One Calder Trophy as rookie of the year. Two scoring titles. One MVP award in the regular season, and another for a playoff run that ended with a Stanley Cup.
A quick glance at these credentials and it should be clear we’re discussing one of the premier players in the sport, not only presently, but all-time. That is certainly the context in which Evgeni Malkin should be discussed, as the Pittsburgh Penguins superstar has been nothing short of phenomenal throughout his decade in the NHL. And yet, somehow, Malkin still often draws more criticism than praise from the hockey community.
Such has been the case over the last few years, as many in the media have laid down their own ill-crafted list of reasons for trading the veteran centreman, and others continue to pin the Penguins’ woes on their Russian star, despite him consistently performing at a high level. Hockey Night in Canada’s Don Cherry is the latest in this line of critics, as the longtime commentator offered the following thoughts on Pittsburgh’s struggles earlier this season:
“I don’t think [Evgeni] Malkin was playing like Malkin. When you get a superstar like that and he’s not going, then you’re in trouble. I don’t care what the rest of the guys are doing. He seems to be pulling out of it now. He seems to be interested now. Ever since he blasted the team, he picked it up. I guess he figured he himself better get going, too. I think the big problem there was Malkin”
Cherry’s comments came on December 10th, by which point Malkin had already racked up 12 goals and 25 points in only 27 games while reigning unequivocally as Pittsburgh’s best player through the season’s early goings. That total wasn’t simply the result of a December scoring binge either – Malkin started the season off with 10 points in 10 games, and has looked dominant since game one.
Pittsburgh has certainly had their issues this season, but pinning the blame on Malkin figures to be a tough sell – especially with the team’s defense looking decidedly lacklustre, and the club having lost key contributors like Marc-Andre Fleury and Kris Letang to injury already. And then of course there’s the issue of Sidney Crosby still struggling to find his game as we approach the halfway point of the 2015-16 season.
For most in the hockey world, blaming Pittsburgh’s subpar results on Malkin would likely seem ridiculous, given the above facts. However, that seems more a function of the fact that he’s been netting highlight reel goals as of late, rather than him having truly earned the respect he deserves.
It was merely a couple months ago that seemingly every sports publication waded into the conversation of a potential Malkin trade, with the general consensus seeming to sway in the direction of shipping the star centreman out of town.
But time has given some much-needed perspective to those arguments, as Malkin is arguably in the midst of his finest season since 2011-12, when he netted 50 goals and 109 points to win his second Art Ross Trophy. With 17 goals tallied so far – the sixth-most in the league – Malkin is currently on pace to finish with over 40 goals for the third time in his career. In fact, his stat line currently sits exactly in line with another Russian superstar, Alex Ovechkin, who has racked up an identical 17 goals and 15 assists thus far this season.
Malkin’s exceptional 2015-16 numbers have also come with the Penguins’ powerplay floundering at 26th in the league. That’s a key point to consider, as man-advantage production plays a key role in Malkin’s overall performance – he ranks third in the league in powerplay points accumulated over the last decade, trailing only Ovechkin and teammate Sidney Crosby over that span. Thus, Malkin seemingly has another level he can hit if the Penguins are able to right the ship and round their powerplay back into form.
Despite Malkin’s performance thus far, the story out of Pittsburgh has most often been that of Crosby’s struggles. And rightfully so, as the Canadian pivot’s rocky start has certainly been notable, even if it doesn’t actually signal anything about the deterioration of his abilities. But while the captain’s start his been subpar, it hasn’t played as key a role in Pittsburgh’s success or failure as some think, because to this point the 2015-16 Penguins have very much been Malkin’s club.
That much was made clear when former head coach Mike Johnston elected to move the Penguins’ marquee offseason acquisition, Phil Kessel, off of Crosby’s wing and onto Malkin’s alongside another of the club’s most talented wingers, David Perron.
While Malkin, Kessel, and Perron continued to wreak havoc, Crosby skated with a continuously changing group of lesser players including Chris Kunitz, Beau Bennett, and Conor Sheary. The captain’s displeasure wasn’t hard to spot, as it seemed the Penguins had opted to shift their focus onto their other franchise player after years of little success with Crosby skating alongside the team’s best options on the wing.
But the issue has been more than just Malkin getting the better line combination assignment. Review the two centres’ play during any 60-minute stretch this season, and Malkin has simply looked like the better player so far – with much of that higher level stemming simply from him having more confidence and less frustration at the moment.
It’s no mystery that Pittsburgh’s success relies on having both of their marquee stars firing on all cylinders however, and new head coach Mike Sullivan seems to be doing his best to make this happen by balancing out the team’s forward lines. Regardless of whether or not Crosby fully recovers the form he’s shown for much of his career, it seems Pittsburgh certainly still has enough firepower to find success with Malkin at the helm, and the veteran centre certainly seems to be the one at the helm at the moment.