Penguins’ Evgeni Malkin facing big year

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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.

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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.

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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.

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