At nearly the midway mark of the 2021-22 NHL season, the hobbled Pittsburgh Penguins welcomed back one of their two franchise pillars in Evgeni Malkin, with the superstar center marking his long-awaited return with a two-goal performance against the Anaheim Ducks. It’s heartening that the uber-talented Russian pivot appears to have not lost a step during his offseason recovery from surgery, and it bodes immensely well for the Penguins’ suddenly bolstered Stanley Cup chances. Let’s dig into why Malkin’s return makes the Penguins one of the top Stanley Cup contenders for the 2021-22 season.
Penguins’ Forward Depth Stepped up in Malkin’s Absence
In missing the typical offensive contributions provided by captain Sidney Crosby and Malkin for the better part of the season, the Penguins craved reliable sources of production from their supporting cast. Fortunately, they received all that and more, with Brian Burke’s recent comments reflecting their belief in their depth pieces heading into the thick of the playoff race. In fact, the Penguins have been one of the hottest teams in the NHL, with a loss to the Dallas Stars terminating their staggering 10-game win streak spanning December and January.
Among the candidates to unexpectedly step up this season, the performances of Evan Rodrigues (30 points in 35 games), Jeff Carter (20 in 29), and Kasperi Kapanen (20 in 34) can give the franchise hope moving forward. If they can produce this consistently without the team’s main offensive compasses, their presence should only serve to bolster their output even further. If Burke and general manager Ron Hextall truly believe in this group, further additions could be made at the trade deadline to solidify the Penguins’ already dependable group behind the scenes.
Further, reuniting Crosby and Malkin is a desperately needed salve for Pittsburgh’s greatest weakness this season, the power play. They rank 22nd in overall efficiency this season (18%), but since Crosby’s return at the end of October, the power-play units have been clicking at 18.7%, the 19th-highest rate during that time. However, their units are among the best at creating good looks, ranking sixth in chance quality (xGF/60) and fifth in scoring chances (SCF/60) with the man-advantage. With Malkin in tow, they should begin to capitalize on their wealth of opportunities at a more prolific clip.
Penguins Among NHL’s Strongest Teams at Even-Strength
A key indicator of a team’s relative dominance is their performance when the game is played at even strength, as it is a common trait for Stanley Cup winners to rank among the NHL’s best in this department at the season’s end. Luckily for the Penguins, the absence of their stars did little to hamper their territorial dominance at 5v5, with their strong results in Crosby and Malkin’s stead only solidifying their relative superiority. Here is a quick look at how the Penguins currently rank within the league in four different shot- and chance quality metrics during 5v5 play.
|On-Ice Share (%)||NHL Rank|
|Scoring Chances For||54.3||6|
|High-Danger Chances For||54.4||4|
|Expected Goals For||54.9||3|
Remember, these underlying numbers were produced without the team’s primary drivers off of offense, and are indicative of the strength of their depth and supporting pieces. When it becomes imperative to hold off opponents in hotly-contested playoff series, teams should be able to call upon their secondary reinforcements to give the stars a much-needed breather. For head coach Mike Sullivan and his staff, this reality emboldens them in trusting their less distinguished troops and could prove to be the critical difference in a tight series.
Penguins’ Stars Refreshed for Playoff Run
Although recovering from significant injury and subsequent surgery is anything but relaxing, the Penguins’ stars have not seen their aging bodies overly taxed by the NHL season to this point. While their rivals have played through nearly half of the season, Crosby and Malkin in particular possess less wear and tear than normal, potentially rejuvenating them at the most important time of the year.
According to NHL Injury Viz, the Penguins currently sit fourth league-wide in Cap Hit of Injured Players (CHIP), a cumulative metric that adds up the per-game cap hit of players missing due to injury or other absences. Only the Vegas Golden Knights, Washington Capitals, and Montreal Canadiens have lost more, meaning Pittsburgh’s stellar performance to start the year has come without key contributors, a terrifying proposition for the rest of the NHL.
Although it’s uncertain whether Malkin can return to his previous levels of production, he remains one of the NHL’s top centers when healthy. Since the 2019-20 season, the center sits eighth in points-per-game (1.18) among players to have played at least a full 82-game season’s worth of matchups. His injury history might be spotty, but his talent should not be questioned.
Among Pittsburgh’s lengthy list of injuries this season, Malkin (34 games missed), Bryan Rust (20), Crosby (12), and Jake Guentzel (6) have all been temporarily unavailable at various points this year. Despite those key absences, the Penguins remain only three points off of the Carolina Hurricanes for the Metropolitan Division lead, even if the Hurricanes have several games in hand. If there is anyone familiar with grinding through adversity it’s Pittsburgh’s organizational leaders, and some turbulence has never set them astray thus far – why would this season be different?
Can the Penguins Win Fourth Stanley Cup of Crosby and Malkin Era?
The loaded Eastern Conference makes claiming the fourth Stanley Cup of the Crosby and Malkin era a tall task, but it’s one that the Penguins’ superstars are well accustomed to fulfilling. The entire Pittsburgh squad is revving at full strength and has few weaknesses to exploit as a result. Tristan Jarry is playing himself into the Vezina Trophy discussion, the Penguins’ depth players showed they can contribute at a dependable level without their Hall-of-Fame teammates, and Mike Sullivan is as wily as NHL coaches come these days. Calling them one of the primary favorites doesn’t guarantee anything, but the NHL’s most successful franchise of the 21st century has what it takes to go all the way once more. Even if completing the quartet of championships is easier said than done.
Marko is an aspiring sportswriter with a passion for crafting stories while using a combination of the eye-test and (shudder) analytics, which is complemented by an academic background in criminology and political science.
When not covering the Colorado Avalanche and Pittsburgh Penguins for The Hockey Writers, he can also be found pouring countless hours into various sports video games franchises, indulging in science fiction novels, and taking long runs around his neighbourhood.