Going into the 2010-11 season, prognostications on the Pittsburgh Penguins' potential varied from glowingly optimistic to downright cynical. Such things happen when a team goes from the glory of a Stanley Cup Championship to flaming out late in the next season.
But the time for prediction has passed. Sporting a record of 10-8-2, with a few games in hand, the Penguins sit at fourth in a tight Eastern Conference, with plenty of room to rise or fall. Let's break it down:
The Good: The defense has been providing unexpectedly prolific scoring. Kris Letang is putting up Mike Green-like numbers, tallying 17 points in 20 games thus far. With Paul Martin and Alex Goligoski also averaging a point every other game, support from the blue line has not been lacking.
The Bad: The Penguins are still struggling to find proper support on the wings for Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Chris Kunitz's production has been mediocre despite ample opportunities, Mike Comrie has quickly faded from significance and Pascal Dupuis, while solid, doesn't possess the skills to truly thrive as a top-line winger.
The obvious statistic is that the Penguins are eighth in goals per game this season, having tallied 61 in 20 contests. They've gotten a lot of scoring from defenders and from team leaders Crosby and Malkin, and they've added scoring from the yeoman-like third and fourth lines, notably from Matt Cooke.
Despite the woes on the wings, Crosby's numbers are gaudy and Malkin is still operating around a point per game. In terms of even-strength offensive might, the Penguins are one of the more impressive teams in the league.
The Good: The Penguins continue to keep opponent shot totals down despite a myriad of injuries, allowing only 26.8 shots per game, the fewest in the league.
The Bad: Plenty. Mental mistakes, too much aggression on the offensive blue line, and a serious penchant for losing puck battles behind the net.
With a system that emphasizes aggression and offense, the defense will always be on display, for good or bad. While youngsters like Letang and Goligoski have shown off their offensive skill, they've been inconsistent on defense. Combined with uncertainty towards the bottom of the defensive depth chart, the Pens are flirting with disaster.
It's a gamble from the coaching staff that has shown mixed results. Despite some glaring errors, the team does a great job of limiting opponent shots, while goals against totals are near the middle of the pack in the league.
The Good: Brent Johnson's play as a backup has been phenomenal, aside from a notable collapse against Boston.
The Bad: Marc-Andre Fleury. His start to the season was horrific and lead to a legitimate goaltending controversy. Despite several opportunities to claim the job, Fleury showed little to inspire confidence until recent outings.
In a perfect world, there would never be a goaltending controversy between Brent Johnson and Marc-Andre Fleury. Fleury would consistently play at the high level his skill set affords him and Johnson would spell Fleury on occasion. This is not a perfect world, though, and the Penguins must deal with the prevailing issues between the pipes.
Fleury's play has improved significantly in recent games (actually raising this grade to a C-) and his best game of the season was on Wednesday, when he stopped 29 of 30 shots against Vancouver and did a great job with his positioning. If this is a sign of things to come, this grade could improve by the end of the next quarter.
The Good: The penalty kill has been excellent, currently killing off 88.2% of penalties, good enough for fifth in the league. The eventual return of Jordan Staal should only improve this aspect of the Penguins' game.
The Bad: The power play is the polar opposite of the penalty kill, consistently underachieving despite a wealth of talent. Further evidence of the contradicting nature of the two units is the Penguins' position of fifth from bottom on the man advantage.
The Grade: C
As even as you can get. One unit succeeds while the other causes endless frustration and heart palpitations. If the power play operated at an average clip, this team would be near the top of the NHL.
The Good: The Penguins' game plan suits the majority of its players, aggressively grinding the opposition, holding puck and using Pittsburgh's veritable army of muckers and grinders to cause havoc, draw penalties and stay deep in opposition territory.
The Bad: The game situation and positional sense on display from the team has been poor. Overly aggressive stances and a failure to properly assess game situations have featured in recent losses, notably against the Boston Bruins and New York Rangers.
The Penguins are about where they should be, give or take. Looking at the entire picture, Dan Bylsma's team has fared reasonably well despite some injuries and questions in net. On a whole, the Penguins appear to be headed in the right direction. With some high highs and some very low lows, the early portion of the Penguins' season has already been a roller coaster.
Where Bylsma and his staff will make their money is in minimizing the lows and bringing a bit of consistency to the team, where the Penguins don't go from looking like a contender one night to looking like a mess the next. Fixing the power play wouldn't hurt, either.
With 20 games down, the Pittsburgh Penguins' mix of excellence and folly have leveled off to create a spectacularly unspectacular playoff team. With plenty of room to grow and just as much room to fall, the question is where the Penguins will go from here.