Not many NHL players possess the talent that Evgeni Malkin does. Most will even argue that teammate Sidney Crosby falls short of the Russian superstar in terms of raw ability. After two consecutive seasons of statistical disappointment though, many wonder when Malkin will return to the elite level he once played at.
Perhaps the more appropriate question is if Malkin will return to his Art-Ross-winning form.
Assuming Geno continues to struggle, the Penguins would be wise to at least consider a trade. The last year of his contract is 2013-14–one year after Crosby and Jordan Staal are set to become free agents. Kris Letang’s contract also expires in 2013-14 while Paul Martin, Zbynek Michalek and Marc-Andre Fleury are up in 2014-15. Pittsburgh will not have enough money to retain all of those players–and they may not want to if Malkin keeps up his current pace.
Here is the bottom line: Malkin has this season to get back on track. Time expires after the 2011-12 campaign.
As one of the most skilled players in the NHL, there is no reason to think Geno won’t regain form. Unlike some confusing players in his skill range–Alex Semin, Danny Heatley, Ilya Kovalchuk–Malkin has the motivation to become a better player. Some may confuse his foolish play with an attitude of apathy. That philosophy, however, is short-sighted.
Malkin’s game has never been mistaken for an intelligent one. He takes senseless penalties, is careless in the neutral zone and consistently makes poor decisions on the powerplay.
If there is a plus in the previous paragraph, it is that he is the same exact player now as he was when he won the NHL scoring title.
There is a common misconception that Geno has struggled because of the system that Dan Bylsma has implemented. The system—while not flattering to Malkin’s style—is not the problem. Many also believe that a switch to wing and a lack of superb linemates have contributed to his two-season slump. Intriguing points, and certainly important factors, but one issue has hindered 25-year-old more than any other: injuries.
Everything above is a contributing factor to Malkin’s poor one-point-per-game average over the last two seasons. Another reason for the low output is his inability to adapt. I wrote an article on the problem this past season:
“His game has changed very little since entering the NHL as a rookie in 2006.
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 points he put up that year. Defenders are keeping space between themselves and Malkin, forcing him into the backcheck or going wide around them. 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: 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.”
I find it hard to believe that Geno will change his style of play. He has no history suggesting a radical turnaround. This means that he must overcome the other hindrances in his game.
As far as his dependency on linemates, the concern is a legitimate one. Some feel that since he is paid the same salary as Sidney Crosby, he should produce the same point totals under the same circumstances. There are two flaws to this argument:
- Malkin is worth $8.7 million per year. Crosby is worth much more. Sid took a discount so players like Geno could make the maximum amount possible. Crosby is a better player than Geno and Malkin should not be held to the same standard–regardless of salary.
- The two players differ tremendously in style. Malkin is a more of a shooter and neutral-zone puck-position player. Because of these traits, he relies more on linemates to help in the offensive zone. He has not had those linemates as of late.
There is also a chance that Jordan Staal will center the second unit with Malkin playing on the wing. Staal is an excellent offensive zone player but is not a threat to take possession time away from Malkin. No. 71 needs the puck. He is not great along the boards or down low–that is where Staal fits–but he utilizes the high zone perhaps better than any forward in hockey.
Another point of criticism has been Malkin’s role as a winger.
Shifting to a position other than center is not to blame for his recent shaky seasons and it will not hold him back in the future. There may be a slightly higher level of comfort at the center position for the Russian superstar, but the move to wing is not a hard transition to master. It affords him more space, more time to work his neutral zone magic and less defensive zone responsibilities.
Also, playing on a line with Staal would still allow him to be the primary puck-handler in almost all situations. Basically, Malkin can still assume the role of center in nearly every facet of the game. Faceoffs, defensive play, and occasionally offensive play below the goal line would be the only effected areas.
Complaints are few and far between when Malkin plays wing on a line with Crosby. He seems to adapt to the position well in those situations. A move to wing with Staal at center would put even less restrictions on Malkin than playing on Sid’s wing.
Lastly, the complaint that is most off-base is the one that criticizes Bylsma’s system.
The 2010-11 Jack Adams Award winner’s style is an aggressive offensive zone attack that features defensemen pinching and forwards replacing them. As a result, more offensive zone possession ensues. As discussed above, Malkin thrives more on the open play in the center of the ice. Still, his large frame and soft hands make him an effective zone player. If anything, Bylsma’s system allows for more offensive opportunities and more chances for Malkin to deliver his big blast from high in the zone.
Just to cement the fact that Malkin has not struggled as a result of the system, look at his numbers from the first season it was implemented:
- In 2008-09 Geno averaged 1.42 points-per-game and .42 goals-per-game under Michel Therrien. When Bylsma replaced Therrien with 25 games left, Malkin’s ppg only dropped by .1 while his goals per game slightly increased.
- During that season’s run to the Stanley Cup Finals, Malkin bested his regular season averages to produce 1.5 ppg and .58 gpg. Bylsma’s system had been fully implemented during those 36 playoff games.
These statistics should make it clear that the Penguins style is not a major factor in Geno’s recent lack of production.
That leaves just one factor.
Malkin has played in only 110 of the Penguins last 164 regular season games. He experienced chronic left knee problems over the past two seasons before tearing his right ACL in a game against Buffalo in February. It was well documented that Geno had struggled with his left knee for multiple months before his season-ending injury:
“While injuries might be the most common explanation, the simple truth is that players seldom have the luxury of being at their physical peak for extended periods.
‘Part of playing in the National Hockey League is that you’re rarely at 100 percent,’ Bylsma said. ‘Dealing with that and playing your best, given those circumstances, is a challenge a lot of players go through on a yearly basis. That’s been a challenge for [Malkin].’
Even before the knee injury, Malkin dealt with a lingering shoulder injury. It cost him multiple games in 2009-10 and was a problem throughout the season. He was also held out for an extended period of time after taking a Kris Letang shot off the right foot late in the season.
Injuries to both knees, a shoulder, and a foot is enough to considerably slow any player in the NHL. Yet, Malkin still averaged more than a point-per-game over the past two seasons.
For the first time in two years Malkin will be healthy. He will likely skate with the best linemates he has ever had and his off-season workout regiment suggests that he is primed for a big year. Add in power-play specialist Steve Sullivan, and Malkin’s man-advantage points are sure to increase.
All signs point towards Geno once again producing at a 100 point pace.