Forget stepping up, is it time to shut Evgeni Malkin down?

Crosby's return is still unknown (Tom Turk/THW)

A conscience crisis? From thousands of miles outside of Pittsburgh, that’s what the drama surrounding Sidney Crosby‘s concussion was termed last week as skeptics donned their tinfoil hats in an attempt to make sense of an injury that even the best doctors in the world can’t understand.

Without an experience with concussions or consulting a medically-trained physician, it can be difficult to comprehend an injury that doesn’t leave blood or a shattered bone in it’s aftermath.

When Pierre-Marc Bouchard of the Minnesota Wild missed most of last year’s training camp with flu-like symptoms, the team was thrilled to have him back in the lineup in time for the season opener.  He played exactly 10:44 that night against Columbus and not a single second more the rest of the 2009-10 season.  Doctors eventually concluded that the flu symptoms Bouchard was experiencing were actually lingering effects from a concussion he suffered six months prior.

No two concussions are the same, and Pittsburgh head coach Dan Bylsma knows that.  A week ago he forcefully denied any hint that the team had ‘propagated disinformation’ about Crosby’s injury.  “There isn’t a time, or a person, that we would put on the ice with concussion symptoms,” Bylsma said from the CONSOL Energy Center.  “We’re always aware of those symptoms [through] dealing with our doctors, and [Crosby] did not go into the Tampa Bay game with symptoms that we felt were concussion-related.”

Crosby’s time-line for a return is still an unknown, but the question for Bylsma and his staff now becomes how to cope offensively without a player who had factored in on exactly 50% of the team’s goals.  The Penguins are 3-3-1 in 2011 and have only scored 11 goals in 5 games without Crosby in the lineup.  Is lack of scoring depth a natural result of having two forwards earning $8.7m per year (a combined 30 percent of the team’s payroll)?  Possibly.

But when Crosby suffered a high-ankle sprain in January 2008 that forced him out of the lineup for 28 games, Evgeni Malkin emerged from his shadow and carried the Penguins into the playoffs on his back.  Malkin scored 46 points during that stretch and developed a confidence that he carried over to the next season on his way to the Art Ross Trophy as the NHL’s leading scorer.

Malkin Needs to Step Up

If Malkin hopes to use another strong January sans Crosby to springboard a deep playoff run for the Penguins he’ll need to first find a way to get healthy.

Crosby’s injury has gotten all of the attention, but Malkin has quietly been playing through a left knee injury he suffered back in October.  Bylsma has insisted on many occasions that the injury “is not structural at all” and there have been small stretches where Malkin has actually looked like his normal galloping self.

After sitting out four games to rest the knee, Malkin jumped back into the lineup and scored 8 points in 3 games in mid-December.  He has just two goals since and on almost a nightly basis he can be seen grimacing in pain on the bench.

How healthy is Malkin? (Tom Turk/THW)

It’s no surprise that without Crosby on the ice, the spotlight has been shining even brighter on Malkin.  His critics compare his heavy salary to 36 points of production this season and say he’s overpaid.  Some blame the system Coach Dan Bylsma has instituted and argue that former coach Michel Therrien’s style (that stifled skill and speed?) was a better fit for the creative Russian winger.

As team captain, when Alex Ovechkin struggles to score he’s grilled by the Washington media.  Groin strains, wrist injuries, cortisone shots, defensive adjustments…anything and everything affecting his game is inevitably revealed through the daily chats.

In some ways Malkin is fortunate.  With the swarm of reporters hunting down Crosby after practices and games, Malkin can play the language card and easily avoid the media for weeks a time when he feels like it.  The catch-22 of keeping to himself is the constant barrage of speculation and criticism he has to endure when something really is wrong.

Pain Tolerance

“[Malkin has] played with a lot of pain before,” Bylsma said prior to a game against Philadelphia last month.  “If he can go tonight, he will.”  That ability to block out pain and take the ice anyway is one Malkin had to hone his first week in a Penguins’ uniform.

In the 2006 preseason, Malkin suffered a dislocated left shoulder that had team officials quietly wondering when or if he would even play a regular season game that year.  When he returned to the lineup on October 18, Malkin became the first player to score goals in his first six NHL games since 1917-18.

Rest has done him well in the past, but it’s not easy convincing a tough/stubborn player to head to the press box.  With Crosby also out of the lineup Malkin will want to be on the ice, even at fifty-percent, but Bylsma and his staff need to decide how important a couple of wins in mid-January are to the team’s future.

After tonight’s game against Detroit, the Penguins will play just three games (against New Jersey, Carolina, and NY Islanders) over the next 13 days.  There won’t be a better time this season to sit Malkin down and get him fully healed from whatever ailments are bothering him.

Is this a conscience crisis?  Nope.  But if the Penguins want to win a Stanley Cup, they’ll need their two superstars as healthy as can be.

News and Notes

~ Preliminary talks have started between Penguins’ management and center Mark Letestu‘s camp in an attempt to find common ground before he becomes a free agent on July 1.  The feeling out process for both sides could take place over weeks or months. Letestu’s offensive production has slipped after scoring 7 points in 7 games to start the season, but he continues to play a smart brand of hockey that management seems to have noticed.

With Crosby out of the lineup, Letestu is getting a chance to take on a bigger role and prove his worth.  “Mark Letestu is getting an opportunity to play on the powerplay in Sid’s absence,” Bylsma said last week. “It’s really a chance for him, saying it or not saying it, he’s getting a chance with the first unit with good players. It’s an opportunity and he’s done good things for us, but he can show us what he can do and he knows he’s in that situation.”

Letestu’s free agent status is still an unknown at this point in the season.  Should he reach the 80 career game mark (he needs 24 more games this season), he’d become a Group II restricted free agent with arbitration rights.  Otherwise he’ll be a Group VI unrestricted free agent allowed to test the waters.

~ Detroit has their own injury problems but they’ve battled adversity well, going 6-2-2 in their past 10 games. They’ll be without Pavel Datsyuk, Mike Modano, Danny Cleary, Jimmy Howard, Chris Osgood, Brad Stuart and Tomas Holmstrom tonight. Goalie Joey MacDonald will start in Howard’s place. He’s allowed 21 goals in 5 career starts against Pittsburgh.

Mike Colligan

Mike Colligan

Managing Editor
Mike Colligan is an NHL analyst at Forbes SportsMoney and The Hockey Writers. Email: MJColligan@gmail.com
Mike Colligan
@mal68au @mwelchpgh letting the neighbors take a look before they buy - 4 days ago
Mike Colligan
Mike Colligan

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