To some extent, the Pittsburgh Penguins haven’t been playing with the “real” Evgeni Malkin for about a season and a half. After winning the Art Ross Trophy with his league-leading 113 point season in 2008-09, Malkin’s been putting up relatively unimpressive numbers (77 points last season, 37 points in 43 games in 10-11).
In other words, it’s important to note that his health/game has been sliding for a while now. While Sidney Crosby’s concussions interrupted an astounding season abruptly, Geno’s injury seemed like the final straw rather than a sudden shocker.
That being said, it’s very possible that the 24-year-old Russian center would have found his rhythm over the next few months. The Penguins have played decent hockey with 80-percent Malkin, but what can they do without any Malkin whatsoever? Let’s study their options, some of which might bleed into each other.
Keep their feet on the accelerator
When we discussed Malkin’s struggles in January, one interesting theory surfaced: Penguins coach Dan Bylsma’s hard-charging, brawny style might not be a great fit for the Russian’s game. While Crosby’s willingness to go to “dirty goal” scoring areas fits well with this aggressive system, Malkin’s finesse game contrasts with that straight-forward mentality.
In the grand scheme of things, he will obviously be missed, but the Penguins can use the $8.7 million in cap space cleared by Malkin’s injury to lure some “rental” players to help fill some of the void (or at least bring that vision to fruition).
A healthy Crosby and Jordan Staal would present a solid one-two punch, so the Penguins don’t need to restrict their search to centers. Let’s glance at some pending free agents who might be worth a “rental.”
Sorting out potential trade targets of varying quality
(Click here if you want to do your own “scouting.”)
- The Brad Richards dream: The Penguins would be one of the most interesting suitors in the very unlikely scenario of a Richards trade. The sublime passer’s cap hit is about $900K less than Malkin’s, so the trade could send monetary relief (plus draft picks and prospects) to Dallas for Richards. It’s still a long shot, though.
- Square pegs in round holes: There are many fans in Pittsburgh who still hold a soft spot for enigmatic Russian Alex Kovalev, but he only really makes sense as a winger alongside Malkin. Jason Arnott is a slightly more realistic option, but he isn’t exactly a Swiss Army Knife of versatility either.
- Right-handed shots would be a bonus: When the Penguins let Bill Guerin retire, they gave up their best right handed shot (at least among forwards). Two semi-interesting right handed snipers might become available: Michael Ryder and Milan Hejduk. Cap reasons would dictate Ryder’s move while Hejduk might become an option if the Avs slip out of playoff contention. Steve Sullivan, Teemu Selanne and Justin Williams would be even better options, but they are far less likely to be traded.
- Two other interesting names: Speedy Sergei Samsonov and dirt-cheap playmaker Alex Tanguay could be interesting choices if the Penguins go for a buffet setup rather than one big splurge. Speaking of which:
Aside from that unlikely Richards scenario, the Penguins might try to mix and match players with some flaws rather than going for one big move. If any team can afford to give a player the Wade Redden treatment (stashing an expensive player in the minors if things don’t work out), it’s the deep-pocketed Penguins.
The Penguins have at least some hope without Malkin, even if there will be plenty of times in which his world-class skills will be missed. Their system might be more seamless in his absence, with role players taking on bigger responsibilities. Most of all, though, the $8.7 million in cap space should come in handy. GM Ray Shero’s use of that space could be one of the most captivating storylines of this year’s trade deadline.