CRANBERRY — Evgeni Malkin has taken 11,352 faceoffs for the Pittsburgh Penguins since he broke into the NHL with them in 2006, so you might think he’d settled into a routine for handling them many years ago.
Malkin actually is doing something dramatically different on faceoffs so far in 2023-24 — he’s winning a lot more of them than he’s losing.
He enters the Penguins’ game in Columbus Tuesday at 7:08 p.m. with a 85-70 record on draws, a success rate of 54.8 percent.
That’s second-best on the team among players who have taken more than 21 faceoffs, surpassed only by Sidney Crosby’s 62.1 percent rate, and has Malkin on pace to finish above .500 for just the second time in his 18-year career. The only previous time was in 2019-20, when he went 441-435 (50.3 percent).
What’s more, he’s fared well all over the rink, and in a variety of situations. He is 82-67 at even-strength and 3-3 during power plays, as well as 44-37 in the offensive end, 28-27 in the neutral zone and 13-6 in the defensive end.
If Malkin’s performance on faceoffs hasn’t gotten much attention, it might be because his overall game has been strong through the first 13 games. He leads the Pittsburgh Penguins with eight goals and is tied with Jake Guentzel for the team scoring lead with 16 points.
Nonetheless, the value of him consistently controlling more draws than he has in previous seasons is hard to overstate.
“If you’re able to win faceoffs, you force defenders to have to defend against a potential set play or something of that nature,” coach Mike Sullivan said.
Whether Malkin has made a conscious effort to upgrade his performance on draws or adjusted his technique for trying to win them isn’t clear, and he wasn’t available to discuss the issue after the Penguins’ practice Monday at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex.
However, the Pittsburgh Penguins’ other go-to faceoff men — Lars Eller, Noel Acciari and Crosby — and Sullivan offered a variety of insights on what they believe has made Malkin’s new-found prowess on draws possible.
Crosby, for example, suggested that, “I’m sure he’d give some credit to his wingers for helping out on those 50-50s (pucks that are up for grabs),” while others offered more technical thoughts.
Truth be told, though, it might be as basic as Malkin reaching a point in his career where he truly recognizes the importance of faceoffs, and has focused on upgrading his performance on them.
“A lot of it is just if (Malkin) values it and bears down, I think he’s very capable,” Sullivan said.
There’s no question that Malkin has the size, skill and reflexes to be a positive force on draws.
“His hand-eye coordination is elite,” Sullivan said. “He’s strong. I think he can win faceoffs a number of different ways.”
Acciari, who has filled a blue-collar role throughout his career, said he took “a fair amount” of draws against Malkin over the years, and noted several qualities that give Malkin the potential to be a good faceoff man.
“He’s very deceptive,” Acciari said. “He has a lot of tricks in his bag, and he’s seen a lot of guys take faceoffs, so it’s kind of like a cat-and-mouse with him. … He’s quick with his stick. He’s very strong.”
Eller, who is winning 53.5 percent of his faceoffs, guessed that he handled “hundreds” of faceoffs against Malkin before they became teammates, and rather sheepishly acknowledged that he got the better of Malkin on “I’m guessing, more than half” of them. (No surprise there, considering that Eller has slipped below .500 just once in the past six-plus seasons.)
He also detailed his approach to countering one of Malkin’s preferred tactics when they used to square off.
“Sometimes, he would try to take your stick away, instead of going for the puck, so I’d be aware of that,” Eller said. “If I knew he was going to try to do that, I would lift my stick, so he couldn’t get it, and then I would go for the puck. Other than that, I would just try to get my body over the puck, so the first movement is kind of like a forward movement, then be heavy on the stick. Low grip, heavy on the stick, forward movement. Get in over the puck and try to get underneath him.”
Eller said he has not noticed any significant changes to the way Malkin takes draws, but volunteered that his mindset could be the key.
“Maybe he just got (angry) and really started digging in more,” Eller said. “I don’t know. … He’s better when he’s a little (upset), I think.”