The Hottest and Coldest Pittsburgh Penguins Right Now

Steve Rodenbaugh@rodeyslContributor IIIJanuary 31, 2014

The Hottest and Coldest Pittsburgh Penguins Right Now

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    Just as any NHL season has its ups and downs, so too does a team's roster with some players warming up as some are cooling off.

    Sitting atop the Metropolitan Division with a double-digit lead, the Pens seem like a team firing on all cylinders, but a closer look tells a different story.

    As most of the country looks to warm up from subzero temperatures, let's look at who are the hottest and coldest Pittsburgh Penguins right now.

Honorable Mention: Sidney Crosby

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    As the central figure for the Penguins, both on and off the ice, Sidney Crosby continues to lead the league in points and is the runaway favorite so far to win the Hart Trophy as the NHL's MVP.

    However, his performance is January has been mixed.

    While his 15 points in January would be season highs for almost any other player in the league, Crosby's five goals match his season lows so far in the 2013-14 season, and his five power-play points and 33 shots on goal are also season lows.

    Given his superior overall performance this season, it's hard to label a player who is still averaging better than a point per game as cold.

    Therefore, it seems appropriate to simply say that, while January has been his worst month so far, he's still outperforming most if not all of the rest of the NHL.

Cold: Brooks Orpik

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    After receiving a vicious and undeserved cheap shot from Shawn Thornton on December 7 in Boston, no one would have faulted Brooks Orpik for having a down month.

    As it turns out, however, his performance in December was actually better than it’s been in January.

    Having been forced into a bigger role by the absence of Paul Martin, Orpik has struggled defensively at times and is a season-worst minus-four so far in January despite a reduction in his average ice time and the Pens' 8-3 record in the new year.

    Playing in the final year of his contract, Orpik has already been the subject of trade rumors and speculation.

    Couple those with concerns about potential lingering effects from the being knocked out in Boston and it's clear he needs a strong Olympic performance and finish to the season to put to rest the rumblings that he might not be the player he used to be.

Hot: Matt Niskanen

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    Only twice in the past 10 seasons has a defenseman led the league in plus-minus, and that's what makes Matt Niskanen's performance (a league-leading plus-29 in 53 games) so remarkable.

    Facing free agency this summer and having been the topic of trade rumors last year, Niskanen began the season on the third defensive pairing and under a cloud of uncertainty.

    Since then, however, he has been a point-per-game performer in January and, at times, has been the Pens' best defenseman.

    Ironically, Niskanen's strong play recently might actually earn him a ticket out of Pittsburgh via trade, as he figures to command a hefty raise this summer and the Pens may elect to get something in return instead of letting him walk away in free agency.

Cold: Simon Despres

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    Blessed with size, skill and mobility, Simon Despres should have become a fixture at the NHL level by now. Unfortunately, that hasn't happened.

    Drafted in the first round of the 2009 NHL entry draft, Despres seemed to be a great fit for an organization that prizes offensively capable defensemen.

    However, Despres has not been able to stay off the bench or out of the minors and, despite a strong showing in his first action of the season, has struggled as of late, has no points and is a minus-four in his last five games.

    Because of his struggles, Despres hasn't seen action at the NHL level since January 7 and seems to have fallen behind fellow blue-line prospects Brian Dumoulin, Scott Harrington and Philip Samuelsson and will be waiver-eligible next season.

    With needs to be addressed on the offensive side, the Pens may decide Despres is more valuable in a trade than on the ice and look to move him at the deadline.

Hot: Evgeni Malkin

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    Since the start of the 2012-13 season, Penguins fans have been wondering if Evgeni Malkin is ever going to get back to his goal-scoring pace from his Art Ross Trophy days.

    While his performance has not approached that level yet, he has shown signs of rediscovering his 50-goal scoring touch, and his five goals in January are his biggest output in any month since he netted 12 goals in March 2012.

    Having missed 11 of the Pens' 54 games so far in 2013-14, Malkin has had to fight through nagging injuries in addition to dealing with inconsistent play and injuries to his linemates.

    Despite these obstacles, Malkin is back to averaging better than a point per game and now has three straight months with a shooting percentage over 10 percent after struggling last season with just a 9.1 percent success rate.

Cold: Kris Letang

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    While his four goals in January lead all Penguins defensemen and he has seven points in his last 10 games, Kris Letang has continued to struggle at even strength with only three of those coming during five-on-five situations.

    Having signed an eight-year, $58 million contract this past offseason, Letang seemed destined to take the next step in his development.

    Unfortunately, that hasn't happened yet, and he has yet to register a positive plus-minus rating in any month and is now a minus-six for the season.

    While Letang's offensive and skating skills have never been in question, his tendency to force the play and turn the puck over was exploited by the Bruins in last year's Eastern Conference Final and must be addressed if the Pens are to go deeper into the playoffs this season.

Hot: Jussi Jokinen

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    While the upcoming Olympic break can't come soon enough for some Penguins, for Jussi Jokinen, it couldn't come at a worse time.

    After starting off the season strong with six goals and two assists in October, Jokinen's numbers dropped off as he was shuffled up and down the lineup, and he totaled just three goals in November and December combined.

    After being reunited with Evgeni Malkin and James Neal on the second line, Jokinen has bounced back and leads the Pens in goals in January with six, nearly doubling his season total.

    Hopefully for the Pens, Jokinen can continue his hot streak through the Olympics and not suffer the same drop-off at the end of winter as he had during the beginning.