Sidney Crosby hasn’t played since early December, but even that can’t rob the Penguins of having the NHL’s best player—a title currently held by Evgeni Malkin.
Malkin gathered a natural hat trick and game-winning goal as part of a five-point effort Sunday against Tampa Bay. Tuesday, Malkin added only a goal to his points total but, by virtue of all-around effort, outclassed his five-point performance in a 2-1 shootout win over the Carolina Hurricanes.
Tuesday’s goal also made Malkin the league-leader in points (52).
To put things in perspective, the season began with questions as to whether Malkin could justify his salary and play at a level commensurate with the league’s best.
After Malkin led a December assault on the NHL scoring race with Crosby once again sidelined, the question became whether Malkin was repeating his Spring 2008 performance, in which he emerged as a true NHL elite with 87 shelved by a high-ankle sprain.
At this point, we’re fast approaching a new discussion:
Is Evgeni Malkin’s current play more impactful than what Sidney Crosby did in the first half of the 2010-11 season?
“Everyone you talk to says with an ACL, it takes you 12 months to recover,” Brooks Orpik said following the Carolina game. “So if this isn’t 100 percent for him, it’s pretty scary. This is as well as he’s played in a long time.”
This praise comes via the same Brooks Orpik who watched Evgeni Malkin win the Conn Smythe Trophy in 2009 thanks to a maestro performance in the ’09 championship campaign, his 36 playoff points the most in a single postseason since Gretzky’s 40 in 1993.
It was the same year Malkin won the Art Ross Trophy (113 points), one year after trailing only Alex Ovechkin in the scoring race and the second of two straight seasons in which he finished as the Hart Trophy runner-up.
Malkin’s impact has always been greatest when he spills the ink on the box score, but his contributions this season have been more complete. He’s scoring goals at clutch moments (has scored the game-winning goal in two of last three games, leads team with six GWG and added lone regulation goal and a shootout marker Tuesday).
His face-off percentage is slowly creeping upward. He’s becoming automatic in the shootout, an area where he was previously awful.
And did you see him lay down to block a shot in the waning seconds of the overtime period against the Hurricanes?
That’s a sacrifice few of the league’s leading scorers are willing to make and it’s only one of a number of areas in which Geno’s game has markedly improved.
Hard work has made him more complete, but Geno still plays a skill-based game that allows him to do things like this:
Stats: Crosby 2010-11 vs. Malkin 2011-12
Sidney Crosby appeared in 41 games last season and collected 66 points (32G, 34A). Through 38 games this year, Malkin has collected 52 points (22G, 30A) and is on pace for 24 goals and 33 assists (57 points) by the 41-game mark.
So far, advantage Sid.
Like Crosby last year, Malkin is among the top ten of the NHL in a number of major categories: 22 goals (7th), 30 assists (6th), 52 points (1st), 6 game-winning goals (2nd), 182 shots on goal (2nd) and the league’s highest points per game average among eligible scorers (1.37).
Keep in mind that none of those numbers are adjusted for the seven games he missed early in the season. His 38 games played are the fewest of the top 49 scorers in the league.
How does that compare to Sidney Crosby’s first half from 2010-11? The numbers aren’t nearly as gaudy. Through 41 games, Crosby led the league in goals (32), assists (34), points (66) and points per game (1.61), to name a few categories.
Crosby also enjoyed a 25-game point streak and gathered at least one point in 35 of 41 games (85 percent), including 20 multi-point games. Malkin has points in 29 of 38 (76 percent) and a season-long nine-game point streak, but also has two five-point games and a pair of hat tricks to his credit.
Over the course of an entire 82-game season, Crosby was on pace for 132 points and 64 goals, the highest single-season totals since Mario Lemieux in 1995-96 (161 points) and Alex Ovechkin in 2007-08 (65 goals), respectively.
The projected 132 points would have given him 28 more than eventual Art Ross winner Daniel Sedin (104 points).
If Malkin plays every remaining game and maintains his current pace, he’ll capture a second Art Ross Trophy and lead the league in points (104), shots on goal (360) and points per game (1.37).
Piling On vs. Holding On
Statistically speaking, Malkin is still nowhere near the pace Crosby set last year, as illustrated by his 0.24 PPG advantage between the two campaigns.
Malkin has played 38 games so far this season. Crosby appeared in 41 all of last year. Unless Malkin collects 14 points in his next three games, he won’t match Crosby’s pace with the same number of games played.
Numbers, however, tell only part of the tale.
Crosby’s point-scoring blitzkrieg was a large part of the Penguins’ success early last year, but was still only one part. Before Sid’s concussion, the Penguins held a share of the NHL lead in standings points, were first and second in the NHL in penalty kill percentage and goals against, respectively, and had top-ten goals per game and power play percentages.
Save for just a few injuries, the whole team was clicking.
Malkin’s current production is coming at a time when only six Penguins skaters have appeared in every game so far and some of the biggest guns have missed extensive time.
Crosby (37 games missed), Kris Letang (23 games) and Jordan Staal (11 games) are some of the Penguins’ leading PPG producers and are three of nine Penguins starters to have missed more than 10 games.
All told, the Penguins have lost 231 man-games to injury so far and have put eleven players on injured reserve at one time or another. The injuries don’t just rob the Penguins of individual production, but create match-up difficulties throughout the lineup and allow opposing defenses to drape their shutdown pairings on the Malkin line.
During Crosby’s scoring run, Zbynek Michalek and Jordan Staal were the only starters to spend significant time on injured reserve. Sid’s was the first in a long line of injuries that decimated the Penguins’ forward group in the second half of the year.
Throughout the lineup, Malkin has had a far lonelier go of the scoring race than Crosby did. However, James Neal’s emergence as an elite sniper has given Geno an advantage Crosby did not have.
As ThePensBlog pointed out earlier this week, Neal has figured in on 82.35 percent of Malkin’s points this season, whether assisting on Geno’s goals or scoring goals for which Malkin has been credited with helpers.
Similarly, Malkin has figured in on 85 percent of Neal’s 40 points (24G, 16A).
Crosby had Pascal Dupuis and Chris Kunitz for linemates during his run. While all three of those players were on pace for career bests in points, neither Kunitz nor Dupuis provided for Sid what Neal, tied for second in the NHL with 24 goals, provides for Geno.
The (Only) Conclusion
Which franchise center had the more impressive half-season? Truth be told, it’s a debate that doesn’t matter. Numbers can be skewed and circumstances debated, and the season’s barely more than halfway played.
In fact, call it the whole thing a wash.
As the Penguins learned last season, the only important point to be made about Crosby and Malkin’s production is that it’s most valuable when it’s available for the playoffs.