Evgeni Malkin (22g, 32a in 54g) and Sidney Crosby (19g, 39a in 54g)
The Penguins have struggled since November’s end, and debate rages.
Does GM Jim Rutherford need to make a big trade? What would be the best line combinations? Is a big, physical defenseman needed? How can special teams be improved? Does the bottom six need help? On and on, ad nauseam.
All of the above could be addressed, and it means nothing unless Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin get their production to match their paychecks.
That’s Penguins 101. The Penguins have always done as well as their stars allow. Mario Lemieux embraced that, then executed. Sometimes the Penguins would lose 8-6, and Lemieux would tell the media, “I make the most. I need to do more.”
Despite having four or five points that night, please note.
Lemieux’s oft-proclaimed accountability served as a challenge to himself and a rallying point for his teammates.
No one expects Crosby or Malkin to be Lemieux. But they have the same responsibility. It might serve them well to acknowledge that occasionally.
Crosby’s inconsistency is mind-boggling.
Going into Thursday night’s home game vs. Columbus, Crosby had 23 pointless games. Despite that, Crosby ranked seventh among NHL scorers, just five points behind leader Patrick Kane. In games where Crosby gets a point, he’s averaging 1.93 points. That’s better than Wayne Gretzky’s all-time best points-per-game average of 1.92.
When Crosby gets a point, he doesn’t stop at one. That first point is the problem. It’s feast or famine, and to an alarming degree.
Malkin has 16 pointless games. NHL scoring is down, to be sure. Alex Ovechkin has 24 donuts. Kane has 21. But Malkin and especially Crosby aren’t supposed to drop back into the pack. But they have.
The NHL salary cap brings what’s required of Crosby and Malkin into clear focus. It’s difficult to afford offensive depth when your top two scorers consume $18.2 million of a $69 million cap.
Conversely, the Islanders may have the best fourth line in hockey: Cal Clutterbuck, Casey Cizikas and Matt Martin. But their top two scorers, John Tavares and Kyle Okposo, carry a mere $8.3 million cap hit between them.
Crosby and Malkin could very easily kick into gear for the playoffs. Talent often tells, but that would be uncharacteristic: Crosby and Malkin have combined for just six goals in their last 20 playoff games.
But Crosby and Malkin must carry the Penguins. There’s no legit alternative.
If the Penguins go out of the playoffs early yet again, how can management justify keeping the team’s cap so top-heavy without reaping positive results?
That means the Penguins’ final playoff game this coming spring could well be the last played by Crosby and Malkin as teammates. Or maybe not. The Penguins are a traditionally star-struck franchise, and the tickets get sold.
The simplest thing would be for the Penguins to win at least two playoff series and for the two stars to scale their required heights.
But linemates don’t matter. Power-play alignment doesn’t matter. It’s been almost six years since the Penguins’ last Stanley Cup, and they haven’t won a game beyond the second round during that span. They have blown two three-games-to-one series leads and lost three Game Sevens at home.
Nothing matters but results. Crosby and Malkin are most responsible for whatever happens, good or bad.
It’s one thing to be labeled the best player in hockey. It’s quite another to live up to that label. It’s a distinction that must be earned every day.
Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).
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