Remember 2008 when Evgeni Malkin posted 46 points during Crosby’s 27 game absence? How about when he tallied 47 goals, or when he won the Art Ross trophy with 113 points? Those memories are quickly fading with each lackluster performance. So why is he struggling, and will he return to form?
The consensus is that Geno’s slump may be attributed to head coach Dan Bylsma, specifically his insistence that his star Russian forward play wing. During his past 108 regular season games, Malkin has recorded only 43 goals and has failed to post a streak resembling the one that highlighted his first two NHL seasons.
Blaming his poor play on a position change seems unreasonable though. Two seasons ago Malkin would have buried a wide open chance from the slot, but against the Bruins on Saturday afternoon he pulled his best Illya Kovalchuk impression. Few will argue that a gaffe such as that is a result of playing wing. In fact, the superstar’s offensive chances should increase steadily as a result of the switch. The move to wing relieves Malkin from a heavy defensive responsibility and, in theory, allows him to be featured as a scorer instead of a playmaker. Obviously, a key part of the positional change relies on the skill of the new center to take pressure away from Malkin — just one more reason Jordan Staal’s absence hurt the Penguins.
Admittedly, the 2010 Olympian has split time between center and wing and has dealt with a carousel of linemates this season. A look at his shot totals, however, will show that he is averaging 4.3 blasts per game — a full shot more per game than he averaged during the 2007-08 season when he scored 47 goals. While Malkin is still generating offense on a frequent basis, his 8.5% clip shows that his shot is as inaccurate as ever. Of the 18 players who have tallied more than 155 shots this season, only three sport a lower shooting percentage than Malkin. Despite flashes this year, (see two powerplay goals at Philadelphia) his shot is simply not as consistent as it has been in prior seasons.
The powerplay has also been a source of agony. Entering this season Malkin had never finished worse than 18th in powerplay points. Today Geno sits outside the top 40 in powerplay scoring with only 14 man advantage points.
Formerly regarded as a shoot-first-pass-second style of player, Malkin has recently transformed his game to become a shoot-first-shoot-second type of player. Malkin has always been a gifted passer but rarely received proper acknowledgment of his play-making ability. This season his passing touch has deserted him. His powerplay assist to Kris Letang in a loss to Boston last Monday was a rare sight. Again, linemates do factor into this argument, but at some point no. 71 must trust his teammates to finish. Is it a coincidence that Malkin’s common defensive partners of Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek have combine for zero even strength goals?
The above problems have all contributed to Malkin’s statistical drop, but each of these factors point to one larger issue — his inability to adapt. His game has changed very little since entering the NHL as a rookie in 2006. Before we judge Geno too harshly, it’s worth examining the last four scoring champions. With one notable exception, they’ve followed a similar path.
Thanks to a staggering 65 goals in the 2007-08 season, Alexander Ovechkin won the scoring title with 112 points. Headlined by only 15 goals through 46 games this year, however, OV’s production in both points and goals has dropped each season since his Art Ross campaign. What changed? For one, defenders are stepping up on the former league MVP and not allowing him to use them as a screen. Opponents are also tightening their backcheck, stripping Ovechkin of time and space. By forcing him to abandon his feared wrist shot, opponents have largely neutralized the Russian forward this season. The ‘Great 8′ has not adjusted and, as a result, is on pace for his lowest point total ever.
Last year’s Art Ross winner, Henrik Sedin, won the award with only 29 goals. Even with four more games played, Sedin’s 9 goals this year have him sitting 11 points behind Crosby for the scoring lead. Less than a year after his finest frame as a professional, Sedin’s impact is being felt less by Western Conference foes. Do not expect the Swedish twin to win another scoring title until he becomes a legitimate scoring threat.
Of the last four scoring champions, only one has transformed his game enough to become even more dangerous. Recognized as set-up man and dirty goal scorer early in his career, Sidney Crosby has now become the most potent offensive player in the game. He has developed his long range shot as well as his deflection skills to become not only the best passer in the NHL but possibly the best scorer as well. After finishing with 84 assists in 2006-07, Crosby won the Rocket Richard trophy as the league’s top goal scorer last season. Crosby is the only player over the last decade to both tally 80+ assists in a season and lead the league in goals in a season. He has adapted his game and is the best player on earth because of it.
Finally, consider Malkin’s Art Ross winning season. In 2008-09 he scored 113 points during the regular season. As with Ovechkin, Malkin also posted career lows in goals and points since his scoring title. It’s taken Geno a full 1.5 seasons to match the 113 he put up that year. Defenders are keeping space between themselves and Malkin, forcing him into the backcheck or going wide around them. Betraying a sense of frustration and impatience, the Penguins forward consistently skates into crowds or tries one move too many in a desperate attempt to ignite himself and his team.
There is a solution to Malkin’s problems, though, and it’s a simple one: become more dynamic.
Geno rarely scores a dirty goal or sets up his point men, and, speaking of the point, when was the last time Malkin deflected a slap shot from the blueline? Adjustments like these would go a long way toward providing Geno the most valuable asset in hockey: unpredictability. The NHL is too good now for players to never change their game. Just ask Ovechkin, Sedin, or even Steven Stamkos. The Tampa Bay Lightning power-play sniper has recorded only four man-advantage goals since November 20. Think teams are learning how to defend him?
The bottom line is that Malkin is still a defensive force and has the skill to score anytime he touches the puck. Talent-wise, there is no better player on the Penguins. Until he adapts his game, however, and becomes a more versatile, intelligent player he will continue to struggle.