What should Penguins expect from Malkin?
With the 2019-20 season approaching, we’re in that sweet time for NHL fans. Every team is undefeated, and our cups runneth over with “best shape of my life” articles.
To the credit of Rob Rossi’s piece on Evgeni Malkin at The Athletic (sub required), that piece goes far deeper than your typical offseason tropes. Rossi digs into Malkin’s seemingly frayed relationship with Phil Kessel, but also his struggles with isolation from his family, insecurities about language in America, and what was a tough 2018-19 season for “Geno.”
To some degree, the most “important” information comes at the conclusion of that lengthy article, as Malkin reveals that he wants to be with the Penguins over the long haul.
“It’s (a) huge next three years,” Malkin says. “I still want to play 100 percent — and sign (for) three more years with Pittsburgh.”
That’s an interesting comment, as few were really wondering all that much about Malkin’s status, being that his current $9.5 million cap hit runs through 2021-22. Still, with Malkin already 33 and Sidney Crosby now 32, questions about the Penguins’ future will only become more prominent.
That age related question figures in sharply with the most oft-asked non-Kessel-related questions revolving around Malkin’s offseason: can Malkin “bounce back,” and how much can he rebound?
Let’s dig into the details surrounding Malkin’s chances of answering those questions in a good way.
A body breaking down?
It’s tempting to give Malkin some leeway because he dealt with some injuries in 2018-19.
Unfortunately, it’s also tough to avoid the worry that, like with Letang, injuries might just be a consistent headache for Malkin. After all, hockey players with a ton of mileage on their frames don’t tend to get healthier at age 33 and beyond.
Malkin was limited to 68 games in 2018-19 after managing to appear in 78 in 2017-18. Unfortunately, 2017-18’s relatively healthy year feels like an outlier; Malkin averaged 62 games played from 2013-14 through 2016-17, and has been dogged by issues for a long time now.
To some extent, injuries might just be “the price of doing business” for Malkin, who thrives on occasionally trying to drive through multiple defenders, and who sometimes thrives on a sneaky nastiness. It brings a troubling thought to mind, then: even if Malkin stays on the ice, might his body betray him when he tries to dominate in the same ways as he did during his prime?
Rossi’s piece touches on that, discussing how Malkin sometimes strained to make plays last season:
He tried to compensate by cheating up ice. Except he could not get back fast enough to help defensively. He forced high-risk passes because he could not consistently burst through the neutral zone or dance around opposing skaters. He put himself in harm’s way with reckless dashes into the corners. Had he not, he never would have been able to win races to loose pucks.
A bar set too high?
Malkin might not be able to gain space like he used to, and it’s fair to wonder if he might go from a supernatural shooter to a merely ... very, very good one.
From 2015-16 through 2017-18, Malkin’s shooting percentage never dipped below 16.7, and went as high as 17.6. To give you a sense of how rare that rate is, Malkin’s 17.2 shooting percentage was the fourth-highest of any player with at least 300 SOG during that frame, and Malkin easily led all with at least 500 (he scored 102 goals on 592 SOG).
In 2018-19, Malkin was still pretty efficient (scoring his 21 goals on 187 SOG, good for 11.2 percent), but no longer outrageous. Frankly, it was probably unfair to count on Malkin to keep this going ...
Be careful what you wish for
... Considering the likely players around him.
Yes, Kessel has become a drag defensively, but Alex Galchenyuk - a likely running mate for Malkin - is basically described as a lesser Kessel.
Phil Kessel (to Arizona with a prospect and a pick) is a defensively very weak forward with a very good shot and a strong power-play impact. Alex Galchenyuk (to Pittsburgh with a prospect) is also defensively weak and very good on the power-play, but without the very good shot. pic.twitter.com/RkpexhwI9D— Micah Blake McCurdy (@IneffectiveMath) June 30, 2019
It sure feels like a lot is riding on the power of “chemistry,” as plenty of people believe that the Penguins took significant steps back this offseason. Malkin and other forwards figure to carry heavy puck-lugging burdens, at least when Kris Letang’s pairing is off the ice.
It's crazy how the Malkin stuff is being shaped. His "struggles" last year were so obviously tied to having Jack Johnson as his most common defender. It's that straight forward. Johnson is a poison pill.— Ryan Wilson (@GunnerStaal) September 10, 2019
Could Malkin have a much better year in 2019-20? Absolutely.
He might get a new lease on life with the Kessel drama behind him. Malkin may merely be healthier, or might get bounces where he didn’t the year before.
Still, it’s probably wise to keep expectations in check. Maybe Malkin hasn’t succumbed to Father Time totally just yet -- hopefully he hasn’t, as a driving Malkin is still a frightfully wonderful sight -- but he may lose those battles more and more at age 33 and beyond.