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What should Penguins expect from Malkin?

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With the 2019-20 season approaching, we’re in that sweet time for NHL fans. Every team is undefeated, and our cups runneth over with “best shape of my life” articles.

To the credit of Rob Rossi’s piece on Evgeni Malkin at The Athletic (sub required), that piece goes far deeper than your typical offseason tropes. Rossi digs into Malkin’s seemingly frayed relationship with Phil Kessel, but also his struggles with isolation from his family, insecurities about language in America, and what was a tough 2018-19 season for “Geno.”

It’s a worthy read.

To some degree, the most “important” information comes at the conclusion of that lengthy article, as Malkin reveals that he wants to be with the Penguins over the long haul.

“It’s (a) huge next three years,” Malkin says. “I still want to play 100 percent — and sign (for) three more years with Pittsburgh.”

That’s an interesting comment, as few were really wondering all that much about Malkin’s status, being that his current $9.5 million cap hit runs through 2021-22. Still, with Malkin already 33 and Sidney Crosby now 32, questions about the Penguins’ future will only become more prominent.

That age related question figures in sharply with the most oft-asked non-Kessel-related questions revolving around Malkin’s offseason: can Malkin “bounce back,” and how much can he rebound?

Let’s dig into the details surrounding Malkin’s chances of answering those questions in a good way.

A body breaking down?

It’s tempting to give Malkin some leeway because he dealt with some injuries in 2018-19.

Unfortunately, it’s also tough to avoid the worry that, like with Letang, injuries might just be a consistent headache for Malkin. After all, hockey players with a ton of mileage on their frames don’t tend to get healthier at age 33 and beyond.

Malkin was limited to 68 games in 2018-19 after managing to appear in 78 in 2017-18. Unfortunately, 2017-18’s relatively healthy year feels like an outlier; Malkin averaged 62 games played from 2013-14 through 2016-17, and has been dogged by issues for a long time now.

To some extent, injuries might just be “the price of doing business” for Malkin, who thrives on occasionally trying to drive through multiple defenders, and who sometimes thrives on a sneaky nastiness. It brings a troubling thought to mind, then: even if Malkin stays on the ice, might his body betray him when he tries to dominate in the same ways as he did during his prime?

Rossi’s piece touches on that, discussing how Malkin sometimes strained to make plays last season:

He tried to compensate by cheating up ice. Except he could not get back fast enough to help defensively. He forced high-risk passes because he could not consistently burst through the neutral zone or dance around opposing skaters. He put himself in harm’s way with reckless dashes into the corners. Had he not, he never would have been able to win races to loose pucks.

A bar set too high?

Malkin might not be able to gain space like he used to, and it’s fair to wonder if he might go from a supernatural shooter to a merely … very, very good one.

From 2015-16 through 2017-18, Malkin’s shooting percentage never dipped below 16.7, and went as high as 17.6. To give you a sense of how rare that rate is, Malkin’s 17.2 shooting percentage was the fourth-highest of any player with at least 300 SOG during that frame, and Malkin easily led all with at least 500 (he scored 102 goals on 592 SOG).

In 2018-19, Malkin was still pretty efficient (scoring his 21 goals on 187 SOG, good for 11.2 percent), but no longer outrageous. Frankly, it was probably unfair to count on Malkin to keep this going …

Be careful what you wish for 

… Considering the likely players around him.

Yes, Kessel has become a drag defensively, but Alex Galchenyuk – a likely running mate for Malkin – is basically described as a lesser Kessel.

It sure feels like a lot is riding on the power of “chemistry,” as plenty of people believe that the Penguins took significant steps back this offseason. Malkin and other forwards figure to carry heavy puck-lugging burdens, at least when Kris Letang‘s pairing is off the ice.

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Could Malkin have a much better year in 2019-20? Absolutely.

He might get a new lease on life with the Kessel drama behind him. Malkin may merely be healthier, or might get bounces where he didn’t the year before.

Still, it’s probably wise to keep expectations in check. Maybe Malkin hasn’t succumbed to Father Time totally just yet — hopefully he hasn’t, as a driving Malkin is still a frightfully wonderful sight — but he may lose those battles more and more at age 33 and beyond.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Pass or Fail: LA Kings’ 2020 Stadium Series jerseys

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One day after the Colorado Avalanche showed off their jerseys for next month’s Stadium Series game, the Los Angeles Kings revealed what they will wear when they hit the ice at at Falcon Stadium on Feb. 15 (8 p.m. ET; NBC).

As is tradition for Stadium Series games, the design is very unique and out there. The black, white, and silver is there along with the LA from their regular jerseys “taking flight” since the game will take place on the campus of the Air Force Academy.

adidas / Kings

Now while you’re maybe distracted by the black and white of the jerseys and the sweet white gloves, do not overlook one neat feature: the shiny silver helmets.

adidas / Kings

Some additional notes from adidas:

Crest: A new L.A. crest takes flight on diagonal bisected blocking, inspired by aircraft battle stripes.

Design: The architecture of the venue’s Air Force Academy, coupled with a pilot’s ambition to push to the edge, inspired the oblique angles used to shape the jersey’s typography and numbering. A checkerboard design graphic is implemented along the neckline.

What do you think? The black, white, and silver against the burgundy, blue, and white will be an interesting look on the ice.

MORE: Avalanche reveal 2020 Stadium Series jersey

The 2020 Stadium Series game between the Avalanche and Kings will take place Feb. 15 at Air Force Academy’s Falcon Stadium in Colorado Springs, Colo.. The game will air on NBC at 8 p.m. ET.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Bad news on Hurricanes’ Hamilton: broken bone in leg

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The Carolina Hurricanes and others hoped that Dougie Hamilton‘s nasty injury looked worse than it was. Unfortunately, the result is pretty bad: Hamilton suffered a broken fibula (broken bone in his left leg) on Thursday.

You can watch and cringe at Hamilton’s bad luck in the video above.

Michael Smith of the Hurricanes website confirmed the broken fibula, stating that Hamilton may undergo surgery as soon as Friday. Smith noted that a recovery timeline might become known later tonight. Either way, it’s clear that this is a huge loss for the Hurricanes.

Hurricanes teammate Jaccob Slavin replaced Hamilton on the 2020 NHL All-Star Game roster.

What Hamilton broken fibula injury might mean to Hurricanes

The Hurricanes face a small margin of error after losing Hamilton and Thursday’s game to the Blue Jackets. Looking at the standings, it’s tough to imagine them wading into the Metro’s top three, while the bubble race could be tight:

Speculating on how long Hamilton might be out is pretty tricky. A commenter in this thread pointed out that Jason Zucker returned from a break in as little as four weeks. On the other hand, Nick Kypreos notes that Hamilton’s Hurricanes teammate Jordan Staal missed half of a season with a similar injury.

Plenty of injuries are tough to figure, and that’s quite true with breaks.

The bottom line is that even an optimistic recovery window would be painful for Carolina. Earlier in January, Adam Gretz broke down why Hamilton ranks as one of the best defensemen in the NHL.

In a nutshell: Hamilton provides explosive offensive (14 goals[!] and 40 points [!!] in 47 games this season) while being better defensively than his critics realize. This Hockey Viz Heat Map tells much of the story:

So, yeah, this hurts a lot for Hurricanes team that could be in quite the battle (most likely) for one of the East’s two wild-card spots. Perhaps it might even push the Hurricanes to try to find some help on the trade market?

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.

Bruins place David Backes on waivers

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David Backes has played only 16 games for the Bruins this season and spent many a night as a healthy scratch. On Friday the 35-year-old forward was placed on waivers.

“At the end of the day, you do what’s best for the team,” said Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy on Friday.

Should he clear, which he will, Backes will report to Providence of the American Hockey League.

This season Backes has only one goal and three points while playing a career low 8:33 per night.

“We’re going to look at younger guys and just felt at the end of the day, you do what’s best for your team, what makes you the best team,” Cassidy said. “Ultimately [general manager Don Sweeney] put him on waivers, feeling that was the best thing. I know David doesn’t agree with the situation, but that’s the decision we made [was] for the good of the team. I respect David as a person, as a player. We just felt we had better options, and that’s how we’re going to go forward and see how it plays out.”

It’s been downhill for Backes in Boston since signing a five-year, $30 million deal in 2016. His offensive output has declined and he’s dealt with numerous injuries. Under Cassidy he’s found it difficult to carve out a role in the Bruins’ lineup and be a consistent face among their 12 forwards.

“It’s gymnastics, there’s no question about it,” said Backes last week. “But that’s where we’re at right now, that’s a sign of a good team. If I’m not cracking the lineup, I think we’ve got a pretty good team. That’s kind of my perspective on it and I’m going to be called on at some point, kind of same way I was in the playoffs where didn’t start in there but was able to I feel like make an impact on a few games and help our team win. That’s what we’re about here is team first, and I’m trying to exemplify that when I’m in, when I’m out and be ready whenever I get called.”

Backes has one year left on a contract that carries a $6 million cap hit and $4 million salary through the end of the 2020-21 season. A buyout this summer would put $4 million on the Bruins’ salary cap in 2020-21 and $1 million on it for 2021-22, per Cap Friendly. That could be an option for GM Don Sweeney, but it’s going to be another offseason with a tight salary cap picture. The salary cap ceiling may rise only a few million dollars and extensions will be due this summer for restricted free agent Jake DeBrusk and unrestricted free agents Zdeno Chara, Torey Krug, and Jaroslav Halak.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Stars can’t afford to be without Heiskanen for too long

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Thursday night wasn’t good for the Dallas Stars. Not only did they lose to the Buffalo Sabres, they also watched as defenseman Miro Heiskanen suffered an upper-body injury during the game.

He’s considered day-to-day for now.

The 20-year-old was hurt after Sabres forward Rasmus Asplund made contact with his head as Heiskanen was falling down to the ice. He then went to the Stars locker room and never returned to the game.

“We all know what he does for us,” Stars interim head coach Rick Bowness said, per the Dallas News. “Our breakouts are a lot better, he joins the rush and he’s a danger on that offensive blue line. Take him out of there, and that’s a big hole. There’s just no getting around that. Injuries happen, and got to keep playing. Got to overcome them.”

Here’s how he got hurt:

It’s easy to see why Heiskanen wouldn’t be pleased with Asplund in the moment, but the contact with the head only occurs because Heiskanen falls forward right before his opponent gets to the corner. But Sweden on Finland crime will never go over well.

The Stars don’t know how long their young defender will be out, but, as Bowness mentioned, it’s clear that they need him back in their lineup quickly. He’s up to seven goals and 24 points in 47 games this season and he averages just over 24 minutes of ice time per game.

The fancy stats also show that when Heiskanen is on the ice the Stars control 55.31 percent of the XGF and 54.19% of the high-danger chances (stats via Natural Stat Trick).

He’s formed a nice duo with Jamie Oleksiak, as they’ve played 384 minutes together at five-on-five this season. If he’s out for an extended period of time, finding someone to slide into that spot won’t be easy.

“He’s an elite player on this team, so anytime you lose one of those guys, it doesn’t matter who it is, it’s going to hurt,” teammate Ben Bishop said after the loss to Buffalo. “Obviously, we’re down a goal there, we rely on those guys.”

On a more positive note, it sounds like they’ll be getting Stephen Johns back after he missed 22 months with post-traumatic headaches. He’ll have to be eased back into the lineup, but he could help fill the void left by Heiskanen. But they’ll likely have to do that as a committee.

The Stars currently find themselves in third place in the Central Division with a record of 27-16-4. They’re tied for second with Colorado, but the Avs hold the tie-breaker (they have more regulation/overtime victories). The Winnipeg Jets, who are currently fourth in the division and just outside the playoff picture, are four points behind Dallas.

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.