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Searching for Evgeni Malkin’s game

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For new fans or more casual observers of the sport, Sidney Crosby’s concussion issues might seem like a rare bump in the road for the star and the Pittsburgh Penguins. Yet that’s just not the case, as they’ve been down this road before; the team banded together and played winning hockey during the 2007-08 season despite the fact that Crosby missed 29 games mostly thanks to a high ankle sprain.

There was, however, one big difference between then and now: Evgeni Malkin was playing like one of the greatest talents in the NHL around that time, which showed when he scored 47 points during a 26-game stretch without Crosby. While no one will mistake him for a marginal player right now, there’s little doubt that the skilled Russian hasn’t been the same since producing a disappointing 73-point campaign last season.

Before we get into three discussions of Malkin’s issues, I thought I’d provide my two cents on the subject.

No Petr Sykora

Malkin’s big frame and willingness to take on a bunch of defenders can open up a lot of space, but he hasn’t had a finisher since the underrated Sykora’s effectiveness diminished rapidly during the team’s Cup winning run in 08-09.

Skyora’s numbers weren’t especially gaudy, though they were solid. He produced 28 and 25 games skating alongside Malkin, which isn’t outrageously out of sync with his career stats. That being said, his 63-point 07-08 season was his best output since he was a member of a sublime line with Patrik Elias and Jason Arnott at the age of 23.

But more than that, he was a security blanket for the mercurial Malkin; his single-minded finishing skills and reasonable ability to communicate (Sykora is a Czech; Malkin is Russian) made him a valuable linemate for Geno. Now Malkin plays with pluggers and can no longer rely on Sykora or fellow Russian Sergei Gonchar for support.

No rest

Considering the mileage accrued from two SCF runs, another regular season plus playoffs and the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, it was somewhat astounding that both Malkin and Pavel Datsyuk decided to participate in the 2010 World Championships in Germany.

Hopefully that gold medal was worth it, because Malkin is struggling and Datsyuk is injured. Is it because they didn’t rest during the summer? Not necessarily, but it couldn’t help matters.

***

Now that we’ve gotten into my theories, let’s look at three other takes on Malkin’s troubles.

The gang at the Pensblog blames his issues on Dan Bylsma’s system, which emphasizes tough forechecking above a finesse-based game and fits in with my Sykora hypothesis to an extent. I agree that the hard-charging style doesn’t suit Malkin, but his power play issues indicate that his game just isn’t right at the moment.

Joel from Black & Blue & Gold writes that the fix is simple: Malkin needs to make his game more dynamic. I have to agree with that big picture analysis; it seems like Malkin and fellow ludicrously talented Russian Alex Ovechkin haven’t evolved much (relatively speaking) since their rookie seasons. Many would (justifiably) argue that they’re incredible as is, but considering the relentless improvement shown by Sidney Crosby, their lack of development in other areas of the game seems a bit stark at times.

Mike Colligan goes a step further, though, wondering if the Penguins should shut down the possibly injured star. This falls in line with the fact that Malkin didn’t take the time he needed to rest up last summer. Colligan points out the fact that the next two weeks could provide an ideal window for Malkin to rest, too.

Rest has done him well in the past, but it’s not easy convincing a tough/stubborn player to head to the press box.  With Crosby also out of the lineup Malkin will want to be on the ice, even at fifty-percent, but Bylsma and his staff need to decide how important a couple of wins in mid-January are to the team’s future.

After tonight’s game against Detroit, the Penguins will play just three games (against New Jersey, Carolina, and NY Islanders) over the next 13 days.  There won’t be a better time this season to sit Malkin down and get him fully healed from whatever ailments are bothering him.

There are plenty of reasons why Malkin isn’t approaching the all-world numbers he once produced. Chances are that he’s suffering from a combination of those issues (and maybe more), but we can only speculate right now.

What do you think the Penguins should do to “fix” their floundering “other” superstar? Let us know in the comments.

Linden: Virtanen must earn his spot on Canucks roster

VANCOUVER, BC - OCTOBER 10: Jake Virtanen #18 of the Vancouver Canucks skates during the pre-game warm up prior NHL action against the Calgary Flames on October 10, 2015 at Rogers Arena in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.  (Photo by Rich Lam/Getty Images)
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The Vancouver Canucks are loaded with question marks for next season.

One of them will be about what is best for the development of right winger Jake Virtanen, who will turn 20 years old next month and is coming off his first NHL campaign. He scored seven goals and 13 points in 55 games as a 19-year-old rookie. On occasion, he showed an ability to drive the net and to be a physical forward capable of crushing the opposition.

That big, physical, powerful forward that can also score is something the Canucks need. Virtanen could still evolve into that player. (On a similar note: Evander Kane trade speculation has been rampant in Vancouver in recent weeks.)

Becoming a consistent performer, showing more than just flashes of potential, has been a talking point surrounding Virtanen this summer.

He’ll be eligible to play with the Utica Comets in the AHL next season, and there is competition at the right wing in Vancouver, with numerous veteran players also listed at that position. That means a spot on the roster won’t be guaranteed for Virtanen, taken sixth overall in the 2014 NHL Draft.

“Jake is going to be a big part of this team for years. It was a stepping stone for him and I was out there (Vancouver) for a week and saw him training and he looked good to me,” Canucks’ center Bo Horvat told Ben Kuzma of The Province newspaper.

“He doesn’t have the mindset that he’s on the team. He has to work for it. It’s the consistency part of the game and you can’t take a night off like in junior. You can take some off knowing it’s a for-sure win and an easier night. There are no easy nights in the NHL. On any night, any team can surprise you.”

Last season, the Canucks kept Virtanen and Jared McCann with the big club, despite the option of sending them back to junior and not burning the first years of their respective entry-level contracts.

It was a major step for a team as it transitions to a younger roster, a younger core. It also came with an abundance of growing pains, culminating in Daniel Sedin ripping into his team after a particularly poor effort versus St. Louis in March.

After the season ended, and the Canucks finished 28th in the overall standings, head coach Willie Desjardins threw down the gauntlet, saying the team would focus once again on trying to win, and putting the onus on the youngsters to be good enough to help in that aspect.

When it comes to Virtanen, his conditioning has turned into an emphasis this summer.

“I think Jake has … a very raw and very unique skill set,” Canucks’ president Trevor Linden told TSN 1040. “He’s come a long way. Last year was an important year for him, just having him see what it takes to get to the next level.

“Jake knows he’s going to have to come to training camp this fall and earn a spot.”

Related: Since World Juniors disappointment, Virtanen has been ‘a different player’ for Canucks

NHLPA hire Bruce Meyer brings a ‘wealth of knowledge,’ says Fehr

Donald Fehr
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Bruce Meyer’s résumé of victories as a lawyer is a long and impressive one, and he has now joined the NHL Players’ Association as a senior director of collective bargaining, policy and legal, the union announced Thursday.

During his tenure of more than 25 years at the law firm Weil, Gotshal and Manges LLP, Meyer represented the NHLPA, NFLPA and NBPA.

The NHLPA said in a statement that in his new position, Meyer “will focus on a wide array of policy and legal issues.”

In working for those unions, he was involved in matters such as collective bargaining and arbitration, as per his online profile.

“Bruce will be a great addition to the NHLPA’s staff. He brings a wealth of knowledge to this new role coming from his law firm where he gained three decades’ worth of valuable experience, including effectively representing the NHLPA and other Players’ Associations as outside counsel,” said NHLPA executive director Don Fehr in a statement.

The NHLPA said Meyer will begin at his new position in mid-August.

The news of this hire comes more than a month after the league sued the NHLPA after Dennis Wideman‘s 20-game suspension for hitting linesman Don Henderson was reduced to 10 games by a neutral arbitrator.

Related: Report: NHL dismisses neutral arbitrator who reduced Wideman’s suspension

Sweet ride: Blackhawks sponsor CJ Wilson Racing’s Porsche Cayman at Road America

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CJ Wilson Racing
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Chicago Blackhawks fans, start your engines!

Yes, according to MotorSportsTalk, the Blackhawks have become the main sponsor of CJ Wilson Racing’s No. 35 car, a Porsche Cayman GT4 Clubsport, for the upcoming IMSA Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge event at Road America next month.

That’s a sweet ride.

From MotorSportsTalk:

The partnership will officially launch at the United Center on Wednesday, August 3, from 11 a.m. until 1 p.m in advance of Saturday’s race. Fans will have the opportunity to get up close to the car, meet the drivers and Blackhawks Ambassador Denis Savard, and have their picture taken.

The race takes place Aug. 6 at Road America in Wisconsin.

Third team’s the charm? Devils ink Gormley to one-year, two-way deal

<>during the first period at TD Garden on November 12, 2015 in Boston, Massachusetts.
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Since being selected by the Coyotes at 13th overall in the 2010 NHL Draft, Brandon Gormley has had a difficult time breaking into the league on a full-time basis.

On Thursday, the 24-year-old Gormley joined his third NHL team, signing with the New Jersey Devils on a one-year, two-way deal worth $650,000 at the NHL level, the club announced.

Despite his draft status, Gormley has yet to play a full season in the big league, although this deal could give him an opportunity to end that. For the Devils, the deal adds more depth to the blue line in the organization and for a friendly price.

Last season, Gormley split time between the Colorado Avalanche and its farm team, the San Antonio Rampage. Despite some high expectations about where he could fit on the Avs’ blue line, he was eventually put on waivers in January.

He ended the season with one assist in 26 games with the Avalanche, and hit the open market after Colorado didn’t give him a qualifying offer.