NHL on NBCSN: How can Penguins break Malkin out of his slump?

NBC’s coverage of the 2020-21 NHL season continues with Tuesday’s matchup between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals. Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Whatever way you look at things, Evgeni Malkin is off to a slow start for the Penguins. You can understand some, including those in the Penguins front office, who might be troubled by what they’re seeing from Malkin.

Sometimes stars can paint over all-around struggles by scoring. Unfortunately for Malkin, he’s been lackluster in that area — at least by his incredible standards.

This season’s Malkin vs. last season’s red-hot version

Through 13 games, Malkin only generated three goals and four assists for seven points. While it’s fair to note that Malkin is 34 years old, he’s also only months removed from a 2020-21 season that ranks among the best in his career.

Last season, Malkin generated 25 goals and 74 points in just 55 games, managing a 1.35 points-per-game pace that’s close to the best of his career. Yet, for Malkin, his great work goes deeper than those shallower “counting stats.”

When you look at Malkin’s analytics, the difference between last season Malkin and the 2020-21 model is also worrisome. Breaking down Malkin’s RAPM stats at Evolving Hockey, you have to raise the Y-axis to capture his incredible positive impact in 2019-20:

Malkin did not slump in 2019-20 RAPMvia Evolving Hockey

Simply put, it’s rare to see a forward make such a dramatic offensive impact while taking next to nothing away from the table defensively. Meanwhile, so far in 2020-21, Malkin’s stats go from fancy to famished:

Malkin slump 2020-21 RAPM chartvia Evolving Hockey

Not good.

Ideally, you’d chalk up Malkin’s struggles to bad puck luck and move on. We’ll get to some of those details, but to some extent, that only goes so far. For instance: Malkin’s shooting percentage is currently at 11.5. While that’s below his usual level of precision (an impressive 13.6 career shooting percentage), that’s not that far out of the range you’d expect from a scorer.

[PRE-GAME COVERAGE OF PENGUINS-CAPITALS BEGINS AT 6:30 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

The more troubling thing is that Malkin hasn’t been pulling the trigger. This season, Malkin fired 26 shots on goal through 13 games, or two SOG per contest. That would be far and away a career-low for Malkin, and well below his career average of 3.34 SOG per game (he averaged 3.11 per contest last season).

There’s still been some bad luck

So, what should the Penguins do?

Most obviously, they shouldn’t overreact. Granted, seeing dramatic front office changes from Jim Rutherford to Ron Hextall and Brian Burke might be a larger overreaction to recent events, but the Penguins shouldn’t panic about Malkin altogether. At least not in the short term.

Circling back to that earlier point, there are some flashing lights pointing to “bad luck.”

While Malkin’s shooting percentage isn’t too bad, his on-ice shooting percentage is at 8.4, one of the lowest marks of his career. Both Malkin and his Penguins teammates should get better bounces as 2020-21 goes along.

If there’s a specific area where you should expect better days with Malkin and the Penguins, it’s on the power play. So far this season, Malkin has just one power-play point in 13 games. As unfortunate as it is that Malkin rarely plays 82 games for the Penguins, it provides perspective to how slow this start is. He’s rarely finished below 20-plus power-play points in a season (last doing so with 18 PPP in 31 games in 2012-13). Even if the Penguins don’t totally turn around a unit with a tepid 15.38-percent success rate, chances are Malkin & Co. will at least produce at a league-average rate.

Different Penguins linemates for Malkin?

Overall, the Penguins’ big-picture course of actions with Malkin would be just to chill out. Maybe take a walk.

But that doesn’t mean that they’re doing everything to put Geno in the best possible situation to succeed.

Beyond encouraging Malkin to shoot — maybe send in Mario Lemieux for a pep talk? — Mike Sullivan might want to at least ponder changing up his linemates. In 2019-20, Malkin spent the majority of his time with Bryan Rust, and also lined up with Jake Guentzel quite often. (That was especially true with Guentzel when Sidney Crosby suffered injuries.)

Just about every sign pointed to Malkin clicking with both Rust and Guentzel. The Malkin – Guentzel WOWY stats argue as much at Puck IQ.

Yet, this season, Malkin’s been lining up most frequently with Jason Zucker and Kasperi Kapanen. Maybe that trio is making life harder for Malkin?

[2020-21 NHL on NBC TV SCHEDULE]

As speedy as Kapanen is, he eventually failed to truly stick with high-end Maple Leafs like Auston Matthews. Perhaps people were right in wondering why the Penguins paid such a price to trade for Kapanen?

Now, it’s true that you don’t want to totally disrupt the great start Sidney Crosby is off to. Then again, Crosby might be in such a zone that he can lift up lesser players. If nothing else, the Penguins might be wise to experiment with different fits for Malkin and Crosby, especially if Malkin’s struggles continue.

Considering the age of players like Malkin, it’s fair that the Penguins might worry about the long-term. As far as this season is concerned — including Monday’s game against the Capitals — it’s probably more about smaller tweaks than bigger swings.

NBC Sports will premiere Doc Emrick – The Voice of Hockey, Presented by Discover – detailing the illustrious career of U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame member and eight-time Sports Emmy Award winner Mike ‘Doc’ Emrick – on Sunday, February 21 at 2 p.m. ET on NBC, leading into coverage of the NHL outdoor game at Lake Tahoe featuring the Boston Bruins and Philadelphia Flyers.

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.

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