Pittsburgh Penguins 2021-22 Player Grades: Forwards

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This is one of my favorite pieces every single season. From my original days at Let's Talk Pens, through my journey to Pittsburgh Sports Castle, and now at Gold Lot Sports, I've enjoyed writing the player grades articles season after season. Despite a fourth consecutive first-round exit, the excitement to write the grades pieces remains the same.

I was going to do the player grades in separate pieces but I also didn't want to extend too far into the offseason where things become muddled and tough to remember. What better time to do it than while everything is still fresh, right?

As with every season, I will grade each player based on the role they play on the team so if Sidney Crosby and Kasperi Kapanen theoretically ended up with the same grade, it doesn't mean they had equal seasons.  They simply served the role they were expected to fill at an equal level.

I'll break everything down into the three obvious position groups: forwards, defenseman, and goaltenders. For a player to qualify for a grade, they must have participated in 15 games or more with the NHL squad. Anthony Angello, Kasper Bjorkqvist, Filip Hallander, Pierre-Olivier Joseph, Valtteri Puustinen, and Jusso Riikola didn't reach the threshold to qualify for a grade.

The players are ordered in alphabetical order by last name.  Without further ado, I present to you the Pittsburgh Penguins' forwards player grades starting with...

Teddy Blueger

Stats: 65 games played, 9 goals, 19 assists, 28 points, 15:01 TOI

A staple on the Penguins' fourth-line for a few seasons now, Blueger continued to put together a solid campaign for the club. He is a huge part of their penalty kill and did an exceptional job in the face-off circle. Throughout the season, the Penguins used him to take important draws in the defensive zone at both even strength and on the penalty kill. In fact, his face-off percentage was 4.3% higher than any other season to this point of his four year NHL career.

At 28 years old, Blueger likely won't blossom into anything more than the solid penalty killing fourth liner that he is but that's okay. He did set a career-high in points this season and tied his career-high for goals. His playoff performance hindered his grade a bit as I didn't like his overall game that much. But, nonetheless, his overall body of work still garners a pretty good grade.

Grade: B-

Brian Boyle

Stats: 66 games played, 11 goals, 10 assists, 21 points, 10:47 TOI

After taking last season off, turning 37 years old, and entering training camp on a professional tryout contract,  nobody expected Boyle to have much of a chance at making the roster.  Let alone scoring 11 goals for the Penguins in 2021-22' but here we are. Boyle played in 66 games and never really saw his play slip. He gave you exactly what you knew you would get: some size and some grit despite not being a smooth or fast skater. 

Boyle's lack of speed became apparent in the playoffs as it was clear his legs couldn't quite keep up with the Rangers. He was injured in game six after a hit behind the net and underwent surgery.  I don't see him being brought back next season but he did a very good job in the role he played.

Grade: A-

Jeff Carter

Stats: 76 games played, 19 goals, 26 assists, 45 points, 17:40 TOI

Carter is an interesting case but is going to be part of a theme you'll see more of as the article goes on. He had an awesome start to the season and was awarded with a two-year extension worth $3.125 million a season. At the time, it felt like a steal of a deal that the Penguins were getting their third-line center locked up for a nice price. 

In hindsight, Ron Hextall might want that cap space back. The money won't cripple the Penguins by any means but that $3+ million could've been used on a younger player to help elsewhere. Regardless, Carter did still score 19 goals in his age-37 season. The 45 points are the most he's scored since 2016-17' so maybe it's not all bad. However, he did have 26 points in his first 40 games and only 19 in his second half.

Grade: C+

Sidney Crosby

Stats: 69 games played, 31 goals, 53 assists, 84 points, 19:58 TOI

Another season, another mind blowing show put on by The Captain of the league's best organization of the salary cap era. Crosby posted another season where he averaged more than a point per game and posted 30+ goals for the first time since 2018-19' that he accomplished that feat. 

He started the season slowly after wrist surgery prevented him from playing the first handful of games. Everyone thought the slow demise of Crosby was beginning. Boy were they wrong. 

Crosby continued his dominance and anchored one of the better lines in hockey. While the Penguins lost their secondary scoring and were trying to find their way, Crosby and his line mates were able to carry the Penguins through the tough time. I am thoroughly convinced the Crosby won't be slowing down anytime soon. This was as locked in as I'd seen him since the Cup runs. He was on another level.  This one is easy for me.

Grade: A+

Jake Guentzel

Stats: 76 games played, 40 goals, 44 assists, 84 points, 20:06 TOI

Speaking of Crosby and his linemates, Guentzel continued to bloom into an absolute star with his second career 40-goal season. Yes, he is doing a lot of damage from having Crosby on his line, but Guentzel just has the "it" factor that would make him a good player even if Sid wasn't his line mate.

Guentzel's ability to score in tight and snipe the goaltender when necessary is wonderful. Guentzel is on the smaller side of the scale and isn't the strongest player in the world. He will get outmuscled by most players around the league, but he certainly tries his hardest not to. 

Only 22 of Guentzel's 84 points came on the power play so he has shown the capability to do it well at 5-on-5. He's been a wonderful player since his arrival five years ago and he isn't going to be fading away anytime soon.

Grade: A+

Danton Heinen

Stats: 76 games played, 18 goals, 15 assists, 33 points, 12:43 TOI

The Penguins got Heinen on a one-year deal - $1.1 million AAV - after two failed seasons in Anaheim. He was unable to crack the lineup due to underperformance and injuries. He had a solid start to his career in Boston as a bottom-six forward, however, so he had some promise coming to Pittsburgh. 

In 2021-22', Heinen, 26, set a career-high in goals with 18 and posted 33 points. He split his production pretty evenly across the season. He scored nine goals before January, went scoreless across 10 January games, and then potted another nine goals in the last three months of the season. His price will go up a bit after a near 20-goal season so his return to Pittsburgh is certainly in question. His consistency earns him a solid grade for the overall season.

Grade: B+

Kasperi Kapanen

Stats: 79 games played, 11 goals, 21 assists, 32 points, 14:32 TOI

There is no question this season was a rough one for Kasperi Kapanen. Still only 25-years old, the Penguins were hoping for a breakout season on Malkin's right wing. That didn't happen. 

Kapanen scored just 11 goals and didn't look very confident on most nights. The blazing speed that Kapanen's game is based off of was there but not often used properly. He pulled up when entering the attacking zone far too often even if he had his man beat. 

Kapenen's shot is good enough that, combined with his speed, could absolutely give goaltender's fits. Kapanen is a restricted free agent so the Penguins could tender him a qualifying offer and hold on to his rights. They could also choose not to tender him and allow him to become a free agent. That decision will be an intriguing one.

Grade: F

Evgeni Malkin

Stats: 41 games played, 20 goals, 22 assists, 42 points, 18:20 TOI

Everyone loves Geno, man. He posted another 20-goal season and only needed 41 games to do it. He added three playoff goals across the seven-game war with the New York Rangers. Malkin might not be the player he was five years ago but he still shows up to the rink with that extra hop in his stride when he wants to. 

One knock on Malkin is his injury history. He hasn't played a full 82 game slate since his second NHL season and he really hasn't come close besides 2011-12' (75 games) and 2017-18' (78 games). When he is in the lineup, though, he is still an effective player. 

He posted 18 of his 42 points at 5-on-5 this season so the notion that he isn't a good even-strength player anymore is kind of a myth. Malkin is a free agent this season so hopefully game seven wasn't the last time we see him in a Penguins uniform.

Grade: B-

Brock McGinn

Stats: 64 games played, 12 goals, 10 assists, 22 points, 15:00 TOI

Nobody wants to be remembered for a silly penalty or a bad gaffe that costs your team a game, let alone a series. Unfortunately, most people will go into next season with the last image of the Penguins' season being Brock McGinn skating to the penalty box in overtime of Game 7. 

It doesn't feel right to grade McGinn's entire season on that penalty there. He played a solid role in their near top-of-the-league penalty kill. His 12 goals were a nice addition to a middle-six that saw a dry spell from a lot of players during the dog days of the season. 

After six seasons in Carolina, McGinn signed a four-year deal in Pittsburgh. His first-year wasn't a total bust but I don't know that a player like McGinn needs to be signed for such a long term. Nonetheless, he will have another three years on that contract, whether that be here or in another uniform. All-in-all, it was a fairly average season for McGinn.

Grade: C

Drew O'Connor

Stats: 22 games played, 2 goals, 3 assists, 5 points, 10:17 TOI

O'Connor broke camp with the team and drew (pun intended) into the lineup on a nightly basis early in the season. He posted five points in the first four games of the season, including a two-goal outbreak on October 23 against the Toronto Maple Leafs. All he did across the next 17 games was be held completely off the scoresheet. 

After the game against the Sharks on January 15, news came out that O'Connor had been ruled out indefinitely with an upper-body injury. It was later revealed that he had a collapsed lung. Not exactly an ideal injury. Once recovered, O'Connor posted 12 goals and 32 points in 33 games at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. 

The Penguins likely would've preferred to get him some action before the playoffs but the salary cap didn't allow. He slotted into the Pens lineup for two games in the Rangers series. His AHL grade? Got to go A+. His NHL grade however, not so kind...

Grade: D+

Rickard Rakell

Stats: 19 games played (w/Pens), 4 goals, 9 assists, 13 points, 17:01 TOI

Every hockey fan obsesses over what their team will do at the trade deadline regardless of their status as a buyer or a seller. Everyone wants a shiny new piece to add to their team or a fun prospect to get excited about when your team becomes good again. We're looking at you Pittsburgh Pirates. 

Rakell was the Penguins' big get at the trade deadline. It was assumed he'd be going for at least a first-rounder but instead the Penguins were able to make more of a hockey trade. They sent two pending UFA's in Dominik Simon and Zach Aston-Reese back to Anaheim alongside goaltending prospect Calle Clang and a second-round pick. 

Rakell made an instant impact posting 13 points in just 19 games. He didn't get to make his impact in the postseason, when he was truly acquired for, after Ryan Lindgren hit him in the head early in game one. He returned in Game 7 but it was too little, too late. In the games he played, Rakell surely made a case to spend the next few seasons in Pittsburgh if the Penguins so choose to re-sign him.

Grade: B+

Evan Rodrigues

Stats: 82 games played, 19 goals, 24 assists, 43 points, 15:50 TOI

E-Rod exceeded all expectations for this season and will now get himself a solid payday in free agency. He cooled off mightily in the second half with just four goals in his final 36 games but he lit up the scoreboard with an expanded role early in the season. 

Impressively enough, with COVID running rampant through the team early in the season and all the injuries that can accumulate in a hockey season, Rodrigues was the Penguins' lone iron-man playing in all 82 games. His career-high in goals before this season was nine. He had that before the end of December. 

He is going to parlay everything into a nice contract this offseason. He won't get a break the bank contract as it seemed he would early in the season if he continued on the torrid pace he was on, but he'll get a nice raise on the $1 million he made in Pittsburgh this year. His late season skid lowered his grade but his three goal performance in round one boosted it back up a bit.

Grade: B+

Bryan Rust

Stats: 60 games played, 24 goals, 34 assists, 58 points, 18:46 TOI

Ol' Reliable, Bryan Rust, made his presence known in his contract year putting together his best season to date and showing immeasurable chemistry with Crosby and, to a slightly lesser extent, Malkin. The Penguins rewarded Rusty with a nice contract extension that would likely make him a Penguin for life assuming he isn't moved before the end of the deal. 

All he did this past season was score 24-goals and score 58 points across 60 games.  Incredible. Crosby surely makes Rust a better player but there's nothing wrong with that. The Penguins had to pay him for his production, not the player he'd be if Crosby wasn't his line mate. He'll stick around in Pittsburgh on Sid's wing and Guentzel's opposite side.

Grade: A

Radim Zohorna

Stats: 17 games played, 2 goals, 4 assists, 6 points, 10:20 TOI

This guy barely made the player grades as he hardly reached the games played threshold. Zohorna played in 17 games over the course of the year and was the roster bubble guy that spent a lot of his time traveling between Pittsburgh and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. 

Zohorna isn't a bad player by any means. He has shown the ability to skate despite his otherworldly 6'6" frame.  He now has four goals and ten points across 25 career NHL games. With the Penguins needing to trend towards a more youthful lineup next season, it wouldn't shock me if he's given a chance to carve out a role in the Penguins' bottom-six in a more consistent fashion.

Grade: C-

Jason Zucker

Stats: 41 games played, 8 goals, 9 assists, 17 points, 14:49 TOI

The 30-year old former second-rounder has been a disappointment to this point of his Penguins career. No one is going to deny that. However, when he is healthy, Zucker plays at 110% and is an easy guy to root for. 

Zucker is a hard-nosed guy and would be such a nice piece in the top-six if he could just score at a more consistent rate. He spent a majority of his time on the third line with Carter when healthy. He may need surgery this offseason and spent the playoffs sitting on a modified seat on the bench because his back was in that much pain. He's an absolute warrior. 

His effort brings his grade up in my eyes as I'm very partial to him in that regard. The problem lies in the $5.5 million salary cap hit that he is due next season. The Penguins can't expect a 30-goal season out of him. The one time he reached that plateau seems more like an anomaly. But asking a healthy Zucker to pitch in for 15-20 goals while bouncing around in the middle-six isn't too much to ask.

Grade: C+

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