Grove: Malkin's Second Half Goal? More Goals

'we all know there’s still something missing from his game'

Bob Grove
January 25, 2019 - 10:29 am

© Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports

PITTSBURGH (93.7 The Fan) - Two of the cornerstones of the Penguins’ plans for a more consistent second half, Sidney Crosby and Kris Letang, are in San Jose for All-Star Weekend. Deservedly so, too.

When Pittsburgh starts next week to push through the final 34 games of the regular season, Crosby will be counted upon to continue driving an outsized portion of the team’s even-strength production, and Letang will be expecting to complete what might be the finest all-round season of his career.

Evgeni Malkin is not in San Jose. He’s hardly having a poor season, as he’s on pace to record 88 points – he’s just five off Crosby’s spot as the Penguins’ leading scorer – and producing at a 1.08 points-per-game clip only 29 players have surpassed. But it says something about his legacy here that we all know there’s still something missing from his game.

Malkin told reporters last week it’s confidence. Jaromir Jagr frequently talked about having lost his confidence during rough stretches here in Pittsburgh, and that seemed as odd then as it is now to hear Malkin say the same thing. We wonder how players with their resumes can feel that way.

Malkin’s frustration level, which has been easy to spot over the course of his career, has been abnormally high over the last two months, much of which he has spent away from Phil Kessel. He simply hasn’t looked comfortable making plays at even strength without Kessel, with whom he was reunited for the team’s last two games before the bye week.

Mike Sullivan’s usage of those two together will continue to be a storyline, and Sullivan is right to worry about their spotty defensive play. Malkin, never worse than -6 in any season of his career, is -19 through 48 games and -9 in his last four. That’s not acceptable, never mind the linemates or the production at the other end.

Malkin’s usual response to tough times is to try too hard, and we’ve seen plenty of that lately, too. It’s too late in his career to realistically expect him to materially change the way he goes about playing. He will try to do it all himself. He will take unnecessary risks. He will take some bad penalties. His body language will sometimes be poor. But those tendencies are still nothing compared to his drive and desire to win, his innate ability to create, and most specifically his ability to score goals.

Goals. That’s what Malkin must find a way to rediscover going forward this season.

He roared out of the gate, scoring seven goals in the opening 11 games and converting 25.0 percent of his shots. There was no way he could keep that pace, of course, but he’s scored just seven more goals over the past 37 games and converted just 7.1 percent of his shots. He’s on pace to score 24 goals, which would be a career low for any season in which he played more than 60 games. He’s got two at even strength over the last 22 games.

His power play production has suffered, too, as he’s on pace to score just 10 power play goals, which would be more like Mike Johnston Era levels. He’s actually shooting the puck a bit more since his quick start to the season, but there have been multiple examples over the past two months that point to the fact Malkin is more often looking to pass it – not shoot it – when he gets the puck. He’s got to be more selfish.

There are a lot of ways this season can go for the Penguins, who are materially as close to being out of the playoffs as they are to leading the Metropolitan Division, which 1-4 is the NHL’s most tightly compacted.

It’s a given they’ll need more of the strong performances they’ve received lately from Matt Murray. They’ll need continued production from Kessel and Jake Guentzel. They’ll likely need some help from GM Jim Rutherford to achieve the balance they want among their forward lines. Together, they’ll need to make smarter decisions with the puck and a bigger commitment to play harder without it if they want to close the gap that exists between themselves and the Tampa Bay juggernaut they’ll likely have to get past at some point this spring.

Related: Grove: 8 Things To Watch For In The Penguins' Second Half

The Penguins have always been able to cover for some of their defensive deficiencies simply by converting a large portion of the scoring chances they get. That isn’t happening now with Malkin, who’s in an 11-way tie for 86th in NHL goal production. It’s the one thing he’s got to figure out.

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