Grove: Malkin Is Key To Turning Around Pens' Drop In Goal Production

Bob Grove
December 14, 2018 - 12:02 pm
Evgeni Malkin

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

While the Penguins have made positive defensive improvements in recent weeks, reducing the number of shots and odd-man breaks they’re allowing while also more effectively killing penalties, their collective defensive play in Wednesday’s loss to Chicago demonstrated again that on most nights they will live and die with their offensive production.

They’ve won one game this season in regulation in which they’ve scored three or fewer goals. If you’re thinking that’s typical for high-scoring teams, each of the five most prolific teams in the NHL right now have won more such games: Winnipeg has won five, Colorado and Tampa Bay four each and Washington and Toronto two each.

Over the last six weeks, the Penguins’ goal production has fallen from an average of 4.1 per game to just 2.9, and their power play conversion rate has dipped from 29.0 to 18.8 percent. These are significant – and related – falls, and they bring us squarely to the play of Evgeni Malkin.

Among the NHL scoring leaders in the opening month of the season, Malkin is in the midst of a very significant scoring slump. He has just three goals in his last 19 games, his longest slump since he delivered just three in the opening 22 games of the 2013-14 season. He’s also gone nine consecutive games without a power play point, his longest such drought since coming up empty in 10 straight games in the 2014-15 season under coach Mike Johnston.

In the last six weeks, Malkin has the same number of goals as Kris Letang, Derick Brassard, Tanner Pearson, Riley Sheahan and Bryan Rust, who delivered his in the span of 20:23 Wednesday night. He’s not shooting the puck with much regularity, as Wednesday marked the first time in 11 games he’d delivered more than three shots, and he’s being careless with it as well. That helps explain why he’s -14 over this time period.

Related: Grove: Jake Guentzel's Game Is Maturing, Exactly What The Pens Needed

He’s had a significant change in linemates since the start of November, losing Carl Hagelin (while gaining Pearson) and beginning only half the games beside Phil Kessel. But aside from its length, in most ways this has been a typical Malkin slump – marked by frustration, a few penalties and renewed efforts to do it all himself. He’s always been an emotional player and that is never going to change, as it also fuels some of the great things he accomplishes.

The impending return of Patric Hornqvist into the Penguins’ forward mix will help, but right now the best way for Malkin to start pulling himself out of this and give the team the production it desperately needs is for him to find his groove on the power play. Malkin not only has zero points but just six shots on the 21 Pittsburgh power play chances over the last nine games. He is on pace to finish the season with 188 shots overall, which would be a career low for him in a full season, so this is hardly shocking.

But the opportunities never come easier than on the power play, and so now it has to be a mindset for Malkin. The reality remains that if this team is going to have more success, he must find the path back to adding offense regularly – giving the Penguins desperately needed second line production, regardless of who he’s playing with. And the door to that place is for him to regain his touch and confidence on the power play.

It must be said that the Penguins are not getting many power play chances – they’re last in the NHL at just 84 in 30 games – but they were also right near the bottom of that list in mid- to late November when Malkin produced five power play points, including two goals, in the span of six games.

He’s pulling his share of the weight in gaining those chances, as only Jake Guentzel has drawn more penalties this season, but Malkin simply has to do more with the man-advantage. Boston is in town tonight and Los Angeles Saturday, and both teams are in the bottom eight in the NHL in penalty killing. Opportunity is knocking.