Who is the Penguins MVP at This Point in the Season?

(Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press)

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The Pittsburgh Penguins have not yet reached the mid-way point of the season. They were slated to do that in mid-January, but the Covid postponements have halted the NHL season. Pittsburgh has had four games postponed to this point with their next scheduled game in Ottawa on Friday evening.  Several other teams are expected to return to play today with new Covid protocols across the league.

Mostly unscathed by the recent Covid outbreak around the league, the Penguins saw six players placed on the Covid list Monday: goaltender Tristan Jarry; forwards Teddy Blueger, Evan Rodrigues, and Dominik Simon; and defensemen John Marino and Mike Matheson. Jake Guentzel is also day-to-day with a non-Covid illness.

In regular injury news, Jason Zucker is now week-to-week with a lower-body injury according to head coach Mike Sullivan. Sullivan also mentioned that Bryan Rust and Evgeni Malkin are nearing returns after a solid practice Monday, but that Rust is more likely to return this Friday than Malkin.

All of this injury/Covid news is a preface to the main point of this article. Through everything, who has been the Penguins' MVP in the first 30 games of their season? I have four candidates that I believe have boosted the Penguins up through thirty games after a very ugly start to the season.

Jake Guentzel

No Penguin has scored more goals this season than Jake Guentzel as he has lit the lamp 15 times. He started out very slow, just like the team did, scoring just three times in his first 12 games. Since then, Guentzel has played 12 more games and scored at least a goal in all but three of those contests. Consistency hasn't been a problem from Guentzel as of late.

Guentzel was placed on injured reserve on December 8th with an upper-body injury. Continuing to improve, Guentzel was back at practice in a contact capacity until Monday when he was out with the non-Covid illness.

Guentzel's early season struggles came largely without Sidney Crosby, as Crosby was still recovering from offseason wrist surgery. The typical questions about whether Guentzel was simply just a product of Crosby naturally came pouring in. His recent resurgence did coincide with Crosby's return but the natural talent is evident in Jake's shot.

It seems like Guentzel is shooting harder than he has in recent seasons. His snap shot looks as lethal as it ever has and he is well on his way to another 30+ goal season if he can get, and stay, healthy. His early-season Penguins MVP resume is as strong as anyone on the roster.

Evan Rodrigues

Where has Rodrigues' play came from?

Evan Rodrigues was never anticipated to play the role that he has so far this season, but he's taken the opportunity and ran with it. As a result, the Penguins have been a much better team.

The top line always seemed destined to be Guentzel, Crosby, and Rust together. It has been the line that has largely helped the Penguins in recent seasons as those guys have proven to be perfect foils for Crosby. But with the entire lineup in flux on a nightly basis due to Covid, there hasn't been much consistency anywhere in the Penguins' lineup.

Rodrigues has been the team's emblem of consistency through 30 games.

It is hard to look back on the season so far and find more than a handful of games where Rodrigues didn't play well. Even when the team isn't at it's best, it's been Rodrigues to score or make a slick pass to set up a goal that has lifted the Penguins to victory on a given night.

With 10 goals and 23 points in 30 games, Rodrigues is on his way to a career year. The 10 goals is a career high and his 23 points is only six points short of his career-high 29 in 2018-19'.  A career year for Rodrigues has given the Penguin's top line a major piece through all the injuries and such that they've faced.

Tristan Jarry

Give it up for Tristan Jarry, man. This cat was essentially written off as an NHL goaltender following the playoff collapse last year. The Penguins were the better team in the series in just about every game and Jarry's poor play pushed the New York Islanders into the second round without so much as a fight.

So far this season, Jarry has 15 wins to go along with a .932 save percentage, and a 1.93 goals against average. Add three shutouts to that stat line and Jarry ranks in the top-five in every single one of those categories. That is a great response.

The real test will be in the spring if the Penguins can make it back to the postseason. Are Jarry's playoff demons exorcized? We won't truly know until he plays a playoff series. The fact that he is playing at this high of a level through his first 24 starts says a lot about his offseason and the seriousness in which he approached it.

Jarry is undoubtedly the team's starting goaltender and has an opportunity to resurrect his image with the entire fan base. Most people have come around on him already but some are still bearish on him until he proves he can get it done in the postseason.

For now, Jarry's league leading numbers make him a strong candidate for early season team MVP.

Kris Letang

Probably the dark horse candidate of this list, Letang is having yet another incredible season for the Penguins with 20 points in 26 games. Letang's season has been solid so far in the sense of health, save for a few games earlier on in the season.

With his defensive partner, Brian Dumoulin, struggling a little more than he typically does, Letang has been an anchor on both sides of the puck. Letang's always been a master with the puck on his stick and on the power play. He does only have one goal on the season, but where Letang has often been knocked in the past is his work away from the puck. Fortunately, his defensive performance this year has been as good as any season in his career.

The 34-year old is playing nearly two minutes more a night (25:51 TOI) than his career average (24:04 TOI). His ice time and responsibilities have gone up in his 16th NHL season and he hasn't shown any signs of slowing down despite the uptick.

Despite never finishing higher than third in Norris voting back in 2012-13', Letang continues to be one of the league's most underrated defensemen. His talent is off the charts and that does get recognized, but his work away from the puck never gets the credit it deserves.

And the Penguins early season MVP award goes to...

Tristan Jarry. It's hard to go anywhere but here with the choice.

Guentzel is scoring at a ridiculous clip as of late now that he's got Sidney Crosby back on his line. Rodrigues has been more than anyone could've asked for this season. Anything else he does the rest of the way is icing on the cake. Letang is also having a phenomenal season as I described above.

But Jarry has willed the Penguins to wins by himself on some nights. The response from last season bodes well for his prospects going forward. His overall performance succeeds anything Penguins' fans had pegged for him to do this season.

My biggest question will be how he, and the team in general, respond to the long break.

The Penguins got hot and won seven straight games before the Christmas break. Their break got extended with the postponements of games before and after the scheduled time off. Sometimes a team on a roll just wants to play every night. It's hard to wind back down while on a winning streak when everything seems so easy and flows so perfectly.

Jarry and Co. will have to try and get back into that groove after a 12-day layoff that could get even longer depending on the Covid situation around the league.

Nonetheless, I'm anointing Tristan Jarry as the team's early season MVP.