We're not technically at the mid-point of the season yet, but next week's so-called Winter Classic will surely take all the spotlight (more thoughts on this on another day).
Below are grades. As a caveat, I should say players are graded on the role they're supposed to be filling. So, hypothetically someone like Mark Eaton could be graded higher than a Evgeni Malkin. It wouldn't mean Eaton necessarily is a better player, just means he's played his role better for the first half of the season. Also, it should be assumed that all players start with a C average and either work their way up (or down) depending on how they do.
Marc-Andre Fleury (9-8-1, 2.90 GAA, 90.2 sv%): B-
--Notes: Before suffering an ankle injury Fleury, who’s had an up and down career, had an up and down season. In the games before he got hurt he was 4-0 and had a 95% save percentage. In the beginning of the season his GAA was on the wrong side of 3 for a long time.
Dany Sabourin (7-8-1, 2.69, 90.4%) B-
--Notes: I’ve given him a B- because he’s filled in pretty well as the impromptu #1 goalie. Nothing spectacular but on most night’s he keeps the team in it. That’s what backup goalies are supposed to do.
Ty Conklin (3-0-0, 3.50, 89.2%) C
--Notes: Throw out the undefeated record and you might throw up. But, at least he’s done what he’s had to do to get the wins, right? I won’t rest easy until Conklin’s back in Wilkes-Barre where he belongs.
Mark Eaton (36gp, 0g, 3a, 3p, +6, 16 PIM) A-
--Notes: The only defenseman to have a positive +/-, he was perfect as Gonchar’s stay-at-home reliable partner. Now he’s out for the year with the ACL. Dagger. Ray Shero must find a way to replace him if the Penguins have aspirations of advancing past the first round of the playoffs. That’s not a bold proclamation, that’s the truth.
Sergei Gonchar (33gp, 7g, 23a, 30p, -2, 36 PIM) B+
--Notes: Gonchar is a devil you know. He’s great on the powerplay creating offense. A little less so in his own end were turnovers and poor positioning abound. Still, he plays 26+ minutes every night and matches up against the opponents best players every night for a reason. And that reason is he’s good.
Kris Letang (19gp, 2g, 2a, 4p, -3, 8 PIM, 3 for 3 in shootouts) B
--Notes: Hard to believe he only has two assists. Letang’s been a pleasant surprise. He’s good on the PP and improving in his own end. Plus, he’s getting to be automatic as a shootout guy, a valuable asset indeed.
Rob Scuderi (37gp, 0g, 1a, 1p, -3, 16 PIM) B
--Notes: Scuderi’s improvement has been tremendous. Despite the fact he brings absolutely nothing to the table offensively, he’s become very valuable at giving up very little. With Eaton down and out, Scuds role as a PK’er will become broadened. So far he’s been up to it.
Brooks Orpik (33gp, 0g, 5a, 5p, -2, 27 PIM) B-
--Notes: Hey, these are my grades, not the coaches. Orpik has as many hits as the combined number of the rest of the defense. He might run around a little too much, but he’s got a surprisingly good first pass. Needs to chip things along more and not think about handling the puck too much.
Darryl Sydor (31gp, 1g, 3a, 4p, -5, 11 PIM) C
--Notes: Sydor is happy that we didn’t have a quarter season report card, he would have had a terrible mark. But his game has been improving in the past month and it seems like he’s finally catching on to how Pittsburgh likes to play hockey. The Pens style is incredibly different from Dallas’ and especially the great puckhandling of Marty Turco.
Ryan Whitney (33gp, 7g, 10a, 17p, -3, 21 PIM) D+
--Notes: Whitney gets a D because he needs improvement. The assists aren’t there from last year, and although Whitney’s been good on the powerplay, he hasn’t been good anywhere else. I expect better in the second half of the season.
Alain Nasreddine (4gp, 0g, 0a, 0p, -3, 2 PIM) D
--Notes: A brief but pretty brutal stint for Nasreddine this year. He’s shown he can be decent in stretches as a 6th defenseman though, and the Penguins are going to need him sooner than later probably.
Sidney Crosby (37gp, 16g, 34a, 50p, +4, 35 PIM) A
--Notes: Not an A+ because there’s still room, incredibly, for improvement. Enough has been said about Crosby being great. It’s true. He’s the best. What I like to harp on is how he’s become the go to faceoff guy and his improvement without the puck.
Evgeni Malkin (37gp, 14g, 26a, 40p, -5, 40 PIM) A-
--Notes: Like Crosby, you know Malkin’s played very well, but you get that sense that he’s not finishing enough of the chances he creates. Malkin’s been solid though, nice to see the dreaded Sophomore slump isn’t always the case.
Maxime Talbot (24gp, 7g, 4a, 11p, +4, 16 PIM) A-
--Notes: Perhaps the first quarter MVP of the team (not named Crosby or Malkin). Talbot’s trademark hustle has been there and he’s scoring goals at a higher rate than previous years. His ankle injury derailed what would have been an honest attempt at a 20 goal season.
Georges Laraque (29gp, 2g, 6a, 8p, -1, 61 PIM) B+
--Notes: The knock on Laraque is that when he becomes unmotivated or is on a team not playing well he abandons all effort and doesn’t do his job. Maybe he’s still in the honeymoon stage in Pittsburgh, or maybe he’s just on his best behavior for a coach he goes all the way back to juniors with but this hasn’t been the case. Laraque’s been great at his role, keeping post-whistle activity down and opponents scared.
Tyler Kennedy (24gp, 6g, 4a, 10p, even, 20 PIM) B
--Notes: Kennedy’s play convinced management he was an NHL player and that they could cut ties with Mark Recchi. Big words, but Kennedy’s play has backed it up. Although he’s been quiet in the past 5, Kennedy’s provided a spark of energy since Talbot went down.
Petr Sykora (37gp, 11g, 9a, 20p, -8, 18 PIM) B
--Notes: Has been as advertised: streaky but talented goal scorer. Might score 5 goals in 5 games and then will score 1 in the next 10. No telling what he’s going to give on any given night but he does seem dangerous of most shifts.
Ryan Malone (32gp, 9g, 5a, 14p, +4, 59 PIM) B
--Notes: It’s a contract year and you can tell. Malone’s hustling up and down the ice in a fashion not captured by his raw stats. He’s played well and been a force in most games.
Adam Hall (34gp, 2g, 3a, 5p, -2, 17 PIM) B
--Notes: Hard to believe this guy needed a tryout for an NHL team. His role may be dime a dozen as a grinder who just kills penalties and isn’t flashy, but Hall is good at what he does. He’s versatile enough to play all 3 forward positions and play them well.
Colby Armstrong (31gp, 4g, 11a, 15p, -2, 32 PIM) B-
--Notes: Fewer players have had the ups and downs than Colby….A healthy scratch for weeks at a time. Then back to the 1st line riding shotgun with Crosby in a matter of days. He’s produced well of late and remains an important player and penalty killer. But where are the game-changing HUGE hits from last season?
Gary Roberts (36gp, 3g, 12a, 15p, -3, 38 PIM) C+
--Notes: Roberts would like to be scoring more goals and recently has been. The beginning of the season Mr. Gary had a respiratory illness that seemed to limit his effectiveness. It’s gone now and ass whoopins are being handed out on a regular basis so that is a good sign. Unless your name is Ben Eager.
Erik Christensen (32gp, 5g, 7a, 12p, -3, 16 PIM, 4 for 5 in shootouts) C
--Notes: Crusher has looked great at times and has been worthy of being a healthy scratch at others. The experiment of using him as a winger seems to have failed. With a team that has the likes of Crosby, Malkin, Staal and Talbot as natural centers that doesn’t bode well for EC. But he has been effective centering a 3rd or 4th line with grinding type players. Plus he’s obviously Mr. Money in the Bank for shootouts.
Jordan Staal (37gp, 3g, 7a, 10p, -11, 19 PIM) C
--Notes: Mr. Sophomore Slump himself. Staal hasn’t been as bad as his stats would indicate, he’s still an important PK’er but for some reason his chances aren’t going in like they were last year. Staal’s doing a lot of the things he did last year, just the results are different. If there’s one player who statistically could break out, it’d be hard for Staal to do worse.
Jarkko Ruutu (26gp, 0g, 2a, 2p, -3, 41 PIM) C-
--Notes: I feel for Ruutu. He came to Pittsburgh for more playing time and he hasn’t found it. When Ruutu is good he’s a great agitator/pest that drives opponents crazy. But when he’s not good he’s taking too many costly trips to the penalty box and then sitting the bench for the game.
Michel Therrien (19-16-2) C
--Notes: A lot of fans would have given this an F. But Therrien, though barely, has kept the team together and kept them above water through some costly injuries and generally pulled the strings. The job of the coach is to prepare players and put them in a position to make plays. For the most part, he does this, it’s up to the players to execute. Still, it’s increasingly maddening how often he shuffles lines and extremely quizzical some of the resulting combos he creates. Also all the too many men penalty; I laid blame on the players but the coach has to bring some discipline.