Last season was by no accounts a satisfying or acceptable for Evgeni Malkin. The baseline statistics were good but the mood and the feeling that he did not play well was nearly unanimous inside the organization. The Pittsburgh Penguins didn’t get enough from Malkin and for the first time in his career, his name genuinely appeared in the trade rumor mill. Teams called and the Penguins listened before realizing they still have Evgeni Malkin.
Welcome to the first of a running series over the next few weeks as we prepare for training camp. Each day, PHN will project and preview Penguins players for the upcoming season.
The trade talks were a wakeup call for both sides. Like scrolling through Tinder despite being in a relationship. Before long, both sides realized they were better off with each other than without. The Penguins management contingent which traveled to the World Championships in May, and discussed the matters with Malkin, came home satisfied they had a partner who was all-in.
And certainly not someone who will cause the same fuss going forward…or hold out until he can wear an old helmet.
2019-20 will be a telling year for Malkin and the Penguins. Was the decline last season a harbinger of things to come or a perfect storm of bad chemistry, frustration, and adjustment?
The Pittsburgh Penguins will be a different team this season. They will play the same system but likely have a different style doing it; a gritty, grinding style. They will lack the offensive plumage which has largely been their identity since…Ronald Reagan was President (Sure, there were the Kevin Constantine years, and the Generation Next years, but you get the point). Brandon Tanev is a hard-handed grinder and was the Penguins chief free-agent acquisition. That’s the indicator.
Alex Galchenyuk, 25, arrived via the Phil Kessel trade but PHN has been told by a reliable source the Penguins currently project him to play on the top line with Sidney Crosby, not with Evgeni Malkin. And Galchenyuk has not yet put all of the pieces of his puzzle together during stops in Montreal and Arizona, either.
And so, Malkin’s upcoming season could be one in which he plays with players who struggle to score goals, and/or Patric Hornqvist. Last season, Malkin lit the lamp only 21 times and scored 72 points in 68 games. However, skipping 1000 words on advanced stats, he was a minus-25. That’s outlandish, brutal, shocking and just plain bad for a player as good as Evgeni Malkin.
However, Malkin is now 33-years-old. While glory is forever, greatness is temporary. We could dive through mountains of underlying advanced stats from last season. Parse the data. Look at potential linemates and shooting percentages, scoring chances and full moons which occur on Tuesdays.
In the end, predicting Evgeni Malkin’s 2019-20 season will come down to gut feeling and belief; belief that he will rocket into the season with a statement to make, or belief that he is on the downslope and significant regression is unavoidable.
From this vantage point, it’s hard to imagine Malkin accepting defeat. He will not need to be pushed to rage at the dying of the light. He will need to accept that his linemates will, to put it bluntly, sometimes be plumbers. It will be Malkin who needs to have the finish and not worry if his linemates can bury the puck.
In this context, Malkin’s play will be judged not solely on bottom-line statistics, but his work in the defensive zone, his availability for outlet passes, his willingness to shoot, and his locker room contributions. Things are easy to praise or judge in the silver reflection of a Stanley Cup. Now, Malkin especially must fight to overcome the coming tide which threatens to pull the Penguins back to mediocrity.
The bet here is that if the Penguins prove to be on the right path, GM Jim Rutherford will soon find someone worthy of riding side-car to Malkin. The Penguins power play will not score as many goals, but not give up nearly as many goals, either.
Pencil Malkin for a higher goal total, a lower assist total because his linemates won’t fill the net at the same percentage of chances, but most importantly expect Malkin to buy-in this season. He had the choice and the chance to pull the ripcord on his Penguins tenure. He chose the Penguins.
PHN Prediction: 30 goals. 45 assists. A positive +/- and much-improved play.