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Trending Penguins Players: Who is (and is not) meeting expectations at the halfway point

On Wednesday we tried to look at where the Pittsburgh Penguins stand among the NHL’s elite teams and Stanley Cup contenders at the unofficial halfway marker of the 2018-19 season. Where they stand is probably somewhere in the middle, but closer to the top than the bottom with a good chance to get back to the top. Make sense? Of course it does.

We also found out with the PHWA’s midseason awards that individual Penguins players are facing an uphill battle when it comes to winning an award this season as none were among the top-three in the voting of any category. For what it’s worth, Kris Letang was second on my mid-season Norris Trophy ballot behind Calgary Flames defender Mark Giordano, and Sidney Crosby was second on my Selke Trophy ballot.

But where do the Penguins’ individual players stand as it relates to what was expected of them this season at the halfway marker?

That is what we will be taking a quick look at today in this week’s edition of Trending Penguins Players.

Who is exceeding expectations?

Jake Guentzel, Kris Letang, Casey DeSmith, Zach Aston-Reese, Marcus Pettersson

I’m not surprised that Guentzel is having a big season. He has proven he is a good young player, he entered the year playing for a new contract, and he has an obvious chemistry with Sidney Crosby. But I am not sure I expected a potential 40-goal season out of him, which is exactly where his current pace has him. He also already received that new contract, and it is looking like it could be a steal for the Penguins.

We also should have expected a bounce back from Kris Letang because even with his struggles a year ago there were still signs he could be a dominant player again and he showed flashes of that ability even during his down 2017-18 season. He has not only bounced back, he is rocketed back to the top of the league when it comes to all-around defensemen.

DeSmith has regressed a bit in recent weeks but he has still been really good overall this season and helped steady the position when Matt Murray was injured and/or struggling. I had relatively little expectations for him coming into the season.

Aston-Reese really started to come on strong before he was injured in a fight. I don’t know that he has top-six potential, but he definitely looks like an NHL player and has taken a big step forward this season.

Trading Daniel Sprong was inevitable from the start, and I always just assumed they would get another player just like him back in return — a struggling top prospect that probably wasn’t going to amount to much. But Pettersson has been a really good, positive addition to the blue line. A lot of his goals against numbers are tied to goaltending, but he has still better a strong pickup.

Who is doing what is expected?

Sidney Crosby, Phil Kessel, Matt Murray, Brian Dumoulin, Bryan Rust, Patric Hornqvist, Olli Maatta, Matt Cullen, Dominik Simon, Jusso Riikola, Tanner Pearson

There really are not many surprises here. Crosby, Kessel, Hornqvist, and Dumoulin are doing exactly what we all should have expected them to do this season. They are expected to be among the team’s best players, and they have been.

Murray has had an interesting way of getting there because if you asked this same question after the first quarter of the season he would have most definitely been in the next category. But he came back strong in the second quarter and brought his overall performance for the season right to where it should be — among the top half of the league’s goalies.

In some ways I think Matt Cullen has almost exceeded expectations because I thought it was a terrible move to re-sign him, but he has been solid in what he was brought in to do. I am okay with it.

Who is below expectations?

Evgeni Malkin, Derick Brassard, Jack Johnson, Jamie Oleksiak

This is where, admittedly, evaluating players in this way can be unfair. Every player has different expectations, and some expectations are more difficult to reach than others. All Jusso Riikola has to do to meet expectations is be a solid 6th or 7th defender, and he mostly has been.

All Evgeni Malkin has to do is be a top-10 player in the world.

These two things are not the same.

Objectively speaking, Malkin is having a better season than the overwhelming majority of the players on the team. He is still a top-line scorer. But has he been … Evgeni Malkin. And honestly, I am not sure he has. And I don’t think he would say that he has been, either. The offense is still there, but the turnovers near the blue line and the defensive play have to get better. The most telling sign for when Evgeni Malkin is on top of his game is when he is swiping the puck away from people and starting the rush back the other way. We are not seeing that this season. He needed the All-Star break more than anyone on the team, and I would still expect to get Evgeni Malkin in the second half and in the playoffs.

Do we really need to write more words about the Derick Brassard situation? No? We are good there? Okay good!

On one hand I think Jack Johnson has met expectations in the sense that he wasn’t worth a five-year contract and the Penguins probably could have done without him. On the other hand, I think he’s probably been a bit worse than that. Oddly enough, he seems to have as many people in his corner defending his play than critics. Truly bizarre player.

Then there is Jamie Oleksiak. I thought he had a fantastic start to the season and early on was one of their better blue liners. But that train stopped rolling pretty quickly and now he is not even a guarantee to be in the lineup, and especially when Justin Schultz returns. They paid him $2.137 million dollars this season and each of the next two after this one. They definitely expected more than that from him. They had to have expected more from him than that.

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