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.

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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.

Report: Coyotes to talk to Todd Nelson about coaching vacancy

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The Arizona Coyotes had a somewhat unexpected shakeup this past week when the team and long-time head coach Dave Tippett mutually agreed to part ways after nine seasons together.

The search for a replacement began immediately and according to Jim Matheson of the Edmonton Journal the Coyotes will be speaking to former Oilers coach Todd Nelson about the vacancy.

Nelson spent 51 games behind the Oilers bench during the 2014-15 season replacing Dallas Eakins. Nelson was replaced at the conclusion of that season by former San Jose Sharks coach Todd McLellan. While his NHL head coaching experience is limited to that brief time in Edmonton, he has an extensive track record in the American Hockey League with the Oklahoma City Barons (Edmonton’s top farm team) and currently the Grand Rapids Griffins (the Detroit Red Wings’ top farm team).

He has spent the past two seasons in Grand Rapids — replacing Jeff Blashill after he was promoted to the Detroit job — and has had a ton of success, leading the team to the Calder Cup this past season.

Predators won’t trade defense for forward help

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After losing James Neal to the Vegas Golden Knights in the expansion draft this past week the Nashville Predators have a pretty glaring hole in their top-six that is going to need to be addressed. Along with that, captain Mike Fisher is an unrestricted free agent on July 1 and is also considering retirement.

Because of those two developments general manager David Poile has made adding a top-six forward a priority for this summer, and he certainly has the salary cap space to get something done.

One thing he is not going to do, however, is trade one of his defensemen to find that help up front.

“We’ve traded enough defensemen in my recent history,” Poile said on Saturday, via the Tennessean. “I think everybody would be pretty much on the same page that our defense drives our team and our corps is as good as any in the league. We will not be touching our defense in the near future here.”

Over the past two years Poile has traded Shea Weber and Seth Jones off of his blue line but has still managed to assemble the NHL’s best defense. The quartet of P.K. Subban, Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis and Mattias Ekholm is so good that Poile made sure to protect all four of them in the expansion draft and leave Neal — a consistent 25-to 30-goal scorer signed for one more year on a pretty good contract — exposed for Vegas to take.

Without dealing one of their top-four defensemen it might be difficult to find an impact winger via the trade route, which might force them to turn to the free agent market.

But even that is going to be difficult because it is such a limited market. Now that T.J. Oshie has re-signed with the Washington Capitals Alexander Radulov would probably be the top winger available, but given his history with Nashville there is virtually no chance of that reunion happening. Justin Williams would be an intriguing veteran option, while Joe Thornton could help fill the void at center if Fisher does not return.

Still, not trading from the defense is the absolute right path for Poile and the Predators to take. Not only is that group the backbone of the Predators’ organization and one of the driving forces behind its success, it is also an extremely young group that is all signed long-term on cap friendly deals.

Even with the loss of Neal Nashville still has a deep group of forwards, while youngsters Pontus Aberg and Kevin Fiala could get an increased role and an opportunity to shine.

 

Rangers GM ‘open to anything’ on new Zibanejad contract

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Along with working to fix his team’s defense, the big issue at hand for New York Rangers general manager Jeff Gorton this offseason is coming to terms with restricted free agents Jesper Fast and Mika Zibanejad.

Following the NHL draft on Saturday, Gorton was asked where things stand in those talks and he said he was hoping to get something done “rather soon.”

What those contracts will look like, however, seems to be a bit of a mystery and Gorton doesn’t seem to have his mind set on any particular structure as far as it being long-term or a bridge deal.

“We’re open to anything as far as Mika. We want to make a good deal.” Gorton said (via the Daily News).

“It could be short-term, it could be long-term. We’re wide open.”

The Rangers acquired the 24-year-old Zibanejad before the 2016-17 season in the trade that sent Derick Brassard to the Ottawa Senators.

His first year on Broadway was mostly a success when he was healthy, scoring 14 goals and adding 23 assists in 56 games. That point per game average would have put him on a 54-point pace over 82 games which would have been a new career high. Zibanejad is just now entering what should be his peak years in the NHL and he’s already proven that he can be penciled in for 20 goals and 50 points every year (he’s been close to the pace for three straight years now). Given that there were only 69 forwards in the NHL that topped both 20 goals and 50 points this past season, that is easily first-or second-line production and a valuable asset.

Following the buyout of defenseman Dan Girardi and the trade of forward Derek Stepan to the Arizona Coyotes the Rangers were able to clear out a significant amount of cap space over the past couple of weeks and currently have more than $20 million in cap space with 17 players under contract for this season. That should not only give them more than enough space to re-sign Zibanejad and Fast, but also perhaps take a run at a free agent like defenseman like Kevin Shattenkirk. They only have eight players under contract for next season.

NHL teams can begin talking to pending free agents today

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After completing the NHL draft on Saturday the offseason rolls on for the league’s 31 teams on Sunday.

That is the day pending free agents can begin talking to teams around the league to gauge their potential interest in one another. Obviously no contracts can be signed until July 1, and technically there is to be no discussion of contract terms, but the window is open for discussions to begin.

T.J. Oshie re-signing with the Washington Capitals on Friday already removed one of the big-ticket players from the market. But several of his teammates will be available, including forwards Justin Williams and Daniel Winnik and defensemen Kevin Shattenkirk and Karl Alzner.

Shattenkirk is probably the top free agent available on the market and headlines a weak group of defensemen. He is expected to draw heavy interest from the New York Rangers as they look to reshape their defense.

Up front there is Alexander Radulov if the Montreal Canadiens are unable to come to terms on a new contract with him, while it could be the end of an era in San Jose as Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau are eligible for UFA status on July 1.