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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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Pittsburgh Hockey Now Editor-in-Chief, formerly 93.7 The Fan, Sportsnet Hockey Tonight, NHL Home Ice. Catch Dan tweeting @theDanKingerski and the official @pghhockeynow account.

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Steve
Steve
9 months ago

Why not try Guentzel and Rust on Malkin’s line and see what happens. I felt Zucker played his best with Sid anyway. I also think Kapanen would benefit by playing off-wing on some shifts. He’s made some plays from the left wing.

Steve
Steve
9 months ago
Reply to  Steve

Let me add to this a bit. If a trade has to be made, we always hear news about getting scoring wingers. What this team lacks desperately are the wingers that have those playmaking/passing/dangling skills…guys that can create space and make plays for our star centers. Although Kessel had his flaws, he had those features to his game. Kunitz was a great passer. Maybe Burke/Hextall will find the pieces that Rutherford overlooked.

Zane Gearhart
Zane Gearhart (@steelcityhockey)
9 months ago

Some out the box thinking but why not switch the wingers on lines 2 and 3. Have Malkin play with ZAR and Tanev, having them play the boards and allow geno opportunities to score. Plus blueger could keep up with Zucker and Kap. It spreads scoring out more, and the only other option is to break up the 1st line

Rich Filardi
Rich Filardi (@richi81)
9 months ago

I maintained this for sometime, Zucker isnt a great fit on the team. I still feel he is a very good player. Think this is an opportunity to trade for a piece that is a better fit. Maybe a heavier player with that is a shooter.

Mike
Mike
9 months ago
Reply to  Rich Filardi

Rich -I respectfully disagree on Zucker. The problem with the 2nd line is
Malkin. Right now it’s a death sentence to be placed on his wing. Zucker
needs Malkin to make the correct pass and his wingers will score goals.
Both Kap and Zucker are proven goal scorers.

MrNails
MrNails
9 months ago
Reply to  Rich Filardi

I agree with the concept of a heavier player somewhere, I think we lost our net presence with Hornquist gone. But Zucker is a great fit with the penguins in general.

jackw
jackw (@jackw)
9 months ago
Reply to  Rich Filardi

Agree 100%. Zucker seems like a good guy, and is a decent player, but really has produced nothing of note since he’s been here. And if the 2nd line is really “playing two different games” then the problem are the two wingers. Because Malkin is a Hall of Fame player, only a couple of months removed from being a top point per game forward and the team MVP. Sorry, skills don’t drop off a cliff that fast. And neither of Malkin’s wingers have produced anything near Malkin, even in his worst years. Zucker and Kapanen should either find a way… Read more »

Katz
Katz (@paul)
9 months ago

I’m sorry but the excuse making must end. Quarantine and Covid world got the better of him” I expect that from 3 people only. His mom dad and wife. He makes 9.5 million per and poor Geno let the Covid stop him from working out? More than others? So here is my challenge question. Rewatch the 4 game sweep by the Islanders focusing on 71. Focus on his PP and defensive play . Fast Forward to Montreal last year. Do the same analysis. Was there Covid? What is the excuse? Sorry it’s time , past time for reality. Please for… Read more »

Last edited 9 months ago by Katz
Ether
Ether
9 months ago
Reply to  Katz

Watch how many times a player drops down a line to Geno. Never happens. They only go up to Crosby–thru injury and good play–always have, always will. Sullivan never helps kick start Geno by letting him play a few shifts with a 1st liner. That’s not sympathy…that’s coaching. Jake has yet to play with Geno and won’t unless Crosby gets injured. Then presto Malkin is otherworldly. He only gets changes form 3rd or 4th line which can work if that player will park in front of the net. But most like McCann coast. I’m not a Geno sycophant but sure… Read more »

D1VE is Dumb
D1VE is Dumb
9 months ago
Reply to  Katz

Its weird how Katz was no where to be found after Malkin scored to force overtime and then the Penguins won in a shootout, but is right here, front and center, to bag on Malkin after every single loss.

Katz
Katz (@paul)
9 months ago
Reply to  D1VE is Dumb

To DIVE is Dumb

Here was my comment after the game you are referencing

“Rip Van Winkle woke up. Malkin after passing up a shot on a 2-1 possibly pressured by the clock and circumstance, unleashed a beauty.

So if Malkin can imagine the clock is winding down to zero and they are behind perhaps he will actually shoot. Whatever it takes. a new GM et al , criticism , etc. please continue shoot the puck. On the PP Malkin needs to shoot as if he is paid per shot”

Thanks for playing

David
David
9 months ago
Reply to  Katz

Right. No excuse for being out of shape. You buy a home gym. You have the money. And you go at it.

Kurt Hartz
Kurt Hartz
9 months ago

Personally I have to agree with the idea of flipping wingers on the first and 2nd line however that would be a very hard decision because of how good the 1st line is playing together, but something definitely needs to be done to get Malkin going here, I also agree about the styles being a mismatch on the 2nd line whether via trade or reshuffling lines this is a bigger issue than most realize, this team should be around the top of the standings and I think it’s the 2nd line and specifically Malkin’s lack of participation in what the… Read more »

Jackmccrory
Jackmccrory (@jackmccrory)
9 months ago

anybody remember the guy that wore number 68 on his back. Malkin looks like a reincarnation. Suddenly can’t keep up with the play. Age is showing.

Kurt Hartz
Kurt Hartz
9 months ago

Oh and also Chris Letang has got to get it drilled into his head to keep the game simple and not just 58 even Crosby with the no look passes that 9 out of 10 times end up turnovers and scoring chances for the opponents. In my opinion too much fancy play going on with this team by too many good players!!! For this team to be able to turn this season in the right direction the coaching staff needs to remove the fancy play’s being attempted in every game. Most of those attempts almost never work and usually either… Read more »

concerned penguin fan
concerned penguin fan
9 months ago
Reply to  Kurt Hartz

team consistently guilty of overpassing and trying to globetrot out there…act of congress just to get pucks on net. their attack on the PP is quite predictable easy to defend especially with Letang leading the breakout.

J.T. Nelson
J.T. Nelson
9 months ago

I have been saying this since before the season started. Put Zucker with Sid and Guentzel with Malkin. Zuck’s game is more suited to Crosby’s style than Malkin. At this point I’d do it to see if Guentz can get Malkin going and rekindle some of last seasons magic. If not, then I’d say Malkin might just be done. He just looks so slow this year. Something is wrong. Sully’s resistance to trying such moves may be his undoing. He’s acting a lot like Bylsma where there are no adjustments to find what works and if he’s not careful he… Read more »

Mike
Mike
9 months ago
Reply to  J.T. Nelson

JT

Right now no one’s game is suited for Malkin. If you switch the 1st and 2nd lines then
you could end up with two un-productive units. The Penguins need to make a tough
decision on Malkin and LeTang – I would make a blockbuster deal and trade both.

Mike
Mike
9 months ago

Malkin is a tough player to play next to – he holds the puck entirely to long leaving
his wingers confused as to where they should position themselves to score. He’s
always trying to make the tough play when he has options making the routine pass.
Frustrating to watch to say the least.

MrNails
MrNails
9 months ago

If you take zucker’s points and consider the length of the season, he’s on pace for a 20-point season. At 56 games, that’s actually a pretty good pace… Right?

Frank
Frank
9 months ago

It looks like we are doomed to beat the futures of Malkin and Letang to death all season. Some things are clear though. First both of them are who they are. Letang is given to chronic curious/bad decisions. Malkin seems to have annual funks (although they seem to be coming closer and closer together). Unfortunately in both cases they are capable of controlling play and outstanding games. And when you add in the history of both it is awfully hard to decide their services are no longer needed. Even more worrisome than their current play . . . . at… Read more »

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