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Penguins’ Evgeni Malkin facing big year

Evgeni Malkin has seemingly made it through another summer of trade speculation to remain a member of the Pittsburgh Penguins. Rumors about his future and whether the team could, would, or even should trade him is nothing new. It is a yearly occurrence and no matter how many times the idea is floated out there he always ends up staying right where he is for the obvious reasons — he is an all-time great player and it would be almost impossible to get better by trading him.

Still, the smoke around a potential trade seemed to be a little more intense this summer and for once it actually seemed like it might even be a possibility. The Penguins were coming off of a disappointing season and looking to shake things up, he turned 33 on Wednesday, and after an uncharacteristically off year general manager Jim Rutherford repeatedly declined to guarantee that Malkin would be a part of the team in the future.

There may very well come a point where the Penguins have to consider moving on or even making a trade because Father Time eventually catches everyone. Malkin will be 36 when his next contract begins, and there are not a lot of elite, high-end players still in the league at that age. They are not at that point just yet, and with the Penguins still trying to maximize the Malkin-Sidney Crosby era with another championship it still makes all the sense in the world to keep them together and build around them.

This is still going to be a huge year for Malkin because they need him to bounce back. And yes, there is something to bounce back from.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

While the final stat line offensively was right in line with what you might expect from Malkin at the end of the season (72 points in 68 games) there were still some issues throughout the season. Among them…

• It was a tough year defensively for Malkin, and while the minus-25 mark is a little misleading (a lot of that was due to empty-net situations) the Penguins still were not quite as dominant as they have been in the past with him on the ice. They were still outscored (44-46) with him on the ice at 5-on-5 while the shot attempt and scoring chance differentials were not great.

• He also cooled off considerably after the first part of the season offensively. He began the season with 20 points in his first 11 games, which was one of the best starts of his career offensively. After that? It was just 52 points in 57 games, and while that is great production for 95 percent of the players in the league it is not what the Penguins want or need for $9.5 million, especially when combined with the defensive struggles.

None of this is to suggest he was the biggest problem for the 2018-19 Penguins, or that it should have pushed them to consider a trade. Just that he can better. And if the Penguins are going to get back closer to Stanley Cup contender status in 2019-20 they are going to need him to be.

For one, the Penguins’ depth is still not quite what it was during their Cup winning years in 2015-16 and 2016-17, putting more pressure on the top lines to carry a significant part of the offense. They also traded one of their impact players this summer when they dealt Phil Kessel to the Arizona Coyotes for Alex Galchenyuk. That drop in offense will need to be made up somewhere.

When Malkin is on top of his game and playing with confidence he can still be one of the top players in the world, and the Penguins saw that at times last season. It was just not as often as they are used to seeing it. He is a proud, driven, and ultra-competitive player and is no doubt going to be entering this season with something to prove. And a driven and motivated Malkin could be a game-changer for a Penguins team that still has some flaws elsewhere on the roster.

The Penguins were in a similar situation at the start of last season when they had to bet on a big rebound year from defenseman Kris Letang. At a time when there were calls to consider moving him, or concerns that his career was starting to fall apart after another year of significant injuries, the Penguins bet big he still had elite years ahead of him because of the track record. He proved that he still did and the Penguins were far better for having him on the roster.

The same thing applies to Malkin this season. The ability and talent is still very much there, and it is a good bet he still has another big year (or two) in him.

MORE:
Cap crunch: Rangers, Penguins, Flames among teams that need moves
Penguins sign coach Mike Sullivan to four-year contract extension

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

PHT Morning Skate: Makar’s incredible rookie season; Load management in NHL

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• Capitals head coach Todd Reirden brought a few champions in to talk to his team about winning it all. (NBC Sports Washington)

• Why have the Devils’ bad players playing well and why are the good players playing bad? (All About the Jersey)

• How has Kevin Hayes looked in his first few games with the Flyers? (NBC Sports Philadelphia)

• Rod Brind’Amour is already the best coach in Hurricanes franchise history. (Cardiac Cane)

• Only Brendan Shanahan will be able to fire Mike Babcock. (Leafs Nation)

Noel Acciari has been an incredible steal for the Florida Panthers. (The Rat Trick)

Cale Makar is having a rookie season for the ages. (The Hockey News)

• The wives and girlfriends of Canadiens players are learning how to play hockey. (Sportsnet)

• We’re starting to see load management between the pipes in the NHL. (ESPN)

• This broadcast duo have been calling Red Wings games for 25 years. (Detroit News)

• The Golden Knights need to make sure that they don’t let their recent struggles frustrate them. (Sinbin.Vegas)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

The Buzzer: McDavid, Draisaitl stay red-hot; Lightning torch Rangers

Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl of the Edmonton Oilers
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Three Stars

1. Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton Oilers

There is a reason these two lead the NHL in points and a combined 11-point outing will certainly keep them there a bit longer. McDavid recorded his second hat trick in three games and his first career six-point outing. Draisaitl had five assists and extended his point streak to 11 games as the Oilers skated to a 6-2 victory against the Colorado Avalanche. If the Oilers feel that the rest of the lineup can provide enough support McDavid and Draisaitl can build on a dynamic partnership and help Edmonton return to the postseason.

2. Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay Lightning

A trip to Sweden was the perfect opportunity for the Lightning to find their form and in their first game back in North America, they proved they still are an elite offensive team. Kucherov capped off an explosive stretch when Tampa Bay scored three times in a span of 61 seconds and added three assists. It was the second time this season Kucherov recorded four points.

3. Tomas Hertl, San Jose Sharks

The Czech forward had two goals as the San Jose Sharks extended their winning streak to five with an important 5-3 victory against the Anaheim Ducks. Hertl was the beneficiary of a suspect call when he pushed John Gibson’s pad over the goal line in the opening period. But on his second of the night, the 26-year-old wired a wrister to even the score in the second period. After a slow start, the Sharks are hoping to climb their way back into the playoff race.

Highlights of the Night

McDavid doing McDavid things

Video game dekes are normally reserved for an alternate reality but Justin Dowling of the Dallas Stars showed his slick hands with an impressive toe drag.

Before a one-timer is launched, there are times you just know the player is going to connect. Lightning captain Steven Stamkos is one goal away from the 400-goal mark after this blistering slap shot.

Blooper of the Night

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins probably had a different plan for this celebration

Factoids

  • Connor McDavid became the fourth player in Oilers history to record two hat tricks in three games, joining Wayne Gretzy, Glen Anderson and Jari Kurri [NHL PR].
  • McDavid and Draisaitl are just the second Oilers teammates in the last 30 years to each record five points in a game [NHL PR]
  • The Hurricanes have not lost a game against the Sabres since March 22m 2016 and are one of five teams with an active win streak of 10+ games vs. one opponent [NHL PR]
  • Dougie Hamilton is the fastest defenseman in Hurricanes/Whalers franchise history to reach 20 points in a season (19 GP) [Sportsnet Stats]
  • The Lightning scored four goals in each of the first and second periods of a game for first time in franchise history [NHL PR]
  • Tampa Bay scored four goals in the first 6:42 of Thursday’s game. Only five teams have accomplished that feat faster in the last 25 years [NHL PR].

Scores

Lightning 9, Rangers 3

Hurricanes 5, Sabres 4 (OT)

Jets 4, Panthers 3

Wild 3, Coyotes 2

Oilers 6, Avalanche 2

Stars 4, Canucks 2

Sharks 5, Ducks 3

Kings 3, Red Wings 2

MORE:
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Scott Charles is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @ScottMCharles.

Necas rewarding Hurricanes’ patience

Carolina Hurricanes forward Martin Necas
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Highly touted prospects are consistently called on to produce shortly after their draft year, sometimes hindering their growth as players.

Whether the club is competing for the Stanley Cup, looking to become a contender or facing a salary cap dilemma, young players on entry-level contracts have become a staple in the NHL.

For the Carolina Hurricanes, the patience they showed during Martin Necas’ development process has proven to be beneficial.

Necas has recorded 13 points through 19 games, including an assist on Dougie Hamilton’s game-winning goal Thursday against the Buffalo Sabres. The 20-year-old forward darted into the offensive zone and could not complete a breakaway opportunity midway through overtime. However, instead of losing his composure, Necas stayed with the play, retrieved the puck and set up Hamilton to help Carolina secure a 5-4 victory.

Carolina selected Necas with the 12th pick in the first round of the 2017 NHL draft. Necas played one game in the NHL that season before returning to the Czech Republic. Last year, Necas had a seven-game stint with the Hurricanes, but the organization felt he needed more fine-tuning in the American Hockey League, where he helped the Charlotte Checkers capture the Calder Cup.

The pressure surrounding a first-round pick is omnipresent during the development process and only heightens when the prospect needs additional time outside the NHL. The situation is even more magnified when the big club is contending for a championship and contemplating a major trade deadline acquisition or a promotion from within.

But Carolina’s front office resisted the urge to disrupt Necas’ development and is reaping the rewards from that tough decision this season.

If Necas continues to produce, he will be in contention for a different Calder Trophy this season. While an individual award is an accomplishment, Carolina is hoping its patience will be rewarded as the team looks to build on its Eastern Conference Finals appearance last season.

MORE:
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Scott Charles is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @ScottMCharles.

Maple Leafs GM gives interesting take on ‘polarizing’ players

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The Toronto Maple Leafs are mired in a three-game losing streak, and generally speaking, have seemed a bit underwhelming so far in starting 2019-20 with a 9-7-4 record (22 points, currently in second wild card).

Through 20 games, you’ll see players talk about getting “swagger” back, and you probably won’t be able to scroll Hockey Twitter without stumbling upon at least a few debates about the job Mike Babcock is doing.

With as passionate a fan base as the Maple Leafs have, you’ll see people really drilling down to parse even the depth aspects of the team. Maybe that explains why we got an interesting take from GM Kyle Dubas, who almost seemed to break “the fourth wall” when he acknowledged the many takes that defensemen Cody Ceci and Tyson Barrie inspire.

Buffet of opinions

Dubas’ comments about Ceci are especially fascinating, as you can see from TSN’s Karen Shilton.

“Cody is an interesting one. I think it goes back to the war between data and subjective scouting [in that] he seems to be a very polarizing player,” Dubas said. “Even when everything underlying about him has been relatively solid, especially when you consider his usage [as a top-pairing defenceman who averages 22:19 of ice time per game], it seems to be every tiny thing that he does becomes a referendum on whether he’s good or not, which is mind-boggling to me. Every defenceman that plays that much and plays in that role is going to [make] mistakes. I think he’s been a good addition for us and has played above expectations from when we acquired him and we’re very happy with him.”

In particular, Dubas captures the tenure of some Hockey Twitter debates when he says “it seems like every tiny thing that he does becomes a referendum.”

But it’s not that hard to see where many of Ceci’s critics are coming from.

When the Maple Leafs acquired Ceci, and it became clear that he’d actually stick around for at least a while, the hope (for many) was that he wouldn’t have the same role as he did in Ottawa, where some believe the Senators promoted him to a level of incompetence. What if Ceci was in an easier role, with fewer minutes and lesser opponents? Instead, his ice time has been virtually unchanged from last season, and defensive measures like his Hockey Viz heat maps (via Micah Blake McCurdy) look as bad as ever:

But, truly, Dubas isn’t totally off base when he says that there are certain underlying numbers where Ceci comes across at least a bit more respectably.

There’s the argument, advanced by people like Jonas Siegel of The Athletic (sub required), that it’s too early to judge Ceci.

Maybe it’s too late; perhaps there’s an “eye test vs. analytics” divide that won’t be broken easily. It could be that the biggest uproar would come if the Maple Leafs brought back Ceci after his expiring deal melts away.

(Opinion: they absolutely should not bring Ceci back.)

Tyson not knocking it out of the park

In the grand scheme of things, the Ceci situation is basically going as prescribed.

The bigger disappointment might be Tyson Barrie, even if you ignore Nazem Kadri‘s promising early results in Colorado. The book on Barrie is that he can be an explosive offensive performer, although there were red flags about him negating much of that prowess with shaky defense.

Those red flags carry over to those Hockey Viz charts, as there’s a lot of the bad sort of red when you consider Barrie’s defensive impact (and arguably not enough of the good red on offense to justify that bleeding).

Keeping it as simple as it gets, Barrie barely has more points (zero goals, five assists, thus five points) than Ceci (one goal, three assists for four points). Those numbers are underwhelming even if you viewed Barrie as something of a paper tiger with superficial scoring stats coming in.

Maybe it’s telling that Dubas’ comments are more milquetoast about Barrie, stating that “we just want him to continue to work and get comfortable here.”

***

Barrie, Ceci, and the Maple Leafs face a familiar foe on Friday in the Boston Bruins. In the Bruins’ own way, they want to get back on track too, as they’ve lost four in a row.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.