The Penguins got some bad news late last week when it was revealed that Kris Letang would miss the remainder of the season after having surgery for a herniated disk in his neck. Losing Letang is a significant blow to the team’s chances of repeating as Stanley Cup champions, but getting Evgeni Malkin back in the lineup could help them stay on track.
Malkin, who hasn’t played since March 15, looks close to 100 percent healthy. If he can come in anywhere near what he was prior to his injury, the Penguins will be tough for any opponent to handle.
It’s hard to believe that he’s been out of the lineup for close to a month after blocking a Michael Ferland shot during a 4-3 shootout loss to the Calgary Flames on March 13. He suited up for the next game against the Flyers, but soon revealed that he was experiencing significant pain in his shoulder. He hasn’t played since.
He was having what can only be described as a MVP-caliber season prior to his injury. He scored 33 goals and 39 assists for 72 points in only 62 games. He was dominant on the power play, scoring 23 goals with a man advantage. He was shooting the puck at a high rate, picking up 191. Those numbers had him on pace for his finest season since 2011-12.
Having a former MVP return to a lineup that already features another is something that no other playoff team has. Malkin will be joining Sidney Crosby, who already has a Hart Memorial Trophy to his name and is a likely finalist for the award this season.
The Penguins’ captain ranks second in the league’s scoring race with 89 points and is leading the league with 44 goals. He has found tremendous chemistry on a line with youngsters Conor Sheary and Jake Guentzel and the trio has been rolling up offense on a nightly basis. Guentzel has scored a goal in five straight games.
The thinking is that Malkin will jump right back in on the team’s second line between Phil Kessel and Bryan Rust, which would then push Patric Hornqvist to the third line with Nick Bonino. That would make three formidable lines that would all be capable of giving opposing defenders headaches.
However, losing Letang still creates a huge void. General manager Jim Rutherford has done a nice job of acquiring defensive depth, bringing in Mark Streit and Ron Hainsey at the trade deadline. Those veterans combine with any combination of existing blue liners Justin Schultz, Ian Cole, Brian Dumoulin, Trevor Daley, Olli Maatta, Chad Ruhwedel and Cameron Gaunce provide a myriad of options.
None of them can singularly replace Letang, but having Malkin gives the team better than a fighting chance. Malkin can do many of the things Letang adds. Besides his offensive skills, he can also serve as a de-facto defenseman when he is on the ice.
His defensive game is very underrated. He isn’t shy about using his 6-foot-3, 195-pound frame to muscle opposing players off of the puck. He is very adept at picking off passes and he can run the point on the power play. Schultz or Daley will likely handle that last assignment, but Malkin will certainly be on the unit.
This is the closest both Crosby and Malkin are to 100 percent healthy entering the postseason in quite some time. Though Malkin was a key contributor last spring, he wasn’t 100 percent after suffering an arm injury in March. Having them both creates match-up issues and keeps opponents from double-teaming one or the other.
It’s worth noting that both players are also locked in and seem to have taken an all-business approach to their work.
Crosby has long been looked at as one of the best leaders in hockey, but Malkin has taken large strides in that department this season. He's show his leadership sporadically in the past, but this season it has been there on a daily basis.
The 30-year-old has said a lot of the right things. He’s led with his actions on and off the ice and he’s singlehandedly taken the team on his shoulders when they’ve needed him too. Having two guys that are capable of doing that is invaluable in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The team has gone 7-3-2 during Malkin’s most recent absence, which is very good, but they suffered a four-game winless streak during that span. Though they’ve been good without him, getting him back in the mix makes them a very tough team to play.
Malkin didn’t arrive in a trade, the deadline brought Streit and Hainsey, but he could serve as the biggest and most value acquisition heading into the postseason.