The Pittsburgh Hockey Now story yesterday which led with the Florida Panthers interest in Evgeni Malkin was as carefully worded as this writer is capable. Not only did we have to omit critical phrases and direct quotes to protect at least one source, but we also had to describe the multi-faceted situation which simultaneously involves external discussions and the Pittsburgh Penguins internal debates. Right now it seems there are as many moving parts as the Game of Thrones opening sequence.
The Penguins have to make a decision. Malkin has to make a decision. The Penguins decision has to fit Malkin’s decisions and Malkin’s decision–despite a no-movement clause–are somewhat dependent on the Penguins decisions. Oh, and then the Penguins may have to deal with other teams and their choices, too.
For context, let’s examine the Penguins 2018 summer.
In full disclosure, we believe there was a split decision last summer on Phil Kessel’s future, and there was some intense debate on multiple levels of the organization leading up to the draft. GM Jim Rutherford tamped down expectations, and it did not appear as if he was ever close to a Kessel trade. You can guess on which side he fell.
This offseason, there are different schools of thought on Malkin, but there also seems to be a resignation and even a sullen agreement among Penguins decision makers, which was missing last season. This time, we’re told Rutherford is not on the player’s side.
That still does not guarantee a Malkin trade, but it does set the table. By all accounts, public and private, Rutherford is not a happy camper with his team and especially his core group. He tried to send a message by dealing the popular Carl Hagelin in November. Instead, a couple of players resisted.
He sent more messages publicly, and yet they didn’t seem to register in some locker stalls.
My opinion is firm. The Malkin tenure can be saved and every effort should be made, but he must want it and meet the Penguins at least halfway, if not more. He can’t offer a lukewarm agreement, but instead, he must have a sincere desire to adopt the Penguins direction. He’s 33-years-old. Taking over a game with individual effort and being an army of one doesn’t work anymore. The game is too fast and too structured to try cute plays at the blue line.
Those extra efforts at the blue line yield more goals against than for. The extra effort Malkin needs to show is again coming back into his own zone like it matters because it does. On every shift.
If he does not commit to that, unfortunately, the team is better off without a pillar of this generation.
As those of you who watch our live YouTube chats also know, I also firmly believe the removal of Phil Kessel will help Malkin. Malkin played a linear game with Hagelin and Patric Hornqvist in 2017-18. They were statistically dominant on every level including goals. Malkin can be again surrounded by players who buy-in to the system instead of a player who feeds his worst instincts.
Kessel didn’t work with Malkin, Brassard, or Bjugstad. He had a spurt with Crosby but that too quickly faded. Rather than an ax, Rutherford should first use a scalpel.
For further context, let’s examine 2015.
Remember the closed-door meeting in New Jersey on Nov. 17, 2015? I sure do. I saved the game sheet because I thought it was the end of the Penguins core. Instead, it turned into a championship rebirth weeks later when Mike Sullivan was hired. Details of that all-out November family spat have long been forgotten in the shadow of two Stanley Cups, but it was significant.
At that moment, Sidney Crosby was disillusioned with head coach Mike Johnston’s system, but he rigidly played it. His frustration level was boiling. Malkin was not as frustrated because he ignored the directions and played to his own system.
Malkin had no problem choosing his way over the coach’s way then, and he did so in 2018-19, too. He was probably correct then. Certainly wrong now. Coaches can live with players who break scheme when they’re great. When the results become not so great, there are problems.
So, Malkin’s reported insubordination complicates this matter, too. Sometimes feelings can linger. Sullivan smoothed everything last summer with Kessel, and the Malkin-Kessel line had a rocket start. But they both almost reflexively choose their loose style of play over honest hockey.
Malkin has to show he can follow the directives of the team. Sorry, some allowances can be made for a player with Malkin’s skill level and skill set, but no exceptions can be made.
A Malkin trade should not occur to shake things up. It must only occur as a last resort. Malkin has earned that right to suffer through ups and downs…if he is willing to accept his role with the Pittsburgh Penguins. But he must commit to that. No exceptions.