A nebulous Evgeni Malkin injury announcement arrives as often as the leaves change color. We’ve grown to expect it annually from the all-world center. His games missed the past five seasons: 17, 22, 13, 25, 20. In 11 seasons and change, he’s played 728 of a possible 890 regular season contests, meaning he’s missed 18.2 percent of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ games since his rookie season, 2006-07.
Malkin’s injury absences are generally accepted as part of the package. He’s a big target at 6-foot-3 and 195 pounds, he has the puck on his stick a ton, and he takes a lot of abuse from opposing defenders. In general, 65 games of ‘Geno’ trump 82 games of most other NHLers. Since he joined the league, only Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavid average more points per game than Malkin, and only Alex Ovechkin, Crosby and Joe Thornton have more points. The unofficial idea is that the Pens never rush Malkin back because they save him for the playoffs, where he’s an absolute beast. No player has scored more post-season goals than Malkin since his NHL debut 11 years ago. The Penguins have played 157 playoff games during his career, and he’s only missed eight, or 5.0 percent. The team understands how its future Hall of Fame pivot heals and how to get him optimal rest so he’s in peak form by April.
That’s why, despite Malkin’s current listing of day to day, it wouldn’t be remotely surprising to see him miss more than a game. There’s practically no such thing as a short Malkin infirmary stint. This is his yearly tradition. Only it matters more this season than it has in years, if not ever. The Penguins are far more vulnerable in the depth department than they’ve been during previous Malkin absences during the coach Mike Sullivan/GM Jim Rutherford era.
Two seasons ago, the Penguins were supposedly in jeopardy of missing the playoffs (at least according to an ill-fated prediction by yours truly) when an upper-body injury put Malkin on a six-to-eight-week recovery timeline. Instead, they scorched to a 13-2-0 record without him to close out the regular season. A big reason why: behind Sidney Crosby, center Nick Bonino forged a magical connection with Carl Hagelin and Phil Kessel, forming the ‘HBK Line.’ Veteran pivot Matt Cullen moved up the depth chart and made crucial contributions as well. A shoulder injury shelved Malkin for the last 13 games of 2016-17, too, and the Pens survived at 7-4-2, again relying on their excellent center depth.
This season, however, that safety net is gone. Bonino plays for the Nashville Predators after signing there in the off-season. Cullen returned to his home state of Minnesota to join the Wild. That left gaping holes at the No. 3 and 4 center positions for the two-time defending Stanley Cup champs. Each championship Penguin teams of the Crosby/Malkin era has iced an ace No. 3 pivot, be it Jordan Staal or Bonino, so it was weird to see the Pens enter 2017-18 with Carter Rowney and Greg McKegg as the dropoff after Crosby and Malkin. Rutherford indicated he’d rectify the problem via trade, and he did acquire a center in Riley Sheahan from the Detroit Red Wings. But while Sheahan has provided good faceoff work and penalty-killing minutes, he has nowhere near the offensive upside these Penguins are used to from their third-line centers. The job description for Pittsburgh’s No. 3 pivot should read, “Expect to be our No. 2 center for about 15 games every year when Malkin gets hurt,” and Sheahan does not meet the requirement. Heck, even Cullen as the No. 4 had more scoring touch than Sheahan, who has three goals in 101 games dating back to the start of last season.
The Penguins, then, find themselves in a new quagmire. Crosby remains mired in a season-long slump – not that we should be worried, but the timing isn’t ideal – and the Pens rank 25th in the NHL with 2.68 goals per game after finishing first and third in the past two seasons. Pucks aren’t going in for this team like they used to.
The good news: statistically, the Pens look very unlucky so far. Per corsica.hockey, they have the NHL’s lowest 5-on-5 shooting percentage, and they’re dead last in PDO, which combines shooting percentage with team save percentage to give an approximation of “puck luck.” They’re thus due for a surge of good bounces. The only hole in the theory is that, sometimes, a poor shooting percentage doesn’t regress to the mean – because it reflects poor finishing ability. That’s why the L.A. Kings struggled to hike that shooting percentage and score enough goals at the end of Darryl Sutter’s coaching tenure. And the Penguins have lost skill from their lineup with Bonino and Cullen downgrading to Sheahan and McKegg. With Malkin out, the group’s collective scoring touch sustains a major blow. So maybe that shooting percentage won’t rise solely with help from the luck gods.
Perhaps Rutherford and the Pens need to consider some more drastic lineup changes. For now, it appears they’ll try slumping sophomore Jake Guentzel at center. He’s played one career NHL game at that position, and while he was a center playing NCAA Div. I with Nebraska-Omaha, he’s since been sculpted into more of a triggerman winger at the NHL level. The transition isn’t guaranteed to go smoothly. Even if it does, Guentzel was already in the lineup, so the Pens need an infusion of high-end scoring ability from someone else. Is it thus time to consider a Daniel Sprong call-up from AHL Wilkes-Barre/Scranton? The dynamic winger, 20, is tearing it up with nine goals and 14 points in 14 games. Sprong will never be confused with Patrice Bergeron for his two-way play but could help replace Malkin’s raw offense and boost that team shooting percentage.
Better yet, Rutherford must start looking at more realistic No. 3 center options, guys who can replace Bonino’s production. Pending UFA Tyler Bozak of the Toronto Maple Leafs would be a perfect fit. Even if Malkin’s injury turns out to be minor, you know there’s another one coming. He doesn’t play 80- or even 70-game seasons anymore. If Pittsburgh wants to start separating itself from the Metropolitan Division pack, it needs an influx of depth. Your move, Mr. Rutherford.