While Alex Ovechkin edged him for the Hart Trophy in 2008-09, Evgeni Malkin certainly would have won an award for the best combined regular season and playoffs (if there was one). The Pittsburgh Penguins star won the Art Ross Trophy with a league-leading 113 points and then earned the Conn Smythe Trophy as the team won the 2009 Stanley Cup.
At that time, a common joke was that Crosby “wasn’t even the best player on his own team” because of Malkin’s genius. Things just haven’t been the same for the slick Russian center since then, though. He scored “just” 77 points in 67 contests in 09-10 and then things really bottomed out in a 37-point, 43-game campaign in 10-11. Particularly harsh observers might say that last season was mercifully cut short by knee surgery.
It’s reasonable to worry that Malkin might not be able to bounce back from that injury right away; conventional sports wisdom dictates that athletes struggle in an initial season following similar procedures. Yet the dynamic forward seems invigorated by the involuntary rest he received beginning in February.
Malkin continued his impressive – if inconsequential – preseason by scoring a goal and two assists to help the Penguins earn a 4-1 win in an exhibition game against the Minnesota Wild today. The highlight of Malkin’s night might have been his between-the-legs pass to Pascal Dupuis, who made it 2-0 at the time.
So, the $8.7 million question is: will Malkin be a dominant force again when the games start to matter? There are a few reasons to believe the answer might be “Yes.”
- His shooting percentage has been a bit below average the last two seasons. Malkin scored on 13.6, 17.3 and 12.1 percent of his shots in his dominant trio of opening campaigns, but connected on only 10.4 in 09-10 and a career-low 8.2 last season. Getting his normal (12.6 career average) amount of bounces could help Malkin fall in the 35-40 goal range – or better – if he stays healthy.
- If you ask me, Malkin has missed having a decent sniper by his side in Petr Sykora. If Crosby remains injured, Malkin might line up with a legitimate finisher in James Neal, who should be able to take advantage of his sublime passes.
- Again, merely being well-rested could make a dramatic difference. I get the feeling that Alex Ovechkin has pushed himself too far during the last two off-seasons by playing in summer hockey tournaments immediately following playoff exits. Malkin did the same in 2010, but his injury forced him to get extra R & R in 2011. That could provide subtle benefits for a player who probably doesn’t seem prone to being very open about health issues that bother him.
On the flip side, Malkin might not have stronger teammates next season and his knee could continue to be a problem.
Ultimately, it probably comes down to expectations. It might be too much to ask Malkin to flirt with that lofty 113-point peak – especially since Daniel Sedin was the only player to pass the century mark last season with 104 points – but Malkin should return to at least a point-per-game form if he’s close to 100 percent. For some, that might be enough of a reason to make the Penguins the odds-on favorites to win the Atlantic Divison and maybe even the Stanley Cup – even if his famous partner in crime’s concussion issues continue.