The Pittsburgh Penguins’ 2015-16 NHL regular season was a tale of two different teams. The first: a team that struggled and couldn’t find the magic needed to be regarded as one of the league’s best teams. The other: a formidable and dangerous team with an offense that had the spark and speed of a top-tier team, which was complemented by a fast-paced defense.
Now, with the regular season over and done with, it’s time to assign the final grades of the season.
Overall, this offense was as good as fans could ask for this season. If not for the slump at the beginning of the season and a few inconsistent spots, this grade could have easily been an A+. The offense quickly went from lazy and boring to a goal-scoring powerhouse lead by a resurging Sidney Crosby.
Evgeni Malkin was a standout for the entirety of his time on the ice — he’s been out with an upper body injury since March 11 — with his nose for the goal and his ability to step up as a leader when Crosby wasn’t playing his best. Other offensive contributing members like Carl Hagelin, Phil Kessel and Patric Hornqvist also did a great job stepping up and leading the team in times of struggle.
With quite a bit of young and energetic talent, this offense has become elite and will be looking to carry its momentum into the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The defense began playing better once GM Jim Rutherford acquired players like Trevor Daley and Justin Schultz. The Penguins’ fast-paced offense needed balance on the other side of the puck, and the front office did a great job in finding the right, speedy players to play defense. Both Daley and Schultz have shown off their ability to skate and puck-handle, great traits for a team that now emphasizes speed.
Pittsburgh’s early-season struggles hit the defense worse than any other part of the team. Bad passes, breakdowns and a lack of awareness plagued the defense. This offered little help to the goaltenders, who were often on the short end of the stick. But once star defender and Norris Trophy candidate Kris Letang came back from a minor injury at the beginning of the year, the defense soared to become one of Pittsburgh’s strong suits.
Whether it was Marc-Andre Fleury, Matt Murray or Jeff Zatkoff, the Penguins’ goaltending was the most consistent part of the team. Fleury had a fantastic season, putting up some of his best career numbers in save percentage and goals allowed on average. Murray, who played his first minutes in the NHL this season, showed why he is Pittsburgh’s most treasured prospect.
While the Penguins are heading into the playoffs with serious questions regarding their goaltending, they were fortunate enough to get dominant regular-season play from whoever played between the pipes. Pittsburgh is only in the position it is because of how well Fleury played early in the season.
Special Teams: B
Pittsburgh’s special teams was a bit of a wildcard. If the Penguins hadn’t placed in the top five in penalty kill (84.4 percent), this grade would have been lower. Without Malkin in the lineup, there was a clear difference Pittsburgh’s power play. Even though the Penguins were able to win games in the final month, too many opportunities were squandered.
Pittsburgh excelled in three-on-three overtime situations. Opponents were unable to match up accordingly and fell victim to the unstoppable force that was the Penguins.
Coaching and Front Office: B+
While it’s obviously true that the players are the only ones who play, if it wasn’t for the coaching staff and the responsiveness of the front office, this season may have been over in December. Head coach Mike Sullivan was given the necessary freedom to control his team, and Rutherford went out and made deals that truly changed the complexion of this team.
The acquisition of Carl Hagelin from the Ducks and the swap of Rob Scuderi for Daley with the Blackhawks were just two moves that transformed this team into the lethal one it is now.
As head coach, Sullivan was able to challenge players like Crosby, Kessel and Letang. His disciplinarian style of coaching has helped this team mature beyond its years and he will be a powerful force on the bench when Pittsburgh faces the New York Rangers Wednesday night.
Photo Credit: Michael Miller