You do not have to look very far to figure out who the Pittsburgh Penguins’ early season MVP is this season. It is starting goaltender Tristan Jarry, and that might be one of the more surprising developments of the 2021-22 season across the league.
Despite dealing with an extensive list of injuries this season to key players — a list that continued to grow on Wednesday with the news that top scorer Jake Guentzel will be sidelined on a week-to-week basis — the Penguins still find themselves in a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference and are 7-2-1 over their past 10 games.
Jarry has been one of the driving forces behind all of that. The surprising part is Jarry entered the season as a complete wild card in goal following a sluggish end to the 2020-21 regular season and a completely disastrous playoff performance against the New York Islanders, resulting in the team’s third consecutive First Round exit. Goaltending, as it tends to do come playoff time, played the biggest role in that result. On one side, Islanders goalie Ilya Sorokin stopped pretty much everything that was thrown at him. Jarry could seemingly stop nothing. That performance led to speculation that the Penguins could — or perhaps should — significantly address the position in the offseason.
After all, there were several high profile goalies available and many that ended up changing teams. Despite Jarry’s playoff performance, the Penguins showed no real desire to get involved in any of it and instead doubled down on Jarry and put their faith on him rebounding.
General manager Ron Hextall repeatedly said throughout the offseason that he believed Jarry would learn from the experience and disappointment of the postseason and successfully bounce back, especially with the assistance of new goalie coach Andy Chiodo. Here we are now a quarter of the way through the season, and Jarry has been everything the Penguins could have hoped he would be and more.
As of Thursday he owns an 11-5-4 record with a .934 save percentage that is fourth among all goalies with at least 10 starts, and a .934 even-strength save percentage that is sixth in the league. He has also been a key cog in the Penguins’ penalty kill that has been the absolute best in the league this season, stopping 53 of the 56 shots he has faced while shorthanded. Anaheim Ducks goalie John Gibson (82 saves on 86 shots) is the only goalie in the league that has been better while shorthanded. He also has one of the league’s best “high-danger” save percentages (via Natural Stat Trick).
The only flaw in Jarry’s game so far this season was some early season shootout struggles that cost the Penguins a couple of points in the standings. His past two performances there against Florida and Calgary have been great.
So now the question becomes whether or not he can sustain this early season success.
Part of what made Jarry such a wild card at the start of the season is that we have seen flashes of outstanding play and concerning play.
He was so good at the start of the 2019-20 season that he earned an All-Star game berth for the 2020 game in St. Louis. His play dramatically tailed off in the second half of that season, however. It was a similar story a year ago where he excelled through the middle part of the season, struggled down the stretch, and then had the bottom fall out in the playoffs.
So now here we are again, a little over a quarter of the way through the season, with Jarry playing at an All-Star level. When healthy the Penguins have a pretty solid roster that has better depth than it is given credit for. Guentzel and Bryan Rust will eventually be back, an Evgeni Malkin return is lurking, and they are one of the league’s better teams when it comes to limiting expected goals and scoring chances against. There is a lot to like here. With all of that in place they do not need Jarry to always be a game-stealer. They just need him to not lose games. If he can avoid the second half slides that hurt him the past two seasons, the Penguins could still have a chance to do something meaningful in the playoffs.
In the short-term, his early season dominance has helped get them through a rough start on the injury front. That might be a big reason they still have that chance in the second half of the season.
Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.