In a year where the early part of the season should just be written over with the word “disappointment”, there are three Pittsburgh Penguins players that would love to erase their first part of and perhaps other huge chunks of 2015-2016. While the prize at the end, the Stanley Cup, was worth it these three players had some less than ideal seasons but should rebound in 2016-2017.
It’s so hard to be tough on the player who carried the Penguins through their most dismal part of the year. When the Penguins struggled under Mike Johnston, only Malkin seemed to have the creative juices to break through the doldrums and ho-hum feeling that permeated when the skating birds were on the ice. After Sullivan took over, the coach hardly got to enjoy the fruits of having two offensive talents like Malkin and Crosby. He simply didn’t have Malkin for huge stretches, as for the third season in a row 71 was sidelined with injury.
Malkin was back in time for the playoffs but hardly back to his old self. While flashes of brilliance passed and he looked pleased to be on the ice, he was hardly the monster that anyone who has seen Evgeni Malkin at his best knows he can be. Instead he was merely a good player. But Evgeni Malkin isn’t just a good player. In 2016-2017 Malkin will have the longest off-season he’s had in a while. With a wife and son at home he’s likely to be more settled and confident than ever before. While our days of 50 goal Evgeni Malkin may be gone, he should still get back to form and impress everyone with two eyeballs and any understanding of the sport of ice hockey.
If Malkin carried the Penguins early, Crosby carried them late but that doesn’t erase his decidedly down start to the season. It took him longer to score, he had greater gaps between goals, and he simply didn’t look like himself in the Mike Johnston system. Never fear though, Sullivan is now here. Sullivan, who seems to have learned quickly how to treat Crosby to get the most out of him, will have a full training camp with the game’s greatest current player to get him ready.
Like Malkin though, Crosby isn’t a spring chicken anymore. The 29 year-old center will likely never play like he did pre-concussion in 2010 and that’s okay, because 2016 Sidney Crosby won a Conn Smythe and was just named captain of Canada’s World Cup of Hockey team. He’s still the greatest, he just does it in a different way. It has less to do with Crosby and more to do with the current state of the game, for why 87’s scoring is down. Look for him to contend for, if not win, the scoring title this season. And if he doesn’t win he’ll certainly be in the running for MVP.
There were few people who didn’t mention at least once last season that the Pittsburgh Penguins needed to dump Chris Kunitz. The over-30 NHL journeyman, who had been the security blanket of Sidney Crosby, was just not getting the job done anymore. And when Crosby was in his slump, Kunitz was shifted off of his top line spot that he’d held since 2011. The top line in the playoffs was most notably Conor Sheary-Sidney Crosby-Patric Hornqvist.
Kunitz didn’t make it to the NHL as an undrafted free agent by accident, though. He’s played every role and on the wing of some of hockey’s most notable players of the last decade (Crosby and Malkin are joined on this list by Getzlaf and Perry). He has probably reached the end of his time as a regular top six player, but that doesn’t mean he’s reached the end of his career. As a long-standing leader heading into the final year of his contract and perhaps the final year of his NHL career, Kunitz will likely bounce back and into a more suitable role for him. This role includes his stellar penalty killing and pesky nuisance-like nature that isn’t usually interference but sure feels like it might be sometimes.
Simply put, these three names have a combined: three Olympic Gold Medals, seven Stanley Cups and three IIHF World Championship Gold Medals – it’s hard to imagine they’ll stay down for too long.