As the Penguins’ regular season has come to a close, it’s time to reflect on just what the 2015-2016 Pens accomplished. No matter where this team ends up this spring and no matter when their season ends, there is much to be proud of. For the first time in recent history, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton call-ups were not Band-Aids, but actual NHL caliber players. A blue line with a question mark looming above it proved there is more than meets the eye. Sidney Crosby and Kris Letang bounced back so strongly in the second half that both are in season award conversations. Mike Sullivan took the wheel with this squad at the perfect moment and not only brought them into the playoffs, but looking like the team we always knew they were. So, without further ado we’ve got a few end of season superlatives to hand out.
Most improved – Sidney Crosby
We all remember the abysmal start Sidney Crosby had. By the middle of November he was basically left for dead in the NHL scoring race and Connor McDavid was the new “it” player. Flash forward to the end of the season and 87 will finish third in league scoring. His 85 points include three point streaks of 8 games or more and he’s making noise for the Hart (MVP) and the Selke for the defensive work that early in the year slowed down his production, but late in the year bolstered his entire team’s play.
Biggest Surprise – Young Guns
I can’t pick just one of the group that includes Conor Sheary, Tom Kuhnhackl, Scott Wilson, Bryan Rust, Oskar Sundqvist, Matt Murray and Derrick Pouliot. That doesn’t even include Brian Dumoulin who missed “rookie” status by a weird technicality, though it was his first full year at the NHL level. Over the last five years it’s become a certainty that starting in January a parade of Penguins players will head to the IR and one or two young guys will have flashes of brilliance. That was not the case this year. These guys have been bonafide pros since the day they sat down in their stalls. The future actually looks pretty nice for the Penguins right now as these guys grow and mature into playing with guys like Crosby, Malkin and Kessel.
Biggest Letdown – Beau Bennett/Olli Maatta
I did not want to pick either of these players for this distinction, but I think at this point I almost have to. Beau Bennett had a very strong season until December 14, 2015 when again he was injured. Since that time he’s been in and out of the lineup with the same injury, believed to be something in his shoulder, multiple times. Bennett proved long ago he can skate and stay with guys like Malkin and Crosby. The issue becomes that he can’t seem to stay healthy long enough to make an impact in these places. Maatta, on the other hand, looked fine for long stretches but seemed to be plagued by fatigue from his inability to train fully after his second shoulder surgery in three years. He looked like someone who hadn’t played a full season in ages and it was highly magnified next to zippy Kris Letang.
Team MVP – Fleury
But why is the name Sidney Crosby not here? Well, two men kept the Penguins afloat when everything was wrong under former head coach Mike Johnston. One was Evgeni Malkin, who kept scoring when no one else had the room in the stifling system, but no one was a bigger key in this season than Marc-Andre Fleury. Wire to wire, no one has had as great of an impact on the Penguins than Marc-Andre Fleury. Fleury has made saves in desperate situations and he’s kept everyone wondering how he’s doing it. He’s come back from a concussion and working on coming back from another. He’s working hard and making a difference every night. He’s the team’s MVP because he’s the one who kept them in it when no one else could. He bailed Rob Scuderi out. He may never be a Vezina winner, but he’s made the most important saves at the most integral moments and he’s the team’s most valuable player, hands down.
Biggest Acquisition – Trevor Daley
This is another hard one because the addition of the trio of Daley, Hagelin and Kessel changed everything about this team, but in the end Daley wins. Trevor Daley was such a big part of this team’s monumental shift. He would always be a good acquisition because he wasn’t Rob Scuderi, but his performance has been amazing. His coach has put him in the best scenarios to succeed and he’s scored some incredibly timely goals for this team. Jim Rutherford getting anything for Scuderi was amazing, but getting Daley was a true heist.
Rookie of the year – Tom Kuhnhackl
With so many rookies this season it was really hard to choose just one. I actually would have liked to pick Brian Dumoulin and his Paul Martin 2.0 style of play for this, but he’s not technically a rookie so I went with Kuhnhackl. Tom Kuhnhackl is the son of German hockey royalty (literally, they call his dad German Gretzky) and was always a scorer. When he entered the Pens’ organization they rebuilt his entire game to a defensive style. Now, he plays defensively but when he finds gaps on the penalty kill or breaks through with a strong cycle he has the offensive skills to make the other team pay. His 200 foot game is only going to improve and will be an asset to this team for years to come.
Work horse – Patric Hornqvist
Many injuries mean very few guys who play all 82 games. This year, Phil Kessel and Patric Hornqvist played 82 for the Penguins while Daley played a combined 82 between the Penguins and Blackhawks. Playing 82 games and being impactful is a feat and that’s why Patric Hornqvist gets this accolade. Ever since his acquisition from Nashville, Hornqvist has made his presence felt. He’s in everyone’s face. He’s scored some really timely goals. And he keeps the entire team chugging. When the Pens lost Dupuis it left everyone wondering how they would fill that void. Hornqvist had a lot to do with that and still does. He keeps the guys wound up and excited but not gripping their sticks too tight and he drives opponents mad. He agitates everyone but doesn’t get into fights. In short, he’s the teams work horse and he keeps them moving forward.
Unsung Hero – Evgeni Malkin
Evgeni Malkin will not get credit for the team’s improbable late-season run of winning 14 of their last 16 games. He will not top any team scoring lists and didn’t even top 30 goals this season, but when the team needed a voice it was Geno. Early in the season when they were struggling mightily, Malkin promised the team would make the playoffs then proceeded to put them on his back while Crosby worked through his scoring funk. After suffering an upper body injury in March, the team played the stretch without Geno, but his leadership and early efforts to keep his team afloat deserve more attention. Another person on this team who won’t get enough attention is Brian Dumoulin. Dumoulin had the distinction of not sinking like a stone when paired with Rob Scuderi. He’s played with just about every other defenseman and done so serviceably. He’s definitely the key to this defense in a lot of ways and while Malkin deserves to be unsung hero, Dumoulin deserves a little bit of love too.
Invisible A – Kris Letang
I cannot for the life of me figure out why it is 2016 and Kristopher Letang is not wearing an “A” on his jersey at least half of the time. He is the defacto leader of the defense and leads by example on and off the ice. He is one of Sidney Crosby’s right hand men after Malkin in the leadership group and he’s helped bring defensemen into the team. The only thing I can think of is that he doesn’t want it at this point. Maybe he doesn’t want to talk to the officials or it’s decided that his penchant for mouthing off to them wouldn’t be great if he’s to be a mouthpiece. Whatever it is, I think it’s silly as it’s clear that he is one of this team’s biggest voices. So he gets the invisible A leadership award here. He makes this team work and when he’s not playing, it’s probably not working.
Best game – Pens vs Flyers, Thurs., Jan. 21, 2016
I decided to add one last distinction in the superlatives for best game of the year. It’s the game I think really defines these Penguins. That game is the come from behind win over Philadelphia on January 21, 2016. In the game the Penguins went down 2-0, scored 4 straight, and then the Flyers got a late goal to make it 4-3. It was the Penguins exorcising their Philadelphia Flyers demons. It was Crosby scoring a beautiful goal. It was Fleury locking down for the last five minutes. It was the game that helped to define this team. And it was the best game of the season.