2023-24 First Half Review: Grade Expectations

One half (plus one game) of the 2023-24 regular season schedule is complete for the Pittsburgh Penguins. In the wake of firing general manager Ron Hextall after the Penguins failed to make the postseason for the first time in seventeen years, there were a lot of expectations for Pittsburgh to retool quickly and, ideally, greatly improve upon that ignominious ending. They replaced Hextall with Kyle Dubas, himself just moving on from the Toronto Maple Leafs. He swung a massive trade with the San Jose Sharks and Montreal Canadiens, shipping out Jeff Petry, Mikael Granlund, and Casey DeSmith and bringing in Norris trophy winner Erik Karlsson. He replaced Brian Dumoulin with Ryan Graves and DeSmith with Alex Nedeljkovic. He also traded a third round pick for Reilly Smith and signed Lars Eller and Noel Acciari, among others.

Unfortunately, thus far all the retooling has not moved the needle much for Pittsburgh. Last season after 41 games they were 21-14-6, and this year they’re one game worse at 20-15-6. Last season the Penguins ended the first half in fifth place in the division, and this year they were sixth. By this point last season they were the second Wild Card team in the Eastern Conference; this year they were three points away from that spot. Sure, there are plenty of differences between the two seasons – mainly, the goaltending is much improved this season, while the power play is much worse – but the record is too similar to be satisfied with the situation. The only thing that the optimists have been able to hang their hats on is that the Metropolitan Division this season has been very close for much of the first half. But as the second half starts and we get closer to the trade deadline and then the playoffs, we are starting to see the teams finally coalesce into playoff teams and non-playoff teams. Kyle Dubas said it himself, that around the time of the All-Star Game he would more seriously consider what moves he might make to help improve the team in the run-up to the playoffs. That time is coming soon.

For now, we have 41-plus games to look back on, and I wanted to use this space to measure how each player has done in comparison to my preseason expectations. So let’s go down the roster based on time-on-ice and see who has been meeting, failing, or exceeding expectations thus far.

Meeting Expectations

Tristan Jarry: Naturally there were a lot of expectations for Jarry after this past offseason’s contract extension. Jarry has made it through the mess of goaltending depth in the organization since he played his first game with Pittsburgh in April 2017, surviving past the likes of Marc-Andre Fleury, Matt Murray, and other prospects like Filip Gustavsson. He has not been a consistent performer (he wouldn’t be a Penguins goaltender if he was!), but the positive spin of the inconsistency is that when he’s been good, he’s been pretty good. In my preseason predictions I expected that Jarry would have to be a top-ten goaltender for Pittsburgh to have any hope of making the playoffs, and sure enough that’s generally where he is in the discussion. Lately he’s been in a rough patch but that happens to most goalies during the year. The good news is that the Penguins have a backup goaltender this season who has also been quite good…more on him later.

Kris Letang: Acquiring Erik Karlsson in the offseason immediately meant that Pittsburgh would now have two #1 defensemen. Letang had a tough year last season – injuries and the death of his father were chief among the issues he faced – and on the ice he took a step backwards production-wise as well. Thus far this year Letang has been good, but different. His points-per-game production is exactly the same as his career average, which is to say lower than we’ve come to expect in his better years, but much of that has to do with his special teams deployment. The expectation with Karlsson joining the team was that he would take Letang’s place on the top power play unit, freeing up Letang to spend more time on the penalty kill. For Letang’s part the switch has gone quite well, and the Penguins’ penalty kill has spent much of the season in the top ten, but the power play has not been very good at all. It will be interesting to see if Letang’s deployment changes as the season wears on and if the power play continues to struggle, but for now he’s having a fine bounce-back season, just not in the way we would expect.

Jake Guentzel: Another year, another point-per-game season for the 29-year-old impending free agent. Many questions abound regarding his future with Pittsburgh, but he has been a consistent presence at the top of the depth chart. One thing’s for sure: I cannot fathom a scenario in which Kyle Dubas lets Guentzel leave for nothing. He’ll either be back next season (and beyond), or he will be traded.

Evgeni Malkin: Like Letang, Malkin has had a different year than what we’ve come to expect. Offensively he’s having a down year, although a lot of that has to do with the power play being so shitty. However, overall Geno has been playing much less belligerently and more responsibly. He has not been turning the puck over nearly as much, his recorded hits are the fewest ever in his career, his face-off win rate is the second-best in his career…a mature Malkin? I think everyone would like to see the power play improve, and Malkin would likely benefit from that, but otherwise he’s been better than expected.

Bryan Rust: The Rusty Razor missed twelve games for the Penguins due to an injury, but it has been a bounce-back year for Rust otherwise as he’s back to a nearly point-per-game pace after last year’s disappointment. It would be good if he could stay healthy, but with a career average of about 60 games played per season, he will likely miss time again at some point this season. He too would benefit greatly from the power play getting back on track, as he has no points on the man advantage this year.

Jeff Carter: After a couple of seasons of being the pariah for the Penguins’ problems, Carter has not been as much of an albatross this season. He’s been more akin to Eric Fehr than Matt Cullen, but that’s okay for a fourth line center.

Failing Expectations

Erik Karlsson: Here’s the thing: I do not think the power play’s failure this year has all that much to do with the players. I think assistant coach Todd Reirden is working on borrowed time and I would not be surprised to see him replaced this offseason. But, Karlsson was named the League’s best defenseman last season largely because he was an individual offensive powerhouse. Maybe that was too high a bar to set for himself, but the production has not been anywhere near where Pittsburgh has needed it to be. Some of that may have to do with Karlsson not being able to free-wheel like he did with San Jose, but the power play has been worse this year than last and some of that falls on him as he replaced Letang on the first unit. At even strength, his production is a little above his career average, so that’s not helping his case a whole lot either. What stands out to me is that his takeaways per 60 minutes is the lowest of his career. It indicates to me that he simply isn’t being as aggressive as he has been in years past, which may be by design. Head coach Mike Sullivan might do well to let Karlsson off the leash a little bit more, but the Penguins’ defense is already tenuous enough.

Ryan Graves: It’s not the end of the world to have your two new defensive acquisitions be on the “failing” side of this discussion as they perhaps struggle to adapt with a new system. However, Graves in particular has been a disappointment. He was expected to be a more offensively productive version of Brian Dumoulin, but thus far this season he has performed more or less exactly what Dumoulin was last year. In principle Graves has been dragging the team down on defense while producing less offense than the guy he replaced. Lately he’s been better as he spent a little more time on the third pairing with Chad Ruhwedel before being moved back with Karlsson, but the results thus far have been underwhelming.

Rickard Rakell and Reilly Smith: Two of the other three forwards in the top six who have yet to be mentioned have not lived up to expectations this year, but for different reasons. Rakell started the season in a massive funk, notching just four points (all assists) in his first 17 games before missing a month due to an injury. Since returning on December 18 he’s been much better with 12 points in 13 games. On the other hand, Smith has been healthy and streaky, but otherwise underperforming against his numbers with Vegas over the past few years. Both players should be well over the half-point-per-game rate they have each put in this season, at least for the money they are being paid, but right now they’re producing like third liners.

The third line: Speaking of which, the third line has not been good enough. In their defense, the personnel (primarily Lars Eller and the rotation of fringe NHL/AHL wingers) probably shouldn’t have been expected to produce offensively. While Eller has been pretty consistent, regulars Drew O’Connor, Radim Zohorna, and Valtteri Puustinen have not been. Maybe if they could all get going offensively, the team would be in a lot better shape. The hallmark of any serious Stanley Cup team is good forward depth, and the Penguins do not have it.

The third defensive pair: Like the third line, the third pairing has been a blender of mild disappointment. Chad Ruhwedel had one really good year two seasons ago but has fallen off quite a bit since then. Pierre-Olivier Joseph is probably never going to live up to the promise of being the key return from trading Phil Kessel to Arizona. Ryan Shea and John Ludvig are not consistently good enough to be regular NHLers. The quartet have had their minutes sheltered and mixed results regardless. Even a modestly good third pairing would be nice to have, but it does not seem to be coming from within.

Noel Acciari: Special shout-out to Acciari, who was clearly so beloved by Kyle Dubas that he traded for him while he was with Toronto last season and then signed him again this past offseason. He’s somehow worse than Mikael Granlund was last season, which takes some doing. Not sure what Dubas sees in Acciari, but he’s not good.

Exceeding Expectations

Alex Nedeljkovic: Undoubtedly Kyle Dubas’ best acquisition of the offseason, the expectations for Nedeljkovic were “do better than Casey DeSmith,” and he has beaten that bar handily. It could be argued that he is one of the top five backup goaltenders in the NHL this season, which has helped keep Pittsburgh in the top five of goaltending save percentage. He’s been good enough to have started just about a third of the Penguins’ games, which is great, and he’s not far off from Jarry’s numbers as well. It could be a good thing or a bad thing having a hard time deciding which goaltender to start on any given night and, thanks to Jarry and Nedeljkovic, it has definitely been a good thing for Pittsburgh.

Marcus Pettersson: I have been a huge fan of Pettersson for years, even when people have been wanting to trade him away. I don’t think you could do that any more, at least not right now, as he’s one of the top defensemen in the NHL. He’s on track for his best year both defensively and offensively, and that he’s only 27 years old. He’s still got a few years to build on his body of work, and I hope he continues to do so as a Penguin. He’s turned into Brian Dumoulin-plus. I love him! Please don’t trade him.

Sidney Crosby: What can I say? The man ages like fine wine. He’s up to 26 goals on the season, seven behind Auston Matthews for the League lead, and only four behind Matthews in even strength goals. He’s become one of the best face-off takers in the NHL. If the power play were merely League average, he would probably be up towards the top of the League in points-per-game. He’s definitely in the conversation for best defensive forward, and he has even played himself into the MVP conversation. There was a time this season when he was battling Jarry to be considered Pittsburgh’s MVP, but he has pulled away and is indisputably #1 in that regard. He’s simply the best, better than all the rest, better than anyone, anyone I’ve ever met.