The Pittsburgh Penguins have had an exceptional season thus far and seen immense improvement. The team was projected to finish as a mid-pack team in a very competitive division but have over-achieved this season and are once again in the playoff contender conversation, sitting comfortably in third place in the division, just four points off the first-place Capitals, and two points off the second-place Islanders. The preseason report on the Pens had the team’s leaders and stars as the “make or break” focal points of the team, however despite their great play, they can attribute a lot of their success to several key players who do not necessarily receive the same amount of credit or attention as the team’s stars.
Yes, Sidney Crosby has undoubtedly played out of his mind this season as well as Jake Guentzel, Bryan Rust, Tristan Jarry, and Kris Letang, but the team’s ability to deal with key injuries to players such as Evgeni Malkin, Jason Zucker, and most of their D-core throughout various points of the season is what makes their success this season so impressive, and makes a healthy Pens lineup more of a threat than their given credit for.
Despite the team having many players who have made a difference this season, these five individuals are standouts that have been key to the success that the Pens have seen, and ultimately are important factors to the position the Penguins currently sit in.
McCann was acquired in 2019 alongside Nick Bjugstad from the Florida Panthers and is in his third season with the Penguins. The 24-year-old has struggled to stay healthy throughout his tenure with the team but has tallied nine goals and eight assists in 25 games this season, and is a plus-11. The former first-round pick (24th Overall) brings great speed and skill and can play both at center or as a winger. With Malkin still sidelined due to injury, McCann has stepped up and slotted in as the team’s second-line center where he has performed admirably and been a key player in the team’s continued success, contributing offensively, as his explosiveness has been a nightmare for opposing teams defensemen. With Malkin’s return looming, McCann will likely drop back down as the team’s third-line center, and his great skill shows the depth the Pens have down the middle. The Stratford, ON-native has been an important piece in the team’s lineup this year, and his absence due to injury was felt by the team as he as well as other players like Kasperi Kapanen are able to provide the offense with a spark using their blistering speed, great hands, and creativity.
This Penguins forward missed the start of this season after having shoulder surgery but has made his presence known since his return and has been a very important role player for the team. Aston-Reese is not well known for his goal-scoring ability, however, the 26-year-old has eight goals in 27 games played this season, already matching his career-high in goals. He has slowly become a very useful depth player for the Pens who have been impressed by their forward’s ability to play a great two-way game, contributing at both ends of the ice. The Staten Island, NY-native was signed as a free agent out of college in March of 2017 and has developed into a useful depth player for the team, with his presence becoming more and more prominent this season. The forward has 46 career points through 143 NHL games over four seasons with the Pens but has been a very important player for the Penguins this season.
Mike Matheson was subject to heavy criticism after a poor start to his Penguins career however upon returning from an early-season injury, he has excelled and been one of the Pens best defensemen this year. His speed and ability to create plays through his quick first-pass make him an offensive threat. Acquired from the Florida Panthers in the offseason alongside Colton Sceviour, the 27-year-old’s defensive side of the game was seen as a potential liability, but as the season has progressed, the former first-round pick (23rd Overall) has tightened up his game defensively and when allowed to roam freely can be a dangerous two-way defenseman with a lot of upside. The Pointe-Claire, PQ-native has tallied nine points through 30 games this season and has 100 career points through 329 career games. The team is becoming more and more dependent on the Canadian, and he has not disappointed. With the series of defensive injuries crippling the team, Matheson as stepped up and been a pleasant and important acquisition to the team at both ends of the ice.
Well, this is definitely a surprising one. Months ago this player was written off and seen as a poor offseason signing made by Jim Rutherford but despite the bad press and rough start to his season with the Penguins, Cody Ceci has settled in and been a welcomed addition to the Penguins organization. At the start of the season, Ceci ranked seventh on the depth chart but due to injuries and his trend of impressive performances, the Canadian has found himself as a regular in the team’s top-six and continues to be relied upon by Coach Sullivan.
The former first-round pick (15th Overall) was signed as a free agent in the offseason after never truly living up to the hype surrounding him in his hometown of Ottawa, and a poor season with the Toronto Maple Leafs last year. His one-year deal with the Pens was seen as a “last chance” opportunity for him to prove himself, and he may earn an extension after his impressive performances this season. Currently paired with Mike Matheson, Ceci has nine points through 35 games, already topping his eight points through 56 games a year ago. His contributions at both ends of the ice have continued to show that Ceci can still compete at this level, and his success with the Penguins seems to be long overdue, after years of struggles. He has been a key shutdown defenseman for the Pens this season and will continue to be relied upon so long as he maintains his exceptional form. It’s safe to say that no one saw this coming.
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It’s not often that a backup goalie ends up on a list like this but Casey DeSmith has been consistently stellar in goal for the Penguins this year. Tristan Jarry struggled to find his form at the start of the season, and DeSmith stepped in and was exceptional in goal until Jarry returned to his great form. The tandem has been one of the best in the league this season, but DeSmith has been a pleasant surprise backing up Jarry.
The 29-year-old has kept his team in the game when he’s started and consistently competed at an elite backup level. In 15 games played this year, the Rochester, NH-native has nine wins and a goals-against average of 2.13, as well as an impressive save percentage of .922, and two shutouts. It’s safe to say the backup controversy is over in Pittsburgh as DeSmith has done more than enough to prove he belongs in his role, restoring confidence to his players who continue to rally behind both him and Jarry. The netminder is a UFA at the end of the season, but you can expect he will receive an extension from the Pens after his fantastic efforts this season, one of the league’s best backups this year.