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Shift to wing should spark Malkin

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Sunday, Sept. 5, 2010

When his right foot finally heals, center Jordan Staal is moving up in the Penguins' lineup.

That means center Evgeni Malkin is moving over, but don't expect coach Dan Bylsma to make any definitive declaration.

He hasn't yet, and there is little need to because trying Malkin as a wing is a no-brainer for these Penguins as they are constructed: stout on defense, rich with role players and deep down the middle but with $21.4 million in cap space tied into three star centers.

Oh, and they lack impact wings.

Malkin has been one of those before, and it's tough to imagine the Penguins winning the Stanley Cup this season without him getting a chance to become one again.

Bylsma repeatedly has said Malkin was a second-line anchor as mostly a right wing during the 2009 Stanley Cup run. His 14 goals and 36 points landed the playoff MVP, but forward Max Talbot held the essential center duties — neutral- and defensive-zone faceoffs, deep back-checking — on that line.

During a two-day visit to Moscow last month, Bylsma was reminded by Malkin that he played wing almost exclusively for Russia's silver-medal team at the 2010 world championships.

Talbot said in July that playing wing as opposed to center "wouldn't mess with Geno's head or anything like that." Malkin told Bylsma he would love to play on a line with Staal, with whom he played four years ago when they were rookies — even if Staal was the center.

Staal said this week that Malkin "is pretty excited" about reuniting with him consistently for the first time since they combined for 62 goals as rookie linemates in 2006-07. Malkin should be excited. Any scenario would be better than last season: 28 goals and 77 points in 67 games, all career lows.

In two previous seasons, each MVP runner-up campaigns, he combined for 82 goals and 219 points while playing every game.

Injuries, notably a sketchy shoulder, caused Malkin to miss time last season, and in those contests he averaged only 1.24 points. Contrast that with top center Sidney Crosby's injury-plagued season three years ago when, despite missing 29 games, he averaged 1.36 points to finish with 24 goals and 72 points.

Malkin, fairly, is expected to match Crosby on the ice because their salary-cap hits are team-high equals at $8.7 million. Still, at no point in his career had Crosby been saddled with linemates who struggled like Malkin's did last season. At the time of wing Alexei Ponikarovsky's acquisition just before the trade deadline, the Penguins had received nine goals from Talbot and Ruslan Fedotenko — the duo that Malkin played with on that 2009 Cup run.

By the second round of the playoffs, Bylsma had sacked Ponikarovsky and Fedotenko from the lineup because of their ineffectiveness.

Criticism of Malkin for his dropoff last season was warranted. He should have scored more goals despite missing 15 games. He needed to be more consistent when he did play; 11 games without a goal from December-January didn't cut it.

"I should be better," Malkin said a couple of days after the Penguins were bounced from the playoffs.

He would be better as a wing on a line with Staal and, perhaps, left wing Matt Cooke.

Last season, Staal and Cooke combined for 36 goals, and they've teamed for 48 since Bylsma made them the yin-and-yang components of a third line upon his hiring Feb. 15, 2009.

Malkin, a so-called "feel player" but also an underappreciated student of hockey's technical fine points, has thought hard about all the chances he had to create for himself last season because of his linemates' limited productivity. Too often was he forced into believing he needed to create something from nothing.

Think of all the quality chances right wing Tyler Kennedy didn't capitalize on last season on that third line, all the free room he had with the puck on his stick in the offensive zone because of the puck-possession success by Cooke and Staal.

No lineup is safe in the modern NHL, where in-period adjustments rule. Still, imagine all those chances going to Malkin, and it becomes easy to envision him living life in peace as a wing.

Additional Information:

'C' is for chemistry

Penguins centers Jordan Staal and Evgeni Malkin combined for 62 goals while playing on the same line four seasons ago. As coach Dan Bylsma mulls reuniting them, the following breaks down how Malkin and Staal affected each other in regular-season games:

» Staal goals assisted by Malkin: 26

» Malkin goals assisted by Staal: 7

Malkin and center Sidney Crosby are considered the team's 1-2 pivot punch:

» Crosby goals assisted by Malkin: 53

» Malkin goals assisted by Crosby: 59

Source: Elias Sports Bureau




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