Ranking Pittsburgh Penguins' 5 Most Impressive Players in 2013-14
With 58 games completed and just 24 remaining on their schedule, the Pittsburgh Penguins are in as good of a position as they could have hoped for when the season began.
Having endured a painful ouster from the playoffs at the hands of the Boston Bruins, a summer full of uncertainty with free-agent losses and trade rumors and then long-term injuries to key players, the Pens have been able to not only weather the storm but, having won 40 of 58 games thus far, have also had the greatest regular season in franchise history.
As the Olympic hockey tournament winds down and the return of NHL hockey approaches, let's take a look at the five most impressive Pittsburgh Penguins so far in the 2013-14 season.
5. Olli Maatta
While it's rare for a rookie defenseman to show the poise of a veteran in his own zone, it's unheard of for a rookie to play well in all three zones, but that's just what Olli Maatta has done so far this season.
Not only is Maatta second among all Pens' defensemen with a plus-12 rating, but he's also been a force on special teams as well with three points on the power play, despite his limited opportunities, and also has a shorthanded goal and game-winning goal to his credit.
With Kris Letang recovering from a stroke and out for at least the next month, Maatta's ice time and opportunities figure to increase as the Pens enter the home stretch of the regular season and look ahead to the playoffs.
4. Marc-Andre Fleury
Following his benching during last year's playoffs, most NHL observers and fans thought Marc-Andre Fleury's time in Pittsburgh had come to an end.
However, Pens general manager Ray Shero decided to stick with Fleury, believing he could bounce back despite his struggles, and opted not to trade him.
With just 24 games remaining on the schedule, it seems that Shero proved to be right, at least for the moment, as Fleury leads all goaltenders in wins (31), is second in shutouts (five), 10th in goals-against average (2.23) and 11th in save percentage (.919).
However, despite his strong showing so far in 2013-14, the questions about Fleury's future will remain, as his play during the regular season has never been the issue; his play during the postseason has.
3. Matt Niskanen
Prior to the 2011 trade that brought him to Pittsburgh from Dallas in 2011, most Penguins fans only knew Matt Niskanen as one of the three players (Andrew Ference and Claude Giroux being the others) that Sidney Crosby ever dropped the gloves against.
Since then, however, Niskanen has developed into a steady two-way defenseman and has, at times, been the Pens' best blueliner this season.
After totaling just eight goals and 27 assists over the past two seasons, Niskanen stands just one goal shy of matching those totals, and he currently leads the entire league in plus-minus with a plus-29.
While Niskanen's play so far in 2013-14 has been a blessing, especially in light of the injuries and struggles of Kris Letang, it may prove to be a curse too as he will be an unrestricted free agent this summer and might have priced himself out of Pittsburgh.
2. Chris Kunitz
When Penguins general manager Ray Shero re-signed Chris Kunitz last summer to a three-year, $11.5 million contract a year before his current contract expired, many thought Shero had overvalued Kunitz's importance to the Pens.
Considering Kunitz's performance so far this season, some could argue that his new deal shows the Pens didn't value it enough, even at age 34, and actually got him at a bargain price.
Having already exceeded his career-high 26-goal effort in the 2011-12 season, Kunitz's 27 goals is second only to Sidney Crosby for the team lead, and his 12 power-play goals is second only to Alexander Ovechkin for the league lead.
With the season-ending knee injury suffered by Crosby's other linemate, Pascal Dupuis, Kunitz will be counted on to be the point-per-game performer as he has been the past two seasons if the Pens are to venture deep into the playoffs again this year.
1. Sidney Crosby
While Sidney Crosby's selection as the Penguins' most impressive player in 2013-14 may not be surprising, it is definitely warranted.
Having lost both the Hart and Art Ross trophies last season as a result of a broken jaw, Crosby entered this season looking to dispel any doubt as to who the NHL's best player really is, and, with 78 points (11 more than anyone else) in 58 games, he has done just that.
Despite having to deal with injuries to linemates and having to face the opposition's top defensive pairing game after game, Crosby has picked up right where he left off last season and seems destined to lead the Penguins on another long march through the playoffs.