Evgeni Malkin the Penguins’ Nominee for Bill Masterton Trophy

With the novel coronavirus putting a sudden end to the 2019-20 NHL regular season, it is time for voting to begin on the league’s awards. While we probably won’t know the frontrunners for awards like the Calder or Hart Trophies for the time being, the Professional Hockey Writers Association (PHWA) announced this year’s nominees for the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy. The Masterton is awarded by the PHWA to the player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to hockey.

Every year, all 31 teams in the league have a player up for nomination and it’s usually awarded to a player who overcame a serious injury or personal issues. Last season’s Masterton winner was New York Islanders’ goaltender Robin Lehner, who opened up about his mental health issues and bouts with alcoholism, and then went on to have a career-low goals against average (2.13) and was nominated for the Vezina Trophy.

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This year’s nominee for the Pittsburgh Penguins is Evgeni Malkin, who prior to the season, vowed to be a better player than last year. Before he was able to really get into a game rhythm, Malkin had to battle a lower-body injury suffered during the second game of the season. The injury kept him out of play for 11 games. In December, he missed two more games for an illness. Despite missing a chunk of the season, Malkin still led the team in assists and points (49, 74).

Making Malkin’s Case

It was another season that Malkin had to battle injuries, but it wasn’t just him getting hurt. Other major players on the Penguins suffered injuries that put them on the shelf for long periods of time. Sidney Crosby, Malkin’s partner as the Penguins’ “two-headed monster,” missed 28 games with a core muscle injury. While Crosby was missing time after having surgery, Malkin was moved to play a line with Jake Guentzel. While in the midst of a career year, Guentzel suffered an injury of his own that took him out for the season.

Evgeni Malkin
Evgeni Malkin (Photo by Jared Silber/NHLI via Getty Images)

Before the injuries hit the Penguins, or even before the puck was dropped on the 2019-20 season, Malkin knew he had to improve from 2018-19. His 72 points, minus-25 rating, 89 penalty minutes, and being swept by the Islanders in the first round was far from good enough. And after the Penguins traded away his linemate, Phil Kessel, he vowed to improve his game. And he did, he bouncing back to be the team’s best player, an easy choice for the Penguins’ MVP.

Evgeni Malkin Pittsburgh Penguins
Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh Penguins (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

In only 55 games played this season, Malkin put up 25 goals and 49 assists for 74 points and a plus-7 rating. It may only be two more than the previous season, but a shortened campaign and injuries played a factor. It is still a great improvement for the Russian-born center. He was also able to shave 31 penalty minutes off from last year’s total. Malkin’s 58 PIMs this season is his lowest since the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season when he had 33 PIMs.

Penguins History with the Masterton

Malkin would join a select group of winners from Pittsburgh if he was to win the Masterton. Only two players in Penguins’ history have won the award. The Masterton and the Penguins debuted during the same season. Minnesota North Stars player Bill Masterton tragically died after suffering an internal brain injury during a game in his first season in the NHL at the age of 29 during the 1967-68 season.

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Lowell MacDonald became the first Penguin to win the award after the 1972-73 season when he returned to play after missing almost two entire seasons with severe ligament and cartilage damage in his knee. During his return season, MacDonald scored a career-high 34 goals, 41 assists, and 75 points. He joined Jean Pronovost and Syl Apps Jr. on the “Century Line” upon his return.

In 1992-93, the Penguins won their only Presidents’ Trophy for the league’s top team. That same season, Mario Lemieux became the second Penguin to win the Masterton when he missed 24 games after being diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and undergoing treatment.

Mario Lemieux, Pittsburgh Penguins
Lemieux overcame incredible odds to dominate the 1992-’93 season. (Tony McCune/Wikimedia)

When Lemieux returned to the game, he would go on to put up 30 goals and 26 assists for 56 points in only 20 games. He would top the league in points with 160 and take home the Art Ross and Hart Trophies that same year.

Around the League

Malkin might be a longshot for the Masterton this year, though, as across the league there have been many instances of players overcoming their personal obstacles. Other notable nominees around the league, and possible Masterton frontrunners, are Oskar Lindblom from the Philadelphia Flyers, Bobby Ryan from the Ottawa Senators, and Jay Bouwmeester of the St. Louis Blues.

Oskar Lindblom Philadelphia Flyers
Oskar Lindblom, Philadelphia Flyers (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

In mid-December, Lindblom was diagnosed with Ewing’s Sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer that has kept the Flyers forward out for the season. It is still uncertain whether the cancer will permanently affect his hockey career, but throughout the season, Lindblom was with the Flyers team by taking in games, joining them in the locker room, and on team picture day.

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Lindblom’s cancer diagnosis showed that some things are bigger than sports or rivalries as teams across the league, including the Penguins, dawned shirts that read “Oskar Strong” in support of the young forward.

The Senators’ Ryan is another top contender as he took time off from the game in November to enter rehab for alcohol addiction. He would return in late February, and his first game back in Ottawa was a special one. He picked up his fifth career hat trick against the Vancouver Canucks. In the same game, he received a five-minute fighting major for a scuffle with Chris Tanev.

Those three goals were his first since the Senators’ first game of the 2019-20 season against the Toronto Maple Leafs. During the 101 days Ryan missed while in rehab, the Senators went 13-20-11, and were on a streak of only three wins in 15 games when he returned.

Veteran defenseman Bouwmeester won his first career Stanley Cup with the Blues last season. At the age of 36 and in the last year of his contract, the future of his career was already in question. Then on Feb. 11 during a game against the Anaheim Ducks, he collapsed on the bench going into cardiac arrest. Luckily both teams’ trainers acted fast and were able to care for Bouwmeester. The remainder of the game was postponed until March 11.

Jay Bouwmeester Alex Pietrangelo St. Louis Blues Stanley Cup
Jay Bouwmeester #19 and Alex Pietrangelo #27 of the St. Louis Blues celebrate after winning the Stanley Cup. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

He underwent surgery that night to have a cardioverter defibrillator implanted into his chest. He was ruled out for the remainder of the season and will continue to remain out into the NHL’s 24 team playoff. It is still a question if Bouwmeester has played his final NHL game.

It is unlikely that Malkin will win this year’s Masterton Trophy, but he is the perfect nominee for the Penguins. He wanted to improve and be a better team player and he did just that, even while battling an injury much like most of the team.