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Penguins Grades: Evgeni Malkin and What Comes Next

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PIttsburgh Penguins, Evgeni Malkin, Reilly Smith

The season began as if he used a launchpad at Cape Canaveral and ended in a similar streak, but Pittsburgh Penguins center Evgeni Malkin spent most of the games between the first 10 and last 10 apologizing, conceding, and coming to grips with Father Time, who visits like an angry repo-man in the middle of the night.

While the advanced statistics showed a mixed bag of consistency and decline, the eyes who watched Malkin all season, and his own, would not grade him well.

Evgeni Malkin: B-

His expected goals-for was his lowest full-season mark since 2018-19 (excluding his 33-game season in 2020-21). Malkin was still above water at 52%, but that’s well below last season’s career-consistent mark of 56%.

The meteoric start and a strong finish after Malkin’s parents visited Pittsburgh for the first time in several years buoyed his numbers. The bottom-line statistics don’t look bad and are more than adequate for a second-line center.

Malkin had 15 points in the first 13 games but only seven points in his next 15 games. The middle between the first and last 15 was a roller coaster.

Malkin finished with 16 points, including eight goals in the final 14 games.

Malkin scored 27 goals, earned 67 points, and played in all 82 games for the second consecutive season.

However, at age 37, Malkin’s age showed, and it was often glaring.

Penguins president of hockey operations/GM Kyle Dubas seemed to cast a little more shade on Malkin’s season when discussing Reilly Smith’s struggles in his first Penguins’ season. Dubas put a bit, or more than a bit, of the blame for Smith’s down year at Malkin’s feet.

Reilly Smith (had a) great start to the year, especially when (Rickard Rakell) wasn’t going well,” Dubas said. “And then from mid-November on, I thought collectively (when Rakell) was hurt (Malkin) wasn’t as good. And I thought that affected Reilly; very different linemates than what he played with in Vegas, (Jonathan) Marchessault and (William) Karlsson.”

For his part, Smith told PHN he enjoyed playing with Lars Eller because Eller was “predictable.”

Malkin is hardly predictable, but his ability to control games, dominate opponents, and score points lies in that rare quality.

“I’m not playing like I was 15 years ago. It’s not the same game,” Malkin said in February. I want to try to change a little bit. I know I’m not flying like before.”

For a player to admit such a shortcoming is significant.

For Malkin to slump as he did, look as slow, sometimes achingly slow, yet finish with strong stats is both a testament to the player and a large waving red flag for what comes next.

Malkin also finished at plus-5 this season. He was indeed on the ice for more goals for than against, but he’ll be 38 on July 31. He’s got two years remaining on his iron-clad contract, which carries a no-movement clause and is a 35+ deal. Even if Malkin retires tomorrow, the Penguins will absorb his full $6 million salary cap hit through the end of his deal in 2026.

Can the Penguins truly rely on Malkin to play most games next season with the grind of playing center?

The long-held belief here is the end of Malkin’s career should be spent on the wing. He bristled this season when it appeared he played the wing for a period-plus with Eller, and PHN asked about playing wing. Malkin said he didn’t move to the wing, though Eller was taking the faceoffs and surely seemed to be taking on the pivot responsibilities.

Malkin also played wing beside Sidney Crosby for more extended periods, totaling 40 minutes this season.

Coach Mike Sullivan has traditionally been skittish on uniting the old “two-headed monster.” This season, necessity and desperation forced his hand.

It didn’t go so bad.

However, Malkin was rejuvenated for the panicked and furious sprint to the end. His parents were again on the video board as fans cheered, and No. 71 scored. However, the more important factors in Malkin’s resurgence were desperation and winger Michael Bunting.

After the Penguins acquired Bunting at the NHL trade deadline, he briefly shuffled around the lineup before appropriately settling on Malkin’s left flank.

The pair created havoc, chaos, and goals in the dirty areas around the opponent’s net. Bunting allowed the Malkin line to create offense in more ways than just the rush.

The final flourish likely gives coaches and Malkin enough affirmation that Malkin can continue in the middle, though if Father Time has any more receipts, it may become necessary.