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Penguins Need Malkin to Change; Is He Thinking About the End?



Pittsburgh Penguins, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin

“Please, no,” was Evgeni Malkin’s playful response when someone asked if he could play until he’s 50 years old. The Pittsburgh Penguins honored Jaromir Jagr for several days last week leading to Sunday’s jersey retirement, and if there was a player who most resembled Jagr’s ferocity and strength with the puck, it was Malkin.

Malkin’s answer was partly tongue-in-cheek but also serious. He conceded he’d like to spend more time with family. And that was only the first moment of a short media availability during which Malkin dropped his guard regarding the end of his career.

This season has been a tribulation for the big Russian center. His stat sheet is respectable, with 41 points, including 16 goals, in 52 games, but those numbers are well below Malkin’s career norms and expectations. Worse, the quality of his play has fallen sharply.

He’s coming to grips with the fact that what was once possible might no longer be.

“I’m not playing like 15 years ago. It’s not the same game,” Malkin said recently. “I want to try to change a little bit. I know I’m not flying like before.”

Malkin, 37, made that stunning admission in the midst of scoring just two goals in the last 19 games. It was the first such concession from the Penguins’ core and drilled home the idea that Malkin is confronting his new station.

Malkin and Father Time are engaged in a battle this season, and that means the Penguins need Malkin to change.

Moving Malkin to left wing should not be out of the question. Especially without Jake Guentzel in the Penguins’ lineup until at least March 10 (if ever again).

He’s not the premiere second-line center in the NHL anymore, and he can’t make the plays or embarrass defenders by swooping past with a little hop and stickhandle like he did for most of his 18-year career. He expressed a desire to play smarter hockey within his limitations, but that’s never been his strong suit.

Being stronger, faster, and supremely talented have been his calling cards. But age lessens all.

So, there was a candid moment Saturday, just a flicker, when Malkin talked about Jagr. Play until he’s 50? No, Malkin wants to spend more time with his family. And there was a hesitation, a sentence that was started but wisely incomplete, that alluded to the end.

“I want to spend a little more time with my family and my kids,” Malkin said about his future. “(Jagr) is special. You don’t see many players play to 50. I’m not feeling (good) right now.”

To buttress his need for family, Malkin’s resurgent game in the Penguins’ 5-4 overtime loss to the New York Islanders Tuesday was a breakout of sorts. Perhaps not coincidentally, his family is in town, and his young son Nikita running around the locker room this week.

This writer has a great distaste for driving in the rearview mirror. Nothing good comes from debating whether the Penguins should have traded Malkin to Florida in 2018 or let him walk in 2022. It’s wasted energy.

Yet former GM Ron Hextall’s decision to structure Malkin’s contract as a four-year deal and a 35+ contract may haunt both parties for the next couple of years.

If Malkin’s contract expired after this season, or it wasn’t a 35+, and he could walk away without harming the team, I wonder how much thought he would give to spending more time with family.

“I’d like to play to 50, but who knows?” he said. “Sometimes, you can only play hockey. It’s hard to find a job, do something after hockey with positive vibes, but I don’t want to be coaching, (that’s) for sure.”

Malkin’s laugh and joke belied his genuineness.

How much pushback and how much emotion does Malkin have left? That’s not a criticism of the player; it’s a question about a human who has given everything and now finds himself fighting the effects of age and his team in an uncharted territory that is depressing on its own.

If Malkin had more to give, now would be the time. More games like Tuesday’s are what the team desperately needs. In days past, now would be the moment Malkin grabbed the puck, raced end to end, bullied defenders with speed and a lowered shoulder, or a quick flick of his stick to stare down a goalie who already knew the eventual result.

Well, time slips away and leaves you with nothing, mister.

It was an emotional moment last season in Chicago when Nikita announced the starting lineup in the locker room prior to Malkin’s 1,000th game, and it would be understandable, if not expected, that Malkin would like to be with his family sooner than later.

Editor’s Note: The original version of the story listed Tampa Bay instead of Chicago for Malkin’s 1000th game.

It surely sounds as if Malkin is staring at the end as the game becomes more difficult, but he must perform at least one more task as a core member of the Pittsburgh Penguins: He must change.

Malkin and his coaches will determine whether that change is merely a smarter game from the middle or if he could rejuvenate his season with time on the wing beside Crosby, Lars Eller, or a yet-to-be-acquired center.

One day, Malkin will have his jersey raised to the rafters, too. But not yet.