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Penguins center Malkin's sluggish start tied to lack of fit with wingers

| Sunday, Nov. 3, 2013, 10:54 p.m.

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Evgeni Malkin has not missed a game. That only complicates an offensive start that has confounded him.

Malkin has scored three goals and produced 13 points in 15 games, putting him on pace for 16 goals and 71 points this season.

He has played in all 82 games only twice. However, he has played in at least 75 games four times and averaged 41 goals and 103 points in those seasons.

Something is off, and Malkin is giving that some serious thought.

“I want to know why,” he said. “Maybe a bad summer? Maybe (I) think too much? Maybe (I) try (to) do too much?

“(I) try to play every game the same, but (I) don't score like before. I try (to) understand why.”

He could look to his right.

Malkin's best seasons — 2007-08 (47 goals/106 points), 2008-09 (3 5113) and 2011-12 (50/109) — have shared two commonalities:

• He was a shot hawk, averaging 3.8 shots on net per contest.

• He was playing with a legitimate sniper to his right. Petr Sykora scored 49 goals in 135 games as Malkin's regular right winger from 2007-09. James Neal scored 40 goals in Malkin's MVP campaign two years ago.

Those players did not shy from shooting even though their center was, in those seasons, no worse than the NHL's second-best point producer. Sykora averaged 2.4 shots while playing with Malkin. Neal's average was 4.1 during their one full season together.

Malkin has registered 44 shots this season, a 2.9 average.

At a meeting last week with coach Dan Bylsma, Malkin said a message was delivered.

“(I) need more shots,” Malkin said. “(I) need to use my partners.”

Jussi Jokinen has assumed the role of Malkin's left winger, and he has scored seven goals and recorded 10 points. That partnership is working.

Neal's status — out the past 14 games with an upper-body injury and still week-to-week — has left the Penguins without a set piece to Malkin's right.

Beau Bennett assumed that role in four full games. He did not score a goal, produced only one point and was credited with five shots. Injured in a win at Tampa Bay on Oct. 12, Bennett will practice Monday — but Bylsma hinted Saturday that he preferred Bennett play the right side on the Penguins' third line, as he is projected to do when all forwards are healthy.

Without Bennett, Malkin has played with primarily three right wingers:

• Chuck Kobasew played seven games. He went without a goal or point. He averaged 1.6 shots.

• Matt D'Agostini, after returning from a season-opening injury, played in two games. He also went without a goal or point, although he averaged three shots.

• Jayson Megna has played the past three games. He has scored a goal and averaged two shots.

Malkin's right wingers this season have combined to give the Penguins a goal and three points.

Deryk Engelland, a natural defenseman, has scored twice in seven games as a checking-line right winger.

Malkin — in his prime at 27 and a year from becoming the Penguin with the highest average annual salary ($9.5 million) — repeatedly has acknowledged he “should score (points)” no matter his wingers.

Neal is not close to playing. Bylsma said Saturday that Neal could progress to increasing his workouts this week.

Until Neal returns — or the player to Malkin's right starts taking on the tendencies of Neal or Sykora — this struggle could continue for Malkin.

“Maybe I (will) get lucky,” Malkin said, “and get some goals, then more good games after that.”

Rob Rossi is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at rrossi@tribweb.com or via Twitter @RobRossi_Trib.

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