With three of the top offensive weapons in the league, it seems like the Pittsburgh Penguins should have no trouble scoring with the man advantage. But after letting Steve Sullivan walk in free agency the Penguins have yet to find a competent replacement on the power play point. They started the year with James Neal back there, but after being blanked on the man advantage for two consecutive games – including a pathetic five minute power play against the Islanders that only generated two shots – head coach Dan Bylsma decided to make a change.
Enter Evgeni Malkin.
Now, I’ve never been a fan of having a forward on the point to begin with. It can be huge risk, creating too many short handed chances going the other way, but the benefits can sometimes outweigh that. Last year with Sullivan heading up the power play, the Penguins allowed 10 short handed goals against, which was four more than the prior year and 26th overall in the league, but their power play also improved from a dismal 15.8% success rate the year before (25th overall in the league) to 19.7% (5th overall). So in that case, the risk paid off.
The Malkin experiment, so far has also not been without reward. He set up a beauty of a goal for James Neal. But while the Penguins did not allow a short handed goal this time, Malkin’s carelessness with the puck and lack of defensive responsibility are a recipe for disaster. When the Rangers were breaking the puck out short handed, Malkin looked like a knock-kneed, nerdy little-leaguer exiled to right field praying that the batter wouldn’t hit the ball in his direction.
Two highlights from NHL.com really tell the story:
As the Rangers moved the puck up ice, Geno – the last line of defense – decided the best course of action would be to stand flat-footed, swipe half-heartedly at the puck with his stick and then fall down, allowing Stepan to get a great chance on the breakaway. If not for some excellent back checking by Kris Letang and some equally stellar play by Tomas Vokoun, that one’s in the net.
In this clip, Malkin makes a dangerous cross-ice pass to Sidney Crosby that is picked off by Ryan McDonagh. McDonagh then breaks it into the zone, dekes Geno out of his pads and gets another good opportunity on Tomas Vokoun.
So what, then, is the answer?
Theoretically, I guess Malkin could learn to play better defensively, but right now he is too much of a liability to be worth the risk. The Penguins have to find some balance at the point between generating offense and keeping short handed chances at bay. I’m not sure who on the roster can fill the void, but someone has to step up, or Ray Shero needs to go make a move to bring someone in. The Penguins just signed Zach Boychuk, a former first round pick recently waived by the Carolina Hurricanes, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him get a chance. However if that doesn’t work, the Penguins have plenty of cap space to play around with after failing to sign Ryan Suter or Zach Parise last season, and must look to find someone capable of quarterbacking the power play, preferably a defenseman.
Billy Nauman is a Pittsburgh Penguins contributor for The Hockey Writers. He also runs his own hockey blog at backtothefoundry.com. Follow him on Twitter @punchbroadbent