There have been few if any better Russian players in NHL history than Evgeni Malkin. The Pittsburgh Penguins big center has distinguished himself with 1006 points in 857 games, and a list of trophies including three Stanley Cups, a pair of Art Ross trophies and a Hart Trophy. Malkin has also added more than a few gray hairs to coaches with his sometimes high risk, high reward play.
Things reached a tipping point last season as Malkin’s turnovers mounted, but his points and play declined.
The Penguins offseason meetings with Malkin, or perhaps Malkin’s offseason meetings with the Penguins brought about agreement and determination that Malkin would reverse the recent trends. Malkin’s words were strong in training camp. They were hopeful in the preseason. And then before Malkin could backup the word with actions, he became the second of six Penguins regulars to suffer an injury, which cost him nearly all of October.
With a pair of assists Saturday night, Malkin has six points (2g, 4a) in six games.
“The biggest thing for me, Geno is better managing the puck. He’s such a dynamic player offensively,” head coach Mike Sullivan said. “He has a tendency to want to make plays all the time, and sometimes you have to make simple plays.”
It was Malkin with Jared McCann and Bryan Rust who led the Penguins three-goal comeback Thursday night against the New York Islanders. Malkin had two points in that game, and his line scored all three goals in regulation in addition to he and Rust teaming up for the overtime game-winner.
Malkin proclaimed, “I know I’m still a good player,” in training camp. It was as much defiance as it was optimism. At 33-years-old, Malkin is in the stage when careers wind down. Instead, Malkin renewed his game. And now, he may have more on his shoulders than simply proving he’s one of the best of his generation.
Now, Evgeni Malkin may have to take his turn to carry the Penguins, just as Sidney Crosby did in Malkin’s absence. Circumstance may thrust Malkin back on the center stage because Sidney Crosby suffered a lower body injury Saturday night. Little was known about the injury following the win over Chicago, including when it happened or the severity.
Should Crosby miss time as Malkin did through October, Malkin will be responsible to lead the Penguins and produce the bulk of the offense.
“We’re trying to stay out of his way offensively and allow him to act on his instincts, but he has to have some diligence about his game,” Sullivan said. “I think that is the biggest thing (Malkin) has done since he’s come back.”
“He’s done a much better job managing the puck. He’s buying into how we want to play, and he’s trying to play a more north-south game even though his instinct is to sometimes play east-west” the head coach continued.
Buy-in was reportedly an issue last season. There were the Phil Kessel issues in the Penguins locker room and on the ice. And Malkin was a part of those, in some way. The game has been rapidly changing since the 2016 Penguins showed the league how to weaponize speed and puck possession. The game has run counter to Malkin’s instincts to play a skilled game with stickhandling, instead of pushing the puck to open ice and playing in straight lines.
“We’re not trying to change Geno [sic], that’s what makes him what he is. That’s what makes him unique. All we’re trying to do, we’re asking him to meet us halfway, a little bit,” said Sullivan. “And he’s done that. He’s done a great job since he’s been back.”
Last season, Malkin had a whopping 84 turnovers in just 72 games.
It appears Malkin’s dedication and desire to recapture his dominant form is paying dividends. Not only has he scored at a point-per-game pace, but he’s been a positive difference-maker on the ice. He worked harder in the offseason as evidenced by his Instagram photos. He said the right things, but talk isn’t always the best predictor of behavior.
If you look too closely, you can always find fault with Malkin, but that’s always been the case. He is able to try moves and plays that average hockey players cannot dream. Sometimes, those plays don’t work. But if you wait for the plays which don’t work to prove a negative opinion, you’ve missed the changing lights on the scoreboard and the stacks of good plays. Malkin has cleaned up his own end. He has backchecked. He has even made the simple play when required, more often than not.
And Evgeni Malkin is scoring. If the Penguins are without Crosby, those positive contributions will no longer be a luxury but a necessity.