Saturday, January 10, 2015

Penguins can't waste this version of Malkin

Thursday, Jan. 8, 2015, 11:24 p.m.

 Evgeni Malkin - Boston Bruins v Pittsburgh Penguins
Evgeni Malkin #71 of the Pittsburgh Penguins plays during the game against the Boston Bruins at Consol Energy Center on January 7, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
(January 6, 2015 - Source: Getty Images North America)

Evgeni Malkin keeps giving the Penguins what they want. That happened again Wednesday night. Heeding some direct advice from former teammate Bill Guerin, Malkin kept it simple on a charge into the offensive zone early in the third period against Boston.

Slap shot.


“Finally,” Guerin said, swinging his arms back and forth to simulate the kind of slap shots NHL players used to take when diving players didn't congest seemingly the entire offensive zone.

“Seriously. What have I been telling you?”

The Penguins have not missed a chance this season to tell Malkin what they've wanted from him. And he has listened.

This summer, at the suggestion of strength and conditioning coach Mike Kadar, Malkin added to his normal workout regimen. He hired a trainer who had worked primarily with Red Army track stars.

“I ran for six days every week,” Malkin said. “I knew the new coach (Mike Johnston) liked to play (a) fast game. I had to be ready.”

At training camp, which he missed entirely because of an injury, Malkin had several conversations with Johnston. The talks were about defense. Johnston wanted Malkin to play it like he had in his earliest Penguins days, under former coach Michel Therrien. Back-check aggressively. Hunt puck carriers. Steal from them.

“I like to play defense,” Malkin said, laughing. “That's how I learned at home. It is how I'm best.”

There are better measures of a hockey player's defense than takeaways, but not for Malkin. He can be, and has been, a puck-stripping dynamo. His 25 takeaways lead the Penguins.

So do his 18 goals and 45 points. He was the NHL's third-leading scorer as of Thursday morning and contending for a third Art Ross Trophy is a fair expectation of Malkin. It's just that general manager Jim Rutherford also asked him to “be the MVP” this season, and Malkin has done that, too.

Unlike captain Sidney Crosby, who had Chris Kunitz, now has David Perron, and eventually will get back injured Patric Hornqvist, Malkin hasn't been provided wonderfully gifted (and proven) wingers. Against Boston on Wednesday night, Malkin was back at center and flanked by Nick Spaling and Beau Bennett.

Malkin scored and assisted on Bennett's goal. That was the Penguins' offense.

Spaling, a fine offseason addition by Rutherford, should be nobody's idea of a top-six winger. Bennett, maybe finally healthy after a weird run of injuries to start his career, should be nobody's idea of an ideal playmate for Malkin, either.

Malkin needs a winger.

Rutherford owes it to Johnston, an impressive rookie coach, to find Malkin that winger. He owes it to goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, who has become one of the sport's finest goalies. He owes it to Crosby, who clearly isn't right (presumably because of a lingering wrist injury). He owes it to himself to fully capitalize after expertly and dramatically improving the Penguins with offseason trades and signings.

Salary cap constraints won't make it easy. It's going to cost a roster player, probably a good one such as defenseman Paul Martin. And a cherished prospect might have to go, too (though that prospect better not be Derrick Pouliot).

So do it, Mr. Rutherford.

Don't waste this season for Malkin, who at 28 might not have many more dominant runs left. He's healthy for the first time since he won the MVP and that second scoring title. He's engaged, buying into Johnston's system, and listening to everything the Penguins are saying.

Listen to what Malkin needs to drive a deep playoff run.

“Usually, I like if my partner is quicker,” Malkin said. “I like if I have the puck, but I'm not (a) fast guy. I use my head. So I like (a) smart partner. And I like a shooter.”

Malkin said he prefers that shooter be right-handed.

Bennett won't work, though his shot has improved. He lacks the defiant confidence and shooter's mentality to excel with Malkin.

Think Petr Sykora. Think James Neal. Malkin did, and he cited them rarely passing up a shot while playing with him. They also scored bunches of goals, forcing opponents away from overcommitting against Malkin.

Also, Mr. Rutherford, think about getting this winger to play with Malkin and Kunitz, who has looked more like himself since going from the first to third line. These Penguins need Kunitz to be a top-six winger. Even if he has slowed somewhat at the age of 35, he isn't a third liner (yet) — just like Bennett isn't a second liner (yet).

Malkin said he wants more room to work low in the offensive zone. He craves freedom to play behind the net. He thirsts for a net-front nuisance.

Think Ryan Malone. Think Ruslan Fedotenko. Think Kunitz. Malkin did, because he recalled his most productive runs have come with those wingers taking up space near the crease or around the slot, leaving him to swoop and steer and stop-turn.

Malkin is almost unstoppable when he's doing all of that, with his long reach, soft hands and the ability to create as well as he shoots. And he knows it.

Finally, think about this, Mr. Rutherford.

“I really like our team,” Malkin said. “I'm (feeling) good. I think maybe this is (the) best I've been in a long time. And I think I can be the big player for us this year.”

That is what the Penguins want from Malkin.

He has done enough, but can't do it by himself.

Rob Rossi is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at or via Twitter @RobRossi_Trib.

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