As the Pittsburgh Penguins prepare to report to training camp Friday, Evgeni Malkin is wrapping up an offseason unlike any he’s had in his pro career.
That’s not because of the trade rumors that sprung up after the Penguins unceremoniously were dumped out of the first round of the playoffs by the New York Islanders in a four-game sweep.
Starting in 2008 — remember the rumored package of Mike Cammalleri and the second pick in the draft from the Kings? — Malkin has seen his name surface in trade chatter more summers than it hasn’t.
It’s because of the season he put together in 2018-19.
He scored only 21 goals, a career low for a full season, to go along with an unsightly minus-25 plus-minus rating.
If the Penguins are going to return to championship contention this season, the 33-year-old Malkin will have to prove last year wasn’t the beginning of an age-related decline and was merely a blip on the radar of an otherwise incredibly illustrious career.
With four days left until the start of camp, here’s a look at four players who will arrive in Cranberry with the most to prove.
It’s important not to exaggerate Malkin’s downturn last season. He still had 72 points in 68 games. He had 34 even-strength assists, his best total since 2011-12. He remains one of the world’s most talented players.
His two-way game, however, took a huge hit. When he was on the ice at even strength, the Penguins were outscored 64-51. When he skated in overtime, the team was outscored 5-0. He was also on the ice for 12 short-handed goals against.
Malkin needs to prove he can clean up the messy parts of his game.
2. Matt Murray
A two-time Stanley Cup champion coming off a season that saw him rank 10th in the league among qualifying goaltenders with a .919 save percentage, Murray long since has shown he’s a high-end NHL puck stopper.
What he needs to prove this season is he should be paid like it.
Murray is entering the final year of a contract that pays him $3.75 million annually. He should easily double that figure in his next deal. Having a healthy, consistent season would help make it easier for the Penguins to write that check.
3. Patric Hornqvist
When Hornqvist managed three goals over the final 34 games of last season, it raised red flags. Had years of playing grueling, physical hockey and a history of concussions caught up to the 32-year-old winger?
He needs to prove he can shake off his slump and show the Penguins they won’t regret the five-year, $26.5 million contract they signed him to in 2018.
4. Erik Gudbranson
The task in front of Gudbranson is a simple one.
When he was on the ice with Vancouver last season, his team was outscored 66-31 at even strength. After a February trade, the Penguins outscored opponents 13-8 with Gudbranson on the ice.
The physical 27-year-old defender needs to prove he’s the player he looked like with the Penguins, not the one he looked like with the Canucks.