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Halfway there - 03-08-13

Written by Seth Rorabaugh on .

At 16-8-0, the Penguins have played exactly half of their season entering tonight's game in Toronto. Here are our grades on a player-by-player basis for the team's roster:

Forwards

9 - Pascal Dupuis (right), RW - (24 games, 8 goals, 6 assists, 14 points) - Perpetually critiqued as not an ideal winger on the first line, Dupuis has produced a fair amount of offense this season. While there are other first-line right wingers with more talent potentially available on the trade market, none of them have what Dupuis possesses; a comfort level with Sidney Crosby. Grade - B+

10 - Tanner Glass, LW - (24 games, 0 goals, 0 assists, 0 points) - The Penguins' lone free agent signing at the NHL level this past offseason, Glass has been somewhat underwhelming. While he wasn't expected to be a vital cog to the team's offense, his failure to produce a single point is galling. Always quick to protect a teammate, Glass has provided an element of toughness on a roster without much beef. Grade - D-

14 - Chris Kunitz, RW - (24 games, 14 goals, 17 assists, 31 points) - Reuniting with Crosby, Kunitz has exceeded any and all expectations of him this season. After a slow start in January, Kunitz has scored 27 points from the start of February on. Normally a supplemental player for the likes of Hart Trophy candidates such as Crosby or Evgeni Malkin, Kunitz now finds himself among the league leaders in goals and points. Most importantly, Kunitz has not sacrificed his bread and butter, aggressive forechecking, in the name of offense. Grade - A+

15 - Dustin Jeffrey, LW - (11 games, 2 goals, 0 assists, 2 points) A question mark entering the season, Jeffrey remains a question mark halfway through this campaign. Capable of playing any forward position on any line, Jeffrey has been limited primarily to third- or fourth-line duties. He did get a brief try-out on the left wing of the team's second line with Malkin and Neal but the team explored other options after two games. Jeffrey has an intriguing blend of potential but will he get a chance to live up to it? Grade - Incomplete

16 - Brandon Sutter (right), C - (24 games, six goals, 5 assists, 11 points) - Replacing the man he was traded for, Brandon Sutter has capably lived up to the expectations of being Jordan Staal's successor on the third line and the penalty kill. While establishing chemistry with Matt Cooke, Sutter has not been able to gel quite as well with Tyler Kennedy. Sutter is not quite as talented of a scorer as Staal but he has been a more consistent net-front presence on the team's second power play unit. Like Staal, he has shown an ability to step up to a top six-role when Malkin was sidelined with a concussion. The only real minus to Sutter's game is the fact that the penalty kill has taken a step back under his watch. Grade - B-

18 - James Neal, LW - (24 games, 15 goals, 8 assists, 23 points) - Perhaps the Penguins' most dangerous pure goal-scorer, Neal has followed up his break-out 2011-12 season with a dazzling 2012-13 campaign. His release with the puck when he shoots it is lethal. The only problem is that the bulk of his offense has come on the power play. His number in five-on-five situations have been limited and his propensity to take penalties has hurt the team on more than one occasion. The Penguins need Neal to find more consistency and discipline in even-strength situations. Grade - B

19 - Beau Bennett (right), RW - (9 games, 1 goal, 3 assists, 4 points) - After a solid showing in a brief training camp, Bennett began the season in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton while team tested the likes of Eric Tangradi and Zach Boychuk on the second line. After Bennett recovered from a "lower-body" injury suffered in the AHL, he was summoned to the NHL. Showing the ability to withstand the physical rigors of the NHL, Bennett "graduated" to the second line this week and played a vital role in Thursday's thrilling 5-4 comeback win against the Flyers. He has the skill to stay on the second line and has shown a willingness to mix things up physically nine games into his NHL career. But where will he be after 20 games? Grade - Incomplete

24 - Matt Cooke, LW  - (24 games, 5 goals, 7 assists, 12 points) - Splitting time between the second and third lines, Cooke has resumed the consistent, disciplined form he displayed last season. While he doesn't quite instill the fear in opponents he used to, but he's still a strong forechecker opponents have to contend with. He has shown chemistry with Sutter but like Sutter, has been part of a penalty kill unit which has been shredded at times this season. Grade B

27 - Craig Adams, RW (24 games, 2 goals, 1 assist, 3 points) - A steady, reliable and respected member of the team, Adams has been the most consistent member of a mostly underwhelming fourth line this season. Adams still provides a strong forecheck and a willingness to throw the body around. He has been a key member of the much-maligned penalty kill. Grade - C+

46 - Joe Vitale, C (20 games, 0 goals, 2 assists, 2 points) - Vitale has been very up and down this season. There are games when he looks like he could skate through the boards and there are other games where he is a non-factor. If Vitale, the team's best faceoff specialist at 63 percent, can level off his game, he will command a more regular spot in the lineup as well as more ice time. Grade - C-

48 - Tyler Kennedy (right), RW (24 games, 3 goals 2 assists, 5 points) - Easily the most disappointing member of the Penguins this season, Kennedy's game has deteriorated quite a bit this season. There is some thought that Kennedy's decline can be attributed to replacing Staal, a left-handed center, with Sutter who is right-handed. Regardless of the reason, Kennedy's lack of offense and sloppy play in general has even earned him a little bit of public criticism from Ray Shero. While there doesn't seem to be any indication the coaching staff plans on making him healthy scratch any time soon, the team needs more from Kennedy. His game-tying goal against the Flyers Thursday is a start. Grade - F

71 - Evgeni Malkin, C (20 games, 5 goals, 18 assists, 23 points) - A lack of discipline, a concussion and a revolving door on his left wing have combined to limit Malkin in reaching the considerable standards expected of the defending Hart Trophy winner. While still producing at over a point-per-game pace, Malkin's offense has been somewhat restricted to the power play. Still prone to taking selfish penalties, Malkin's lack of goals have been a tad concerning, especially coming off a 50-goal effort in 2011-12. The lack of a regular left winger has been a major culprit in Malkin's slight regression and perhaps Bennett is the answer at that position but the Penguins need Malkin to get back to the level he reached last season regardless of the circumstances. Grade - B-

87 - Sidney Crosby (right), C - (24 games, 11 goals, 28 assists, 39 points) - If there were any questions as to what Crosby could do after a long layoff, he has answered them emphatically. After a slow start in terms of production, Crosby slowly climbed the charts to become the NHL's leading scorer once again. Crosby's willingness to go to the high traffic areas as well as his effectiveness in those areas has been perhaps the best part of his game. He has also re-established a comfort level with his wingers Dupuis and Kunitz which  made him look like the runaway winner of the Hart Trophy prior his concussion in 2010-11. Grade - A

Defensemen

2 - Matt Niskanen, D - (16 games, 2 goals, 2 assists, 4 points) - Playing primarily on the team's top pairing with Kris Letang, Niskanen has been an inert ying to the combustible yang of his partner. While doing nothing for the Penguins on a spectacular level, Niskanen has developed into a player capable of doing everything adequately. While his shot and physical play have improved this season, the Penguins and Niskanen would probably best-served if he were on the third pairing. A trade may be in the works but for the time being, Niskanen is a safe option opposite of Letang. Grade - B

4 - Mark Eaton, D - (3 games, 0 goals, 0 assists, 0 points) - Unsigned heading into the lockout, Eaton was unemployed for the better parts of seven month until the Penguins offered him a professional tryout offer at the AHL level. Showing he could still skate, Eaton eventually earned an NHL contract and a place in the lineup. In just three games, Eaton has been an adequate third-pairing defeneman but it would be a stretch to say he's had a huge impact on the team thus far. Grade - Incomplete

5 - Deryk Engelland (right), D - (24 games, 0 goals, 3 assists, 3 points) - The Penguins' resident tough guy, has also been an adequate blue-liner on the team's third-pairing. That said, were it not for his ability to fight anyone and everyone in the NHL, he might be a more regular scratch most nights. The Penguins as a team have had issues defending around their own net. As one of the team's more physical defenders, part of that blame falls at Engelland's feet. If the Penguins make a move to acquire another defenseman, Engelland could be out of a job regardless of his fighting ability. Grade - D+

7 - Paul Martin, D - (22 games, 4 goals, 11 assists, 15 points) - Easily the most improved member of the Penguins, Martin has rebounded after a rotten 2011-12 season to become one of the team's most valuable players this campaign. While never possessing a skill set quite as flashy as someone like Letang, Martin simply makes the right play in nearly every situation on the ice. Being paired with the physical Brooks Orpik has aided his rebound but a little extra muscle and confidence have been the biggest contributors to Martin's resurgence. A few mistakes still creep into Martin's game but those errors are far, far rarer than they were last season. Grade - A-

41 - Robert Bortuzzo, D (11 games, 1 goal, 1 assist,, 2 points) - As the team's largest player at 6-foot-4 and 215 pounds, Bortuzzo has seen semi-regular work anytime the Penguins face an opponent with a physical edge. Primarily a safe, reliable shutdown type of defender, he showed good judgement in situations which required a simple play such as a chip up ice. That said, the return of Eaton seems to have eliminated any chance Bortuzzo will have at seeing a spot in the lineup short of injury. With Bortuzzo being waiver eligible, the Penguins' options are limited in how they can move him off the roster if they choose to do so. Grade - C

44 - Brooks Orpik, D - (24 games, 0 goals, 5 assists, 5 points) - Being paired with Martin most of the season and nearly seven months of downtime seemed to rejuvenate Orpik in the early part of the season. A physical edge had returned to his game and his skating seemed improved. Lately, positioning around the net has seemed to be an issue for Orpik, particularly on the penalty kill, as the Penguins have allowed plenty of goals from near the blue paint. Orpik must retain the form he showed in the first month of the season for this team to correct this issue. Grade - C+

47 - Simon Despres (right), D - (17 games, 2 goals, 4 assists, 6 points) - One of the team's best prospects, Despres remains a question mark not so much fo his play but for how the coaching staff has used him. Seeing ice time primarily on the team's third pairing with Engelland, Despres did have a brief run with Letang on the top pairing while Niskanen nursed an injury. Despres showed a deft offensive touch during his time with Letang and has displayed a physical edge at times regardless of his place in the lineup. Dan Bylsma has cited inconsistency with Despres as reason for making him a healthy scratch on occasion but the fact remains that the team is 13-2 when he plays and just 3-4 when he doesn't. Grade - B-

58 - Kris Letang, D - (21 games, 3 goals, 19 assists, 22 points) - Perhaps the most talented defenseman in the NHL, Letang has looked like a Norris Trophy candidate more often than not this season. But flashes of poor judgement are still present. An occasional pinch or a lazy turnover will hurt the team in critical junctures. That said, the good far outweighs the bad. Letang possesses a unique blend of skating, physical play and offensive touch few blue-liners in the NHL can claim. Grade B+

Goaltenders

29 - Marc-Andre Fleury, G - (11-5-0, 2.64 GAA, .905 SV%) - If any remnants of the meltdown Fleury experienced in last season's playoffs remain, they have rarely made an appearance this season. An occasional squeaky goal still gets by him but nothing anyone would consider a killer in terms of his team winning or losing a game. His rebound control has been sharp this season. An early hook in Thursday's game in Philadelphia was certainly reason for concern but Fleury has had to be sharp this season, especially as of late, with his team's defense still remaining a question mark. Grade B

92 - Tomas Vokoun (right), G - (5-3-0, 3.32 GAA, .890 SV%) - Expected to be a regular in the lineup this season, Vokoun had a very strong start but has struggled as of late. Racing out to a 3-1-0 start and recording the team's only shutout in his first five games of the season, Vokoun has mostly struggled in his past five games going 2-2-0. He seemed to rebound by replacing Fleury Thursday at Philadelphia and leading the team to a win. The coaches still seem confident in Vokoun and the plan to use him for approximately 20 games this season in order to keep Fleury fresh still appears to be in place. Grade - C

(Photos: Dupuis-Bruce Bennett/Getty Images; Sutter, Crosby and Vokoun-Vincent Pugliese/Getty Images; Bennett-Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press; Kennedy-Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images; Engelland-Justin K. Aller/Getty Images; Despres-Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

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