The decision regarding Evgeni Malkin’s Pittsburgh Penguins future does not belong to the organization or General Manager Jim Rutherford. The decision regarding the path and trajectory of Malkin’s future in Pittsburgh is solely up to Evgeni Malkin.
Malkin will control his future, not just because of his ironclad no-trade-clause but because he must choose to fit with the Pittsburgh Penguins or continue about the insolent course he charted this season with Phil Kessel and without deference to head coach Mike Sullivan. The two paths are mutually exclusive, for his sake and the team’s sake.
Malkin has played 852 games in the NHL, all with the Penguins. He has 1002 points including 391 goals. It has already been a storied career including three Stanley Cups, a Conn Smythe trophy, a Calder Trophy, a Hart, a Ted Lindsey award and a couple of Art Ross trophies. But those do not exempt Malkin from future responsibilities.
Malkin’s parting words from the 2018-19 season came immediately after the Penguins were bounced in four games by the New York Islanders. Headline material followed, such as “We have to understand … we’re not champions anymore,” and “No one respects us.”
Rutherford boldly declared the Penguins never became a team this season.
Both Rutherford and Malkin were absolutely correct. However, Malkin’s culpability for those negative situations is high. Sidney Crosby owned his level play or did what was necessary to succeed all season. Third line center Nick Bjugstad became a dominant center in the trenches for the Penguins; he too did what was required to the best of his ability. Yet Malkin and linemates seemed to struggle with that concept for most of the season.
Is it any wonder Malkin and frequent compadre Kessel were frustrated or going through Sahara-like dry spells? The game tightened up but the pair thought they could skate around and through it with big spaces between them because that used to work.
Malkin reportedly thought he could fire back at the coach who called out his stubborn or selfish play.
One scene which PHN detailed via Twitter during Game 4 seems even more relevant now. As the Penguins were again sputtering after gaining a lead and the Penguins second line was again was derelict in their defensive duties, Sullivan was yelling towards the end of the Penguins bench in Malkin’s direction, as Malkin sat with his head down, without reaction.
Any parent of a frustrating teenager (or older) who is old enough to be in control of their own life but not old enough to be out of the house knows that conversation. Do this and you will be successful! You must do this! Why aren’t you doing this?!
Perhaps many of you are closer to the receiving end than the giving end. You’ll get there someday and know that frustration.
The Penguins record without Malkin in crucial games in March is less important than how well they played. The Penguins were
5-1-3 4-2-2 and if not for a few late game mistakes against teams with an empty net and an extra attacker, they would have earned a couple of more wins in the most crucial stretch of the season.
The style of play changed for the worse as did the team attitude when the Penguins got a full roster again.
That just can’t happen.
The Penguins were a better team when they were missing key players including Malkin and defenseman Kris Letang. The Penguins were a better team when they were worried about missing the playoffs. And the Penguins were a better team in those moments when they chose to be.
Malkin can be a Penguin for life but not on bad terms. He must adopt the Penguins philosophy, whatever it is in any given moment. He cannot win or be happy if he tries to force the Penguins to live with him doing things his way. That’s not how hockey or professional sports work anymore, especially when one player’s way is no longer successful.
So, Malkin has a great choice: Make the Penguins better by accepting the team concept and bringing his immense skills to it, or make the Penguins better by removing himself. There just isn’t a viable third option anymore but contractually and spiritually, it’s Malkin’s call.
Edit: The original story listed the Penguins record in March and April without Malkin as 5-1-3, but the record was 4-2-2.