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Pens' Malkin on thin ice?

| Sunday, June 15, 2008

A month ago, Evgeni Malkin was the toast of the town.

Now, you wonder if he's just plain toast.

Should star winger Marian Hossa accept the long-term, lucrative contract offer the Penguins have put before him, Malkin's days in Pittsburgh could be numbered.

That doesn't necessarily mean Malkin would be traded next week or even next year. He might even sign a new contract this summer. But it's hard to believe the Penguins could keep three premium young centers - Sidney Crosby, Malkin and Jordan Staal - plus Hossa, goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, defenseman Ryan Whitney, etc., together for the long haul.

The NHL's salary cap system would not allow for that. Somebody would have to go.

That somebody, in all likelihood, would be one of the two high-priced centers not named Sidney.

By keeping Staal, the Penguins would potentially have a Mark Messier-type to complement their Wayne Gretzky (Crosby).

Two very different styles. Two very different roles.

Malkin, on the other hand, plays pretty much the same role as Crosby -- and that can be problematic in, say, a power-play situation, where only one of them can run the show from the half-wall.

Besides, if it comes to choosing between Malkin and Staal, Staal would be cheaper (though not cheap), and Malkin would fetch a better return in a trade. Not that I'd advocate dealing a 21-year-old wunderkind who might turn out to be the best hockey player on the planet, but from a Penguins' perspective, this seems like a logical train of thought.

Meantime, even if the Hossa deal falls through, how long will Malkin want to play rhythm guitar instead of lead• Sure, he might become the best player in the world, but he's never going to be the man in Pittsburgh.

That's just reality.

Malkin's not the one with the 'C' on his jersey. He's not the one who might get a $50 million winger. He's not the one who lives with the owner. He's not the one who runs the power play, and he's not the one whose job description includes saving the NHL.

None of that is a knock on Crosby, by the way, who delivered big-time in the playoffs and is nothing but the consummate captain.

At the same time, it's Malkin's name that automatically arises in talk of which Penguins megastar might have to be sacrificed to the cap. Crosby's is never mentioned.

Though the two appear to get along just fine, nobody can predict the dynamic over time when two elite-level players share the same locker room. This is especially true in hockey and basketball, where only five players (not including a goalie in hockey) share the playing surface at once.

Sometimes it works, as in the case of Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg for several years in Colorado, or Gretzky and Messier with the dynastic Edmonton Oilers, or even Jaromir Jagr and Mario Lemieux of the mid-1990's.

Other times -- think Kobe Bryant-Shaquille O'Neal or Lemieux-Jagr after Lemieux's return from retirement -- the mixture implodes.

Every superstar athlete has an ego. If you're that good, you probably want to be regarded as the best, and you definitely want the ball (or puck) at critical moments.

The Penguins' first major challenge in handling the Crosby-Malkin situation was telling. It occurred late in the season, when Crosby returned from his ankle injury. Malkin had thrived running the power play but was immediately shipped to the power-play version of Siberia -- the left point -- to clear a spot for Crosby.

During the playoffs, Malkin admitted the obvious: He was uncomfortable at the left point. Despite the unit's early success, anyone could see as much.

As the playoffs progressed, Crosby rose to the challenge of high-stakes hockey, while Malkin seemed to wilt for a spell. We may find out in the long run that Crosby is indeed the better player in big situations and perhaps the better player overall, if he develops a finisher's touch.

Certainly, if he has Hossa on his wing and the top role on the power play, Crosby will be the bigger point producer here. Which means if this is going to work long-term, Malkin will have to settle into playing Scottie Pippen to Crosby's Michael Jordan.

Then again, if Hossa puts pen to paper, "long-term" might no longer apply to Malkin's tenure in Pittsburgh.

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