Evgeni Malkin

© Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Grove: Malkin's Bounce-Back Season And Return To Form

Bob Grove
December 08, 2019 - 12:19 pm

Evgeni Malkin vowed to bounce back this season from a 2018-19 campaign that fell far short of his well-established Hall of Fame credentials.

He wasn’t expecting to miss virtually the entire opening month of the season with an injury.

He wasn’t expecting his presumptive regular linemate, Alex Galchenyuk, to disappear.

He wasn’t expecting the Penguins’ power play, always a prime stage for his skills, to plummet into the NHL’s bottom 10.

He wasn’t expecting Sidney Crosby, even under optimistic estimates, to miss a quarter of the season with an injury.

He wasn’t expecting, upon Crosby’s absence, to be forced to absolutely nail finding chemistry and an understanding with Jake Guentzel – a winger he didn’t begin a single game beside last season. Sure, great players can be quick to mesh their skillsets, but it’s hardly a given.

Yet here we are, 30 games into the 2019-20 season, and Malkin has not just rebounded but played a major leadership role for a resurging Pittsburgh team that has shaken off 115 man-games lost to injury to sit two points out of fourth place in the league’s overall standings.

Noting Malkin’s offensive production is the easy part. He’s averaging 1.37 points per game, ninth in the NHL and the exact same number he delivered in 2008-09, when he put up a career-high 113 points. He averages 1.35 points in his career when playing without Crosby; in 13 games without the Pens’ captain this season, Malkin is at 1.53.

But in some ways counting the numbers does a disservice to what Malkin is achieving at the moment. His total game is light years from what we saw last season, and in listening to Mike Sullivan and understanding how the coach is trying to turn around a team that underachieved a season ago, Malkin’s buy-in has set a standard for his teammates.

He’s working the whole rink with a diligence we only occasionally saw a year ago, demonstrated multiple times again Saturday night in Detroit. He’s winning faceoffs at a rate (53.6%) that will be a career high (previously 48.8% in 2013-14), and his performance in the defensive zone has been especially significant: he’s 25-24 there with Crosby out and Saturday won as many as five defensive zone draws for the first time in 94 regular season games.

For most of his career, Malkin has been a player so confident in his own abilities that he sees a one-on-three rush up ice as a personal challenge, not an invitation to back off and wait for teammates or to dump the puck in and wait for a better opportunity on the next shift. Yet what we see now is Malkin forgoing those nearly impossible odds, making higher percentage passes to trailing teammates or back to his own defense or, yes, dumping the puck into the offensive zone.

He’s still taking the occasional gamble, certainly, but in general he’s managing the puck in a completely different way. This is huge not only for Sullivan but for Malkin’s teammates, as they are seeing first-hand that he is committed to playing the game in a way that has helped the Penguins establish themselves as the seventh-best defensive team in the league. And they should see that being more defensively astute is feeding opportunities at the other end of the ice.

They have no choice but to follow him.

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