Pittsburgh Penguins center Evgeni Malkin skates with the puck against the Buffalo Sabres

Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA

Grove: Setting Expectations For Evgeni Malkin's Return To Penguins Lineup

Bob Grove
November 01, 2019 - 10:57 am

The month of October was a pretty good one for the Penguins, who won eight of 13 games while allowing just 2.38 goals per game, third-best in the NHL prior to last night.

But now Evgeni Malkin is coming back.

This early success has been the product of a lot of different factors: contributions of depth forwards who weren’t supposed to be in the NHL; solid goaltending; the return of consistent puck support and puck pressure all over the ice; the usual brilliance of Sidney Crosby; and the adoption of a keep-it-simple approach that has reduced turnovers, among others.

But now Evgeni Malkin is coming back.

One month into the Penguins’ reaction to the brutal ending of their 2018-19 season, we have a team with a chemistry – despite the injuries, despite the new faces – that seems to be everything they were missing one year ago.

But now Evgeni Malkin is coming back.

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So this has prompted questions heading into Saturday afternoon’s home date with the Oilers, Malkin’s presumed return after missing the last 11 games. What impact will Malkin’s return have on the Penguins’ current formula for success? Can he adapt his game to fit it? What can be expected from him?

Let’s take those in inverse order.

Expectations for Malkin right now are no different than they were at the beginning of this season. His ability to return to form as a dynamic, consistent creative force will go a long way toward determining whether this team can go from playoff participant to playoff threat. Yes, he’s also going to have to be more responsible defensively, but more on that in a moment.

At this point in his career, Malkin is not going to turn in to a north-south player who starts/stops instead of circles. He’s not going to routinely dump pucks into the zone when there’s no obvious play to be made. Sure, he can see how the team has been playing, but the reality is this: the team is going to have to keep playing that way while Malkin does his thing. He’s always been a wild card, and while that has been incredibly frustrating for fans to watch at times, it’s also been exhilarating for them to watch when he’s going good – which is often.

That’s not to say he gets a free pass on responsibility and common sense and playing hard without the puck. Mike Sullivan will be expecting more of all three, and honestly the removal of Phil Kessel from Malkin’s side will help promote his ability to deliver on all three. Malkin seems quite determined to overwrite his story from one year ago, and there is every reason to believe he will deliver on his intentions.

The impact he can have immediately – and over the course of the entire season – comes on the power play. And right now, the timing of his return couldn’t be better, because the Pittsburgh power play has gone seven games without a goal, its longest slump in almost four years.

The power play has been an important platform for Malkin throughout his career. Consider this: Crosby has scored 30.3 percent of his goals on the power play. Mario scored 34.2 percent of his goals on the power play. Malkin’s at 36.4 and counting, as his goal on opening night, yes, came with the man advantage.

Malkin needs to be a little more selfish on the power play this year and shoot the puck more often. Jake Guentzel will find his place on the first unit and could actually score a scary number of goals there with Malkin, Crosby and Kris Letang feeding him passes; Sid will win pucks, create space and score his share. But a focused and motivated Malkin, routinely firing one-timers and wristers from the right circle, is critical to making this power play the nightmare it has the potential to be for opponents.

So, yeah, Malkin is coming back. Don’t sweat it. Expect more from him than you saw last season, but don’t expect things he can’t deliver. He should be a better version of himself, but by and large he’s going to be himself. And that’s a good thing.