Pittsburgh Penguins report cards: Crosby gets an A+, Karlsson gets a C


Before the season, most people assumed the Pittsburgh Penguins were a fringe playoff team, and that pretty much was the case. How coach Mike Sullivan’s team arrived at that point, though, is what made them so volatile, so interesting and so disappointing.

Let’s do an individual breakdown of the season. These grades are all over the place because the Penguins were all over the place. Your annual reminder: Grades are based on performance and expectations. I know Evgeni Malkin is a better hockey player than Lars Eller, for instance, but Malkin won’t necessarily receive a better grade because expectations for him are in a different stratosphere.

With that in mind, enjoy.


Forwards

Sidney Crosby: A+ 

We have to acknowledge that Crosby should have had about 20 more points. I don’t blame him for the dysfunctional power play — more on that later — and his 94 points, while mighty impressive, were even more glowing when considering he played half of the season without Jake Guentzel.

More than any other Crosby season, this was about the eye test more than the numbers. He was so consistently brilliant. Crosby failed to score a point against only one team (the Edmonton Oilers) this season. His greatness was on display even more than usual. At 36, he’s still one of hockey’s five greatest players.

Evgeni Malkin: B-

Malkin finished the season with 27 goals and 67 points, which, given his age, is perfectly reasonable.

I loved Malkin’s game during the past month. We saw some vintage Malkin moments.

He was fine this season statistically. Malkin, though, had long lapses when he not only looked old but also disinterested in adapting to a game that better complements his current skills.

Malkin isn’t what he was, but he’s not the problem.

Bryan Rust: A

I can’t say enough good things about Rust.

He played through many injuries, missed 20 games, and still set a career high with 28 goals.

Rickard Rakell: D

Rakell was better during the past month, but that doesn’t save his grade all that much. His scoring was down this season, finishing with 15 goals. The numbers were bad enough, but Rakell, more than at any other point of his career, simply wasn’t helping if he wasn’t scoring. Really bad year for him.


Michael Bunting, acquired in the Jake Guentzel trade, was an excellent pickup by Kyle Dubas. (Winslow Townson / Getty Images)

Michael Bunting: A

What a perfect addition. He’s feisty and fearless and has found a home on Malkin’s left wing.

He isn’t Guentzel, but he’s a very good player whom I was quite impressed with.

Reilly Smith: D-

The lack of offense was a real problem. His attitude was even worse.

Team sources said Smith never wanted to be traded to Pittsburgh, and it’s hard to question that after you’re around him for a few minutes. I never had the feeling Smith would be willing to skate through a wall for the Penguins.

A very disappointing season.

Drew O’Connor: B+

Finally, O’Connor put it all together. He’s big, he’s fast, and he finally figured out what it takes to be a good NHL player.

Is he a first-liner or a third-liner? I don’t know, but it’s irrelevant. He’s arrived after a few years of teasing. What a welcome addition to the Penguins’ lineup.

Lars Eller: B+

He plays like an adult. Most of his teammates don’t. Outstanding pickup. Solid hockey player.

Valtteri Puustinen: C

I see the speed and the talent. He definitely did some good things.

He still scored only five goals in 53 games, though.

I suspect Puustinen will be in the lineup when next season begins. That’s fine. He’s intriguing. But the Penguins will need more offense from him moving forward.

Jeff Carter: B-

You know, given expectations, I thought Carter was solid this season in a fourth-line role. His penalty killing was good. He won a lot of draws.

He was better than last season. Much better.

Noel Acciari: D

His penalty killing was strong. He brings a physical edge.

It’s a good thing he does those two things because he produced only four goals and seven points in 55 games.

Matt Nieto: Incomplete

He wasn’t great, but we saw so little of him, I don’t feel right giving him a grade.

Emil Bemstrom: C-

When he scored, it was pretty. But I was unimpressed on most nights.

Radim Zohorna: C-

Remember when he was all the rage in training camp? Yeah, I don’t think he’s an NHL player. I just don’t see it.

Jesse Puljujarvi: C+

He’ll be around next season and, if he can stay healthy, has a chance to be a reasonably solid bottom-six option.

Jansen Harkins: D

He didn’t score a goal all season, which you might think would receive an F. But you have to be a special kind of bad to get a failing grade. Harkins was OK in some areas. But yeah. Zero goals isn’t so great.


Erik Karlsson showed signs of the star he his, but overall he underwhelmed in his first season in Pittsburgh. (Bruce Bennett / Getty Images)

Defensemen

Erik Karlsson: C

It wasn’t reasonable to expect a 100-point season. It was reasonable to expect Karlsson would make the Penguins better. He did no such thing.

The analytics community loves him for good reason. But I can’t overlook the countless harmful mistakes he makes on a nightly basis. He is who we were told he was but he has another gear we didn’t see.

Yes, he did some good things, but his lack of situational awareness and defensive indifference cost the Penguins a lot of points. The power play became considerably worse after he arrived, too.

He’s a brilliant player to watch — an offensive genius — but his detractors have plenty of validity on their side.

Kris Letang: C+

The first half of his season was so, so good.

The second half was a disaster.

Letang dealt with major physical issues during the past two months. We’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.

Still, he cost the Penguins a lot of games because of mind-boggling defensive ineptitude.

Marcus Pettersson: A-

A steady, solid presence. He had his best season. Nothing more needs to be said.

Pierre-Olivier Joseph: B-

He seemingly put it all together during the second half of the season, giving the Penguins good work while operating in a top-four role. Is he a top-four guy for the Penguins moving forward? I’m not sure. But he looks like he belongs in the NHL, and if nothing less, he’s eminently tradable moving forward. He definitely answered some questions.

Ryan Graves: F

A disaster the likes of which I’ve not seen. His performance. The contract. All of it.

Jack St. Ivany: A

I saw enough of him to know he should be the third-pairing, right-handed defenseman playing behind Karlsson and Letang next season. What a revelation.

Ryan Shea: B

He might have a role as a No. 7 man at the NHL level, and there’s nothing wrong with that. He got so much better by the conclusion of this season.

John Ludvig: C

He packs a punch. He also makes a lot of defensive mistakes.

All in all, I like this kid and think he has a chance to become a regular at the NHL level. His nasty edge is pretty rare in today’s game, especially on the Penguins. There’s a place for him, but he needs to keep getting better.


Alex Nedeljkovic was a steadying force in goal. (Bruce Bennett / Getty Images)

Goaltenders

Alex Nedeljkovic: B+

He saved his career after a rough patch in Detroit. He’s a great backup and a reasonable tandem starter. Also, what a great guy. His attitude was infectious.

Tristan Jarry: C-

Speaking of attitude, that’s never been Jarry’s strong suit. He ended up in the doghouse late this season despite pitching six shutouts. The talent is there, just as it always has been. So, too, is his immaturity.

His first half was excellent. His second half was bordering on a disaster. The Penguins should consider moving on from him in the offseason. I don’t believe they’ll ever win with him as the guy.

(Photo of Sidney Crosby: Steph Chambers / Getty Images)





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