By and large, Malkin is not underappreciated in Pittsburgh, especially among Pittsburgh Penguins fans. But even the diehard fans regularly consider him to be the ‘2nd star’ on the team behind Sidney Crosby. This is not entirely unexpected and not untrue. On any other team in the NHL, Malkin would be the star attraction and prime player. With the Penguins, aside from those ‘in case of emergency, break glass’ moments when Crosby and Malkin are paired together, Malkin is confined to the second line center position.
The rest of the NHL, and apparently the NHL itself, probably do not have a firm grasp on how dominant of a player Malkin can be at times. Unfortunately, in recent years Malkin has not been able to display his dominance on a regular basis, due to a series of injuries. He’s had multiple knee and shoulder injuries, to go along with the requisite concussions that every Penguin player is forced to endure it seems, that have contributed to a reduced number of games played.
Last week, I wrote about how Kris Letang needed to purge himself of the bad injury luck he’s dealt with in recent years. As it turns out, Evgeni Malkin is not much better off. Since he played all 82 games in 2008-09 (in what is probably his finest overall year — 113 points, Art Ross winner, 2nd in the Hart, Conn Smythe winner, Stanley Cup), Malkin has only played more than 70 games in a season once, and that was back in 2011-12 (in what is probably his second finest year — 75 games, 50 goals, 109 points, Art Ross winner, Hart winner, Ted Lindsay winner). Counting the 7 games he has missed this year, Malkin has missed 84 games over the past four-plus seasons — that’s the equivalent of a full NHL season, plus two games. It’s entirely possible that his sheer amount of games missed is what impacted the decision to leave him off the Top 100 NHL player list.
Since his last watershed season of 2011-12, Malkin has basically been a point-per-game player. There’s no shame in that at all, but more seems to be expected from him. Coming into this season, in the four interim seasons between 2011-12 and now, Malkin played 217 games and tallied 233 points — a very respectable output. During last year’s Cup-winning playoff run, he pitched in 18 points (6 goals-12 assists) in 23 games, a far cry from his utterly dominant 36 points (14 goals-22 assists) in 24 games during the 2009 Stanley Cup-winning run that got him the Conn Smythe as MVP. He’s just been steady. He’s here, you have to respect his presence, but he wasn’t inducing fear in the opposition.
In what can most likely be attributed as a return to full (or what passes for it, as a 30-year old now) health, Malkin has had a resurgent 2016-17 campaign. As of Wednesday afternoon, his 72 points in just 61 games were good for 5th in the league. On a per-game basis, his 1.18 per game place him 2nd in the league, behind his teammate Crosby’s 1.19 per game. His 33 goals are 5th in the league, the most he’s scored since 2011-12, and currently tied for the 4th most he’s scored in any season of his career.
Malkin is back to being dominant. Not as dominant as in his ‘youth’, but he’s back to being a force. There’s even some talk of Malkin getting some Hart Trophy consideration, but in reality that’s a two horse race between Crosby and Connor McDavid at this point. For my money, if McDavid can get the Oilers into the playoffs, he should get the Hart, even if Crosby chases him down for the scoring title.
For fans around the league, Malkin has probably been unfairly painted with the broad brush of ‘Russian player indifferent to the NHL’ that has been tattooed on some players by fans over the course of recent years. Ilya Kovalchuk certainly did no favors to dispel that notion when he ‘retired’ to go back to Russia to play in the KHL and left the Devils high and dry. Pavel Datsyuk did the same thing last year, but at least he played a long, fruitful career in Detroit.
Malkin plays with passion. Maybe too much passion, as evidenced by his frequent boneheaded penalties he takes, but it burns deeply within him. If Malkin really wanted, he could have asked for a trade at various points in his career. Tired of being in Crosby’s shadow, wanting to be his own star, just desiring a new challenge. But he’s rehabbed from countless injuries and loves playing in Pittsburgh, which has mainly parallels to his hometown of Magnitogorsk back in Russia.
Malkin is a star, both here in Pittsburgh and in the scope of the entire NHL. Perhaps one day, the NHL themselves will realize that.