Well, the Pittsburgh Penguins are 20 games into the 2016-17 season. They have 27 points and are second in the Metropolitan Division, behind the New York Rangers and a point ahead of the Washington Capitals. There have been several high points this season, but a few low points as well. The Penguins can definitely be more inconsistent than we’d really like, have taken crushing, embarrassing losses in two of their division matchups this season, and there are several players on the roster who are thus far doing a poor job of tracking against their season expectations. (Don’t get me wrong though, that was a sweet 6-1 win against the Rangers. Also, Sidney Crosby is the best in the world, but you already knew that. The Penguins are good, but they still have areas in which they need to improve or be more consistently good).
Several of these players have already been called out for that; Carl Hagelin, for example, has been criticized quite often this season, as have Nick Bonino and a few other individuals. But there’s a player who has been sticking out to me recently (in a bad way) even if the box score paints him in a much better light.
That player is Evgeni Malkin.
Some will agree with me, some will disagree. Hear me out: I’m not saying he has been terrible. Geno remains an offensive asset. He’s second on the team with 8 goals, behind (who else?) captain Sidney Crosby (whose late start to the season has not stopped him from posting a League-leading 14 goals), is third on the team with 9 assists behind Kris Letang (2nd on team with 10) and Phil Kessel (15), and is third on the team in points with 17, two behind Crosby and one behind Kessel. Obviously, he’s been posting points. Unfortunately, he’s also been racking up the wrong kinds of numbers.
Geno is absolutely running away with the team lead in penalty minutes. In 20 games, he has 36 penalty minutes, which is abysmal. The player second to him in penalty minutes is Tom Sestito, who has 24 PIM in 8 games, which is largely accounted for by his five-minute fighting majors. So if we remove Sestito, also given the reason he’s not consistently in the lineup, the player on the team behind Geno in penalty minutes is Chris Kunitz, with 18 PIM in 18 games. So having played two more games this season than Kunitz, Malkin has managed to put up 18 more penalty minutes.
Even more frustrating for Penguins fans is that Malkin’s penalties tend to be plain stupid and unnecessary. It’s not his role on the team to be taking penalties for sucker-punching opposing players in scrums, but that’s exactly what he did against the New York Islanders. Islanders player Anthony Beauvillier was exchanging shoves with another Penguins player, but by the logic Pens fans continue to be confused by, Malkin decided to reach over and punch Beauvillier in the face. Even worse, he took this penalty at the end of the first period with the Pens leading 1-0, meaning his team had to start the second period on the penalty kill trying to defend a one goal lead. The stupid penalty resulted in a tying goal for the Isles on the power play. That’s the kind of penalty Malkin’s been tending to take: a penalty that makes you cover your face in your hands and mumble, “Oh, Geno….”. Malkin has never been a particularly disciplined player. He’s not new to spending significant time in the sin bin. In fact, in 664 career games played in the NHL, he’s racked up 685 penalty minutes.
The second aspect of the recent stretch Malkin is on that has been making people cringe is his defensive game. Playing defense has never been a strong suit of Malkin’s. Crosby’s d-game has evolved fairly well since his entrance to the league, but I wouldn’t say the same of 71. That being said, he isn’t awful at defense, and he’s capable of helping out at both ends of the ice. He hasn’t exactly been at all responsible in the defensive zone recently.
A good example would be T.J. Oshie’s short-handed goal in the first period of that awful loss the Penguins took against the Caps (I’ll take this opportunity to sincerely apologize for momentarily forcing you to relive that particularly unpleasant memory). Malkin was playing right up at the blue line along the right wall, with Kris Letang also along the blue line a few feet from him. He ends up making a terrible read and terrible play to put the Penguins in grave danger of giving up the opening goal. In spite of the fact that the Capitals are closing in on him and applying pressure at the blue line, Malkin throws away an opportunity to send the puck deep into the offensive zone and instead tries to float a pass to Letang. Yup, FLOAT a pass to a guy a few feet from him, also along the blue line and also getting pressured.
Needless to say, the Capitals easily pick up the puck, and Jay Beagle and Oshie are able to spring onto a 2 on 1 short-handed rush. Letang instantly jumps into reverse gear when Malkin is picked off and is able to do his job on the backcheck defending the rush. He forces Beagle to shoot on Matt Murray. Murray makes the initial save. However, as Letang switches from taking away Beagle’s pass option to taking Beagle out of the play after the shot, the rebound is left for Oshie, who is easily able to lift it over a Murray who is down after making the save on Beagle. The next Penguin to get there, although after Oshie has scored, is Phil Kessel. Kessel made a tremendous effort to backcheck, skating back so fiercely that despite being all the way by the left faceoff dot when the turnover occurred, he manages to arrive at the net just seconds after Oshie scores. Guess who’s absent? The guy who should have been helping out Letang – Malkin.
There are multiple reasons why Malkin was responsible for being the guy who backchecks and takes the second guy. First of all, Letang is the only defenseman on the Penguins’ first power-play unit, but Malkin is usually the second guy found near the blue line, just as he was on this particular play. So if the Capitals take the puck at the blue line, Malkin should definitely have been booking it back and allowing Letang to take one guy while he takes the other. On this play, he’s the whole reason that the Capitals get the opportunity, for an extremely ill-advised attempt to make a play under pressure. He should be skating back as quickly and desperately as if his life depended on it, in order to rectify his mistake. Instead, he watches the Capitals take it down and score. Kessel, who wasn’t responsible for the turnover and certainly wasn’t the closest Penguin to the play next to Letang, backchecked furiously. That was frustrating to watch – to see Malkin give up instantly on a play caused by his mistake. I discussed it with my fellow writer here at Let’s Talk Pens, the hockey analysis expert himself, Josh Boulton (@ToughCallBlog). He perfectly phrased the problem with Geno’s defensive game in a discussion I was having on why I didn’t pick Geno in the dream team collab article we did:
As usual, Josh nailed it spot-on. As I mentioned earlier, his capability is not the problem with Geno. He’s a skilled player. He’s got the smarts to make good decisions on the ice. We’ve seen him show that plenty of times. It’s just the fact that he looks “unwilling” to play defense, far too often. If he’s going to pick up his play right now, and play a much more disciplined and responsible game, he’s going to have to show the effort to chip in on defense just as much as offense.
Has Geno been the Penguins’ worst player recently? I wouldn’t say so. Am I saying that Coach Sullivan should absolutely bench Geno for a game or two until he learns to pick it up? No. I’m saying what I’ve observed over the past few games, which is that especially given the high standard player he is, with the high expectations we’ve learned to have for him, he’s been a disappointment. Just as I hope to see the whole team be consistently good as the season progresses, I hope to see Geno break out of playing such undisciplined, sometimes even lazy hockey and go back to playing at his highest levels.