Sidney Crosby sure has had one heck of a year, hasn’t he? He has spent much of the year playing at an elite level not seen since the infamous 2011 Winter Classic. There have been plenty of conversations about whether this is the best he has been since his concussion issues. The talk is understandable. Sid looks plenty motivated in his quest to fend off Connor McDavid as the face of the sport.
McDavid, for his part, is proving a worthy adversary, leading the NHL in points and regularly displaying the kind of speed, skill, and overall talent that drew comparisons to Crosby. At barely 20 years old, he is the unquestioned future of the sport.
Do you remember Evgeni Malkin? With so much chatter centering on Crosby and McDavid, it has been easy to forget Malkin, the man almost always in the shadow of Crosby, or of his countryman, Alex Ovechkin.
In case you haven’t noticed, Malkin might well be on track to take home his second Hart Trophy as league MVP. He has been that good, and then some. At worst, he has been co-MVP of the Penguins alongside Crosby, and his points per game average of 1.18 is second only to Crosby’s 1.19. That could change, of course, if Geno puts up a few points tonight against Philadelphia.
While Crosby is deservedly getting heaps of credit for working his usual magic with a pair of non-household name linemates in Conor Sheary and Jake Guentzel, Malkin has been productive no matter who has played on his wings.
Getting supposed role-players (a term that is probably a disservice to Sheary and Guentzel, at this point) to produce at a higher level makes for a nice story, and furthers Sid’s reputation as a guy that makes everyone around him better, but putting up big numbers with high-profile guys is important, too. Malkin has produced big results whenever he has been paired with Patric Hornqvist and Phil Kessel.
Stats tell a lot of the story with Malkin, but the most compelling evidence that his season has eclipsed the work done by Crosby and McDavid comes via the eye test. Malkin, since returning from injury on Valentine’s Day, has simply looked like a beast on the ice. No one in the league, including Crosby, McDavid and Ovechkin, makes dominance look as easy or as effortless as Malkin does when he’s on a tear.
He has been flying all over the ice, playing motivated defense — sometimes too motivated, like when he laid out to block a shot against Calgary and got up slowly — and generally wreaked havoc almost every shift. Crosby is still the best player on the planet because he is able to bring his “A” game on such a consistent basis, but I’ll take Malkin’s absolute best over everyone else’s.
The Penguins appear to be getting just that from him right now. And since he seems relatively healthy, there is every reason to believe he’s ramping his game up at the right time. He even was willing to engage in the most needlessly risky of NHL traditions, the fight, to put to bed his “issue” with Winnipeg’s Blake Wheeler.
Malkin likely earned a great deal of respect from teammates and opponents for handling his business himself, no matter how dangerous it was, but he likely ingratiated himself to his fellow Penguins a whole lot more by turning the fight into a Gordie Howe hat trick and knocking out the Jets to the tune of two goals and an assist.
It seems like he’s matured as a leader, not falling victim as readily to the agitating tactics that took him out of his game in prior seasons, and instead morphing into a guy that thrives with a bit of a chip on his shoulder. Couple that with the fact that he seems as good as he’s ever been physically, and you have a truly terrifying force for the rest of the league to try and contend with.
Assuming Kris Letang and Hornqvist are healthy, this version of Malkin, mixed in with Crosby’s steady brilliance and Kessel’s sniper scoring, makes the Penguins a solid bet to repeat as champions.
As for that Hart Trophy? Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavid have had superb seasons, but for me, the choice is clear: Evgeni Malkin, the man toiling brilliantly on the edge of the spotlight, is the NHL's MVP.