The Pittsburgh Penguins are 11-5 so far this season and are currently first place in the Atlantic, tied with the Devils. So far there has been little reason for concern, until recently. Reigning MVP and Art Ross Trophy winner Evgeni Malkin only has 2 points in his last 5 games (0 goals). Overall this season he only has 18 points in 16 games. Well below his points per game pace of last season. He also has only 3 goals this year (2 PP goals). What is the reason for Malkin’s drop in statistical performance?
I think there are a few reasons that can point to why Malkin is off of his 2011-2012 pace. The first variable is that he spent the beginning of this season playing in the KHL. The KHL was the best league in the world while the NHL was on hiatus, but it still pales in comparison to the challenges of the NHL.
Over the course of the lockout there is no doubt that Malkin grew accustomed to the larger ice surface and the time and space that are a direct result of the increased ice surface. Coming back to the NHL affords him less time and space along with increased physicality. The combination of time and space being taken away and a more physical brand of hockey have led to Malkin becoming frustrated in this early part of the season.
A result of the shrinking time and space has seen Malkin take his share of ill advised retaliatory penalties for the Penguins this season. That said, Malkin is no stranger to the penalty box in his career. He has he averaged 1 penalty minute for every game he has played in through the 2011-2012 season (427 GP 426 PIM). So far this year he has 26 PIM in only 16 games played. You can visibly see the frustration mounting and it has resulted in Malkin being off his game Here are stats from prominent NHL players who played the first part of the season in the KHL:
As you can see Malkin isn’t the only player from the KHL who has seen their points per game totals drop since returning to the NHL. While Malkin’s drop is the most significant, he has company with other prominent NHL players (Ovechkin, Backstrom, Kulemin, Grabovski). The average drop of points per game from the KHL to the NHL from this list was – 0.35 points/game. This just shows that even if the KHL was the best league during the lockout, it still doesn’t compare to the difficulty of the NHL.
Another reason for Malkin’s slow start has been his production during even strength play. Malkin only has 1 goal while at even strength this year. You might wonder how Malkin can only have 1 goal; he still plays with James Neal. He does, but it has been the left wing position that has been the issue. Up until the Ottawa Senators game, which was the Penguins 14th of the season, the left winger on the Malkin/Neal line combined for 0 points, yup 0. Matt Cooke’s assist on James Neal’s 3rd period goal was the first point from a left winger on that line. Malkin did not have a point on the play.
Given that there has been no production from that spot in the lineup teams have been able to pressure Malkin and Neal knowing that the other player on their line would not be making an impact on the game or scoresheet. Eric Tangradi, Tanner Glass, and Zach Boychuk haven’t cut it. Presently Matt Cooke is getting the LW minutes with Malkin and Neal, but he is better suited for 3rd line duty. The Penguins have recalled their one forward prospect with the potential of making a difference in Beau Bennett. In 2 games Bennett has not looked out of place and Head Coach Dan Bylsma has been impressed with his play away from the puck.
Could this call up eventually lead to Kunitz being reunited with Malkin and Neal? Then there is the crowd of people who think that Malkin plays his best hockey when Sidney Crosby is out of the lineup. They believe that Malkin hates being in Crosby’s shadow and wants it to be his team. Here is the breakdown of Malkin’s career stats based on if Crosby was in or out of the lineup:
Malkin and Crosby have both played in every Penguins playoff game together. Malkin has 81 points in 68 games. This weighs out to 1.19 points per game, the same as his regular season total with Crosby. As the data shows Malkin does indeed have a higher points per game ratio with Crosby out of the lineup, but not a significant enough margin to support the theory that he plays better without Crosby.
When Malkin won the 2009 Art Ross Trophy Crosby played in 77 games that season. Malkin was able to lead the playoffs in scoring and win the 2009 Conn Smythe Trophy with Sidney Crosby playing in every playoff game that year as well.
When Malkin won the Art Ross Trophy and MVP last season he had a higher points per game total with Crosby in the lineup than when he wasn’t. Sidney Crosby has been in the lineup for 80.8% of Malkin’s regular season career. Sidney Crosby’s presence did not hold Malkin back from winning the following individual trophies: Calder, Art Ross, Conn Smythe, Hart, and Ted Lindsay.
Only two other players in the history of the NHL have won all 5 of those awards in their career, Mario Lemieux and Bobby Orr. It’s time to put to rest the Malkin is better without Crosby dialogue.
What needs to happen moving forward for Malkin to regain his 1.45 points/game ratio from last season?
He needs to simplify. He is trying to do too much on his own and the NHL ice surface does not lend itself to the same time and space the KHL did. Many times Malkin has found himself in situations where he has over handled the puck and either turned it over or caused his linemates to have to regroup on their zone entry. His attempts to do too much have left him frustrated and instead of channeling that energy into better hockey plays, he has been side tracked with bad retaliatory penalties.
Malkin needs to shoot more. Last year he led the league in shots on goal with 339 which equaled 4.52 shots/game. This year he has 50 shots in 16 games which equal 3.13 shots/game. Moving forward it will be near impossible for Malkin to get worse play from the LW spot on his line. The addition of Beau Bennett to the lineup gives Bylsma more options to play with. All of Byslma’s potential options (Kunitz, Cooke, Bennett) have a better winger in the LW spot than what the Penguins had used the first 13 games of the season which yielded 0 points. With all of that said, Malkin is still 11th overall in the NHL in scoring right now.
Perhaps it is the rest of the NHL that should be worried about Malkin and not the Penguins. Imagine how dangerous the Penguins will be if Malkin starts to reach his point/game totals from last year. One thing I have learned watching Malkin’s career unfold, never doubt him.
Thanks for reading!