There are few who have ever laced up their skates for hockey’s most revered league that have possessed the combination of intimidating size, dazzling skill, and elite vision that define Evgeni Malkin. However, despite a trophy case quickly running out of room after a dominant eight seasons in Pittsburgh, Malkin’s stock seems to have fallen as of late. While still respected as one of the elite, others have risen up and begun to edge the talented Russian out of the conversation of the world’s best player, where his name so recently seemed to rest comfortably among the top candidates.
While many of these new additions are beyond excellent in their own right, the fundamental greatness of Malkin’s play has always been an historically superb sense of balance. There are greater scorers, greater distributors, better skaters and better leaders – but there are few of this generation who can do it all, few who have risen to the game’s highest heights in every one of these categories at various times. In fact, there are only two, and they will take the ice one after another in Pittsburgh’s black and gold come October. Many line up against the Penguins’ two lead centremen and find ways to exploit specific sets of skills to chase victory, but 87 and 71 remain the NHL’s best at doing it any which way they choose.
It is precisely this fact that has led to the recent stagnation in Malkin’s game. While nagging injuries have certainly not made things easier for him, the central point upon which Malkin’s play has become slightly unhinged has been the shift away from balanced superiority. It was only a few seasons ago that the powerful Russian dished out five points in a single game – a feat that most players will never accomplish – four times in one season (in four consecutive months, in fact).
Yet this past year saw no such dominating performances, despite a still strong season and a team-leading postseason. Though Malkin is still a premier talent in this league, he can be better. He was better. And he will be better again, because the offseason roster shake-up initiated by GM Jim Rutherford has simply left him no choice, and has removed from his game that which caused the most stress on his ability to contribute fully: the option to defer to those around him.
While James Neal and Malkin had truly remarkable chemistry, the kind that doesn’t come around often in one’s career, the on-ice relationship between the two seemed to continually elevate Neal’s game while gradually diminishing Malkin’s. And for a team that relies on the latter to be one of the central pillars of all that it aims to do, that won its only championship of this era with Malkin as its MVP, that just simply couldn’t continue.
That isn’t to say that Neal’s success brought down Malkin’s game in any direct way, but rather, as Neal established himself as a lethal scorer in his own right, it allowed Malkin to become more comfortable with deferring to his talented winger to put pucks in the net, rather than aiming to do so primarily himself, getting away from the style of play that brought him success for the majority of his career. The numbers tell a similar story.
Whereas Malkin’s shots remained well above four-per-game for most of his career, they fell significantly in each of the past two seasons as he looked to distribute to Neal rather than take the shot himself. Naturally, Neal outshot Malkin by a large margin over the same time span. The year the two truly thrived together – wherein Malkin posted a 50-goal/109-point season (en route to a scoring title and an MVP award) and Neal posted the highest goals total of his career – saw the pair finish first and second in the league in shots, with Malkin leading Neal despite playing five less games.
That was Evgeni Malkin and James Neal at their best. Unfortunately, the success of that season, and the establishing of Neal’s top-level skill, caused Malkin to shift the role of the primary trigger man off of his own shoulders and onto Neal’s. While not a foolish decision considering Neal is a truly gifted sniper, it was one that ignored the fact that the Penguins’ enjoyed the most success when their second line’s offense ran firstly through Malkin.
That was the case when they lifted the Stanley Cup in 2009, when Malkin skated with such players as Ruslan Fedotenko and Max Talbot, who looked to their centreman to spearhead the offense. That was the case when Malkin became the league’s unequivocal leader in 2012, when Neal made his case but still followed Malkin’s lead. And now, with Malkin finding himself without any established wingers upon which to readily rely, that will be the case once again. Whether it be Patric Hornqvist, Beau Bennett, Pascal Dupuis, or anyone else, those that skate alongside Malkin will do so with the expectation that the latter will lead them forward – that he will take the burden upon his shoulders and guide them to victory, requiring of them only their best effort to help him do so.
While conventional wisdom tells us that hockey is not a sport suited for doing it all by oneself, we have seen what Malkin can do when he he does just that.
We saw it in Carolina in ’09 when he carried the team on his back and put together one of the finest hat tricks of his career, leading Pittsburgh into the Stanley Cup Finals. We saw it in 2012 when he embarrassed the entirety of the Tampa Bay Lightning team in a Lemieux-esqe display of mastery, racing down the ice with unmatched grace, and dipping through a myriad of defenders before lighting the lamp in spectacular fashion. And now as the Penguins prepare for a reset, adapting to a new system and doing so with a roster significantly altered, we will see it again.
We will see ‘Geno’ reclaim his role as one of the central currents through which this team’s offense flows, and will see him reclaim his rightful place among not only these legends of the present, but those of the past as well.
He can be better. He was better. And he will be once again.