - he can eat up tough minutes and help the squad to continue on their winning ways.
On pace for: 10 goals, 12 assists, 22 points
Fully healthy, Talbot continues to float between roles as a second-line winger and a fourth-line center. He's never been a high-production guy in the NHL, and that has continued. Talbot's effort level and work on the PK have been beneficial, but he's also gone for long stretches of time without getting on the scoreboard. Talbot tends to be at his best when the games matter the most, and that shouldn't be overlooked. But he definitely has room to be a lot better in the second half of the season then he was in the first.
On pace for: 10 goals, 8 assists, 18 points
Chris Conner has made an NHL job for himself, which is no small feat for one of the littlest players in the league. He's good at buzzing down low, moving the puck along the boards and trying to outwork the opposition. His continued success (and place in the lineup) depends on continued hard work.
On pace for: 8 goals, 8 assists, 16 points
It's been a frustrating season for Asham, who's had to deal with several minor injuries over the course of the year. Asham is a good role player and a capable veteran to have on your team, but he's also on the fringe of being in or out the lineup on any night. Hopefully he can stay healthy and maximize the opportunities he gets in order to maintain a spot in the lineup.
CRAIG F. ADAMS
On pace for: 4 goals, 12 assists, 16 points
As a fourth-line penalty killer, they don't come any better or smarter than Craig Adams. He's a mainstay for the Pens and does the little things to help the team every night. In terms of points, they won't be there. But they don't need to, because Adams will be there every game to make the right play and do what it takes to fulfill his role.
On pace for: 2 goals, 14 assists, 16 points
Brooks Orpik is a glue player. He has settled into a role as Kris Letang's partner as a steady, stay-at-home defenseman who lets the game come to him, then smashes it right in the mouth. Orpik is a great leader and a steadying presence for a young team that needs a steady presence to keep them honest and keep the puck out of the net.
On pace for: 6 goals, 8 assists, 14 points
Coming off a career offensive year last season, Rupp has settled into a little more of his usual role this year. He provides physicality on the forecheck, size and the ability to drop gloves with anyone at any time. Rupp is a solid fourth-liner, and while he's not having a standout year so far, he's doing his job to a T, which is exactly what the coach wants to see.
On pace for: 2 goals, 10 assists, 12 points
As a rookie in a sixth or seventh defenseman role, the Penguins don't lean that heavily on Ben Lovejoy. And while, like most any rookie, he's had his share of hiccups, he hasn't been flat-out bad on any night. That isn't the backhanded compliment it might seem to be, either. "The Reverend" has done what he's been asked and hasn't looked out of place in his first full NHL season.
On pace for: 0 goals, 12 assists, 12 points
As a defensive-minded defenseman, Zbynek Michalek's had the biggest culture shock in joining an offensive-minded Pittsburgh Penguins team this season. He's been largely excellent in his own end blocking shots, taking away lanes and moving the puck. Michalek's size and strength have shown their worth, and as he has continued to get integrated to the team, he has shown continual improvement. Come playoff time, he'll be one of the most important players on the team, and he's done nothing to show he isn't up for the task.
On pace for: 4 goals, 6 assists, 10 points
A career minor leaguer to this point, Deryk Engelland has broken through the glass ceiling and literally fought his way to earning a three-year contract extension from the Penguins. As a sixth/seventh defenseman with Ben Lovejoy, Engelland isn't asked to play more than 13 minutes a night. But he's shown he is capable at this level, and he's shown a fighting ability that's put him on the map as one of the NHL's premier enforcers.
CURRENT STATS:16 games played, 0 goals, 5 assists, 5 points
Fate didn't give Mike Comrie a fair shake this year. After an excellent preseason, Comrie injured his hip in the second game of the year. Though he would try to push through it, he had to have surgery in late December and is out for the next three to four months. While the book isn't totally closed on Comrie, most (if not all) of the regular season is a lost cause. At this point, it's unclear if a team chugging on to the playoffs can find a place for him in the postseason lineup, but when healthy, Comrie offers some skill for a team that needs precisely that.
CURRENT STATS: 2 games played, 0 goals, 2 assists, 2 points
It's been a tough sled for Jordan Staal in 2010-11 season. After fighting off a foot injury and infection, Staal broke his hand in November in a freak practice accident just a day before he was set to rejoin the lineup. He's all healed up now and is coming back with authority, but it's far too early to put a grade on Staal. He's the team's third most important forward and offers a lot of promise offensively and defensively. The treat for the team is that it gets to see what Staal can do over the second half of the season.