Pittsburgh Penguins: James Neal Soars, Penalty Kill Excels & Other Early Grades

James ConleyContributor IIIOctober 24, 2011

EDMONTON, CANADA - OCTOBER 9: James Neal #18 of the Pittsburgh Penguins skates against the Edmonton Oilers on October 9, 2011 at Rexall Place in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. (Photo by Dale MacMillan/Getty Images)
Dale MacMillan/Getty Images

The Penguins have endured the busiest schedule of the early NHL season, playing 10 games in 17 days while most clubs have played just six or seven.

Despite matches with some excellent opponents and the ever-breathing-down-their-necks presence of the injury bug, the Pens managed to take points in eight of the ten contests with a 6-2-2 overall record.

Their 14 standings points puts them in a tie for most in the NHL and they own the best winning percentage in the Atlantic Division.

Entering the season as early favorites to reach the Cup Finals, the Pens will have their mettle tested as injuries continue to strike. Zbynek Michalek is out 4-6 weeks with a broken finger and Tyler Kennedy and Sidney Crosby still have no timetables for their returns.

Points in eight of ten games is quite the accomplishment. If at any point the universe reverses its poles and the club manages to return their injured players faster than they create them, Pittsburgh will be able to challenge Washington for the Eastern Conference points lead.

Some grades:

Even-Strength Offense: A-

The Penguins rank seventh in the league in goals per game at 2.9, with 29 goals scored in 10 games. Twenty of those 29 goals came during even-strength play.

Until the Penguins' current three-game winning streak bumped the numbers up, the Penguins were deep in the minus territory of even-strength goals for and against. They're now even, with 20 ES goals for and 20 ES goals against.

Last season, the Penguins were dominant in that category, vastly outscoring opponents in 5-on-5 play while struggling on the man-advantage.

The offense has picked up recently, with 11 goals in their last three games, each a regulation victory. In three prior losses, the Pens tallied just five goals.

The forwards have been headlined by the October-edition of James Neal and Jordan Staal. Neal leads the team with eight goals (t-1st in NHL) and nine points, and Staal is also off to a hot start offensively, tallying five goals and three assists in 10 games.

Even-Strength Defense: A-

A solid start for a unit missing Brooks Orpik for eight games and Kris Letang for two. The Pens rank seventh in total goals against (2.1 per game) and are allowing an average of two ES goals per game (20 total in 10 games).

In two games with Brooks Orpik in the lineup, the Penguins have allowed just two goals total. They've allowed six goals in their last four games, nine in their last five and have yet to surrender more than three goals in any contest this season.

Pittsburgh's next five games include dates with the New York Islanders (twice), Toronto Maple Leafs (third in goals per game), San Jose Sharks and Los Angeles Kings. Each of those games features an opponent capable of throwing five goals on the board on any given night.

With Zbynek Michalek shelved until December with a broken finger, the unit will continue running different pairings in the hopes that the goals-against numbers will stay low.

Power Play: B+

The power play unit clicked at nearly 50 percent in the preseason, a sign that change was on the way for a unit that couldn't do better than five percent effectiveness last postseason.

Even with Evgeni Malkin playing only three games so far, the Pens have a power play unit that is clicking at better than 20 percent (20.9 percent, 8th in NHL) and has scored three times in the last three games.

The unit has been inconsistent, mostly due to Malkin's absence. In three games with Geno's services, the unit is 5-of-13 (38 percent). In seven games without him, the unit has converted just 4-of-30 attempts (13 percent).

James Neal has powered the unit in Malkin's absence, scoring two of his eight goals on the man-advantage while creating time and space for himself on every PP shift.

The unit looks much better-coached than in years past, making short passes to create space, gaining the blue line with some regularity and holding the puck in the zone for extended stretches. With that kind of structure in place, the returns of Malkin and Crosby should make Pittsburgh's PP deadly.

Penalty Kill: A+

It would be stupid to designate a Super A+ Awesome! grade on this unit, though they'd deserve it.

Last year's No. 1 penalty kill is again leading the league at 97 percent effectiveness. They have yet to allow a 4-on-5 goal this season.

The only goal against the PK came during 3-on-4 play against the Washington Capitals, in overtime. Other than that, Tony Granato continues to orchestrate the best penalty killing unit in the league.

Individual Grades:

James Neal: A+

Neal is continuing his trademark of hot starts with eight goals in October. He can push the total into double digits with three more games before the calendar hits November. The Penguins' best player by no small margin.

Jordan Staal: A-

Some struggles early have given way to excellent offensive production (five goals, three assists) and an even plus-minus rating. Still a presence on the penalty kill and now a legitimate scoring option as a second-line center. Was a PP force against New Jersey last Saturday.

Matt Cooke: A-

Has kept himself out of trouble, and increased focus on the puck has brought results. Fourth on the team in scoring (three goals, four assists), a plus-3 rating (best among Pens' forwards) and just two PIM in addition to work on league-best PK. Excellent value for a third-line winger.

Marc-Andre Fleury: B+

With a .926 save percentage and 2.13 GAA, Fleury is starting this season with the excellent numbers which he posted down the stretch of last year's injury-marred campaign. His five wins are among the league leaders. The reigning Penguins MVP seems poised for career year, if the team in front of him can ever get healthy.

Mark Letestu: F

Letestu has looked lost while on the ice, several times a healthy scratch in favor of names like Richard Park and even Steve MacIntyre. Park, Joe Vitale and Dustin Jeffrey all capable of playing the fourth-line center role, and Letestu doesn't appear to the have upper hand on any of them. He shares the team-worst minus-5 rating.

Zbynek Michalek: D+

He began to come around in last handful of games following horrendous start, but now will sit for 4-6 weeks with a broken finger. A massive loss for the penalty kill.

Paul Martin: D+

Another ugly start to the year for the $5 million defenseman. A minus-five rting with just three assists. Early last year, Pens led the league in points from defensemen. Martin will have to bring up his scoring for blue line corps to reach similar numbers this season.

Get more hockey talk at Slew Footers, or follow James on Twitter @Slew_James.


    The Derick Brassard trade looks even better for the Penguins after the 2018 NHL Draft

    Pittsburgh Penguins logo
    Pittsburgh Penguins

    The Derick Brassard trade looks even better for the Penguins after the 2018 NHL Draft

    via PensBurgh

    Ron Cook: Penguins stand still for now but stayed tuned for GM Jim Rutherford's next act

    Pittsburgh Penguins logo
    Pittsburgh Penguins

    Ron Cook: Penguins stand still for now but stayed tuned for GM Jim Rutherford's next act

    Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
    via Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

    A quick look at the Penguins draft picks

    Pittsburgh Penguins logo
    Pittsburgh Penguins

    A quick look at the Penguins draft picks

    Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
    via Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

    Avalanche plan to buy out contract of former Penguin Brooks Orpik

    Pittsburgh Penguins logo
    Pittsburgh Penguins

    Avalanche plan to buy out contract of former Penguin Brooks Orpik

    The Associated Press
    via TribLIVE.com