Malkin, Take the Wheel
Evgeni Malkin has taken a backseat to another player most of his career. In Russia, it’s Alex Ovechkin, then Malkin. Ovechkin was selected first in the 2004 NHL Draft, one spot ahead of Malkin. In Pittsburgh, 87 comes before 71, unless it’s out of the tunnel and onto the ice (well, in that case last is first – we know where Malkin stands on that).
As a member of nearly any other team in the NHL, Malkin would be the top-line center. He’s got the size and skill that general managers dream about; and, not many players, if any, have his game-changing ability. When healthy, Geno has the guts to be the best player in hockey. During the 2011/12 season, the former Conn Smythe trophy winner erupted for 109 points and earned MVP honors. The only thing that overshadowed his dominant campaign, in which he unleashed 399 shots on goal, was the return of Sidney Crosby from post-concussion syndrome on Nov. 21. It was Malkin’s team for most of the season, and he led by example.
Since that spectacular yearlong performance, Malkin has hit a few rough patches caused by a slew of injuries. He’s missed 13 or more games in each of the past three seasons; and, this year he played through a nagging injury – a sprained ankle – that stifled his output for nearly a month. At the season’s midway point, and even slightly beyond, he was regarded by some as the league’s best player. There are certainly great arguments in favor of that.
Malkin is a Clutch Performer
For Penguins ownership, moving Crosby to the second line is out of the question. He’s won at every level. He’s an icon, the face of hockey, and the best player in the world.
Crosby has the statistical advantage over Malkin in nearly every category…except for shots on goal and game-winning goals which aren’t exactly direct indicators of better play. It goes to show that stats don’t tell the whole story when it comes to a team sport. Malkin is a possession machine, and certainly the main player you want on the ice when the team is down. Only Lee Stempniak, Rick Nash and Kyle Okposo had better numbers than Malkin (of players who appeared in 60+ games) when their team was trailing in 5-on-5 situations this season. He kept the best points-per-game average for most of the first half of the season and started the year on an 11-game scoring streak. Aside from James Neal, Geno hasn’t really kept consistent company at the flanks over the past couple of years, which makes his accomplishments all-the-more impressive. When the Penguins traded Neal, Malkin played with everyone under the sun, including Chris Kunitz, Blake Comeau, Nick Spalling and Daniel Winnik. Even when his wingers aren’t stars like Marian Hossa and Patrick Kane, he still tends to make them look pretty good after possessing the puck for what seems like an eternity.
The best part about his game is that it rises during the post season, something that Pittsburgh could have benefitted from this year had he been healthy. When the Penguins need him to score, he generally does just that in key situations. Last year, he netted a hat trick in the series-clinching game at Columbus. He also put together dominant performances in a 4-game sweep against Carolina in the 2009 ECF en route to a Stanley Cup Championship. And, who else fights Henrik Zetterberg in an emotional SCF game?
With the game on the line, Malkin is the go-to player in Pittsburgh. That’s what you’d expect from a team’s biggest clutch performer, and it’s exactly what you get. He’s been there, and done that.
Big and Physical
When he’s not flying through the neutral zone and/or controlling the puck for dozens of seconds at a time, Malkin is throwing his 6’3″ frame around. He’s not the biggest or strongest player, but he refuses to shy away from physical battles…for better or worse. While Geno doesn’t pack the punch of Alex Ovechkin, he plays with an edge. Malkin’s physical presence helps wear down the opposition, and he can make pretty plays when necessary. He’s the quintessential power forward/sniper/playmaker…a perfect top-line center in today’s NHL.
Crosby is more suited for a finesse game, which is why a second-line role would work well. And, it’s anything but a demotion for a player who produces an incredible amount of points…just ask Patrick Kane. Crosby’s incredible speed and precision would serve as the perfect follow-up to a 30-second Malkin-led attack.
When Malkin gets his motor going, he’s nearly impossible to stop, or avoid. As great as Crosby is, you won’t catch him landing many bone-jarring hits.
It’s Better for the Team
When the Penguins failed to maintain a lot of puck-possession late in the season, Head Coach Mike Johnston and Assistant Coach Rick Tocchet attributed it to the absence of the team’s best puck retriever. Playing keep away from the other team is a key to winning, and no Pittsburgh player is better at it than 71.
Without Crosby in the lineup, Malkin thrives in the “superstar” role. Without Malkin, the team can’t seem to get going. Crosby still controls play, but the team has issues clicking. After a strong west coast road trip in early March where the Penguins produced points in 4-of-5 games, an injury took Malkin out of the lineup and sent the team into a 3-5-1 spiral…7 of the 9 games were against non-playoff teams. The a sense of a healthy Malkin is detrimental to the Penguins’ success.
Over the past five seasons, teams that won the Stanley Cup did so with tough top-line centers. Chicago and Los Angeles won with Toews and Kopitar, respectively, while Boston earned the cup behind a strong performance by Patrice Bergeron. Malkin’s build resembles that of all three players, as does his style. They are all clutch performers that empty the tank each and every game.
In Pittsburgh’s case, another championship might just be a matter of putting the right pieces in the right places. Both players are great, and both will perform, but giving Malkin the nod as the top center will improve the squad as a whole. Playing time might not be grossly different (Crosby averages less than a minute more over his career), but starting a game with Malkin as your warrior says something about the team’s identity. It’s a team game, not an individual skill show. Moving Crosby down one line might not be the popular move, but it’s the right one. He will shine in on any line, with any players. With the top wingers by his side, however, Malkin will shine in Pittsburgh. This move won’t change the world, but it could boost Geno and get him firing on all cylinders which surely will help the team.