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Off-Day Analysis: Malkin, Zucker, and 2nd Line Problems

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Pittsburgh Penguins NHL trade deadline, Evgeni Malkin, Kasperi Kapanen
UNIONDALE, NY - FEBRUARY 11: Pittsburgh Penguins Right Wing Kasperi Kapanen (42) and Pittsburgh Penguins Defenseman Kris Letang (58) congratulate Pittsburgh Penguins Center Evgeni Malkin (71) for scoring a goal during the third period of the National Hockey League game between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the New York Islanders on February 11, 2021, at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Uniondale, NY. (Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire)

Consider this a straight analysis blog and confirmation of things analyzed past. Evgeni Malkin is a Pittsburgh Penguins cornerstone, but his game is not where he wants it to be. The problems aren’t turnovers or mistakes that some may want to harp, but Malkin’s physical status.

The Pittsburgh Penguins paid a boatload for Jason Zucker. The former GM gave up a prized prospect and a first-round pick. Zucker’s game appears to be what it should be, but that doesn’t mean it was worth the price.

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To start the blog with a little salt, the Pittsburgh Penguins are in danger of missing the playoffs, which means the draft pick they give to the Minnesota Wild for Zucker could be a lottery pick. Steel yourself for that possibility. And, top former Penguins defenseman prospect Calen Addison, who was also included in the Zucker trade, made his NHL debut on Tuesday night.

Evgeni Malkin is a great player. I do not believe he is “done.” I believe the quarantine and the COVID world got the better of him, which lessened his conditioning and off-season skating program. Like the rest of us, perhaps he allowed the situation to win, too.

Let ye without sin… If I had to bet, Malkin struggles this season but returns with a vengeance next season in better shape and quicker. However, he is 34-years-old, and we knew this day would come for each of the Pittsburgh Penguins superstars, so there are no guarantees.

This season, Malkin has fought for each point; he is fighting against himself and the game. He has seven points (3g, 4a) in 14 games and is a minus-4.

The obvious truth: Right now, Malkin is not able to keep up with his linemates. As we’ve been writing behind the paywall for a couple of weeks, Malkin and his linemates are playing different games. Kasperi Kapanen and Jason Zucker are playing a straightforward speed game. Too often, the pair of wingers are racing up ice and pressuring the defense, but Malkin isn’t part of the play.

Or, Malkin is playing with the puck, and his linemates are flatfooted rather than playing with him.

Two different games being played on the same line. The Malkin line has scored just seven even-strength goals this season, according to Natural Stat Trick.com. They’ve been on the ice for six against.

Through the struggle, the line is getting only 46% of the scoring chances on the ice, and worse, only 38% of the high-danger chances.

The Malkin line’s expected goals ratio is only 46%. Uh oh.

With some irony, both Zucker and Kasperi Kapanen were acquired for first-round picks to play with Sidney Crosby. Both fit the grinding speed mold, but neither are snipers nor garbage men at the net.

It’s also more ironic the Penguins may be too fast for their own good.

Zucker and Kapanen combined beside Malkin are a mismatch for which there isn’t really a current solution. The Penguins tried Brandon Tanev on the RW with Malkin and Zucker on Tuesday night, but that’s more of the same speed conundrum.

Zucker has just five points (2g, 3a) in 14 games. He’s also a minus-3. The numbers and Zucker’s performance don’t entirely line up, but the lack of offensive production is not entirely unprecedented. Excluding his 64-point outlier in 2017-18, Zucker has been a consistent 20-goal, 40-point player.

The Pittsburgh Penguins are in fifth place; they are outside the playoff seedings. It is hard to predict the Penguins will pass the Washington Capitals, New York Islanders, Philadelphia Flyers, and certainly not the Boston Bruins.

The Penguins turned in their worst performance on Tuesday night, one game after their best. After 14 games this season, that’s been the pattern. They are what they are, 7-6-1.

We detailed potential changes on the Penguins blue line, including Kris Letang, on Tuesday morning.

This is a more complex issue because it involves good players, some playing well, and Evgeni Malkin, who needs to find the fast track.

The issue is probably the key to the Penguins season.

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