If the Pittsburgh Penguins seriously are considering a trade of Evgeni Malkin, they seriously should reconsider.
It’s that absurd of an idea.
Trading Malkin would be an emotional overreaction to a stunning sweep by the New York Islanders in the Stanley Cup playoffs and a foolhardy attempt at addition by subtraction.
The Penguins might have incentive to move Malkin because of his age (he turns 33 on July 31), his contract (three years remaining at $9.5 million per season) and especially the chance for them to maximize their window to win another Cup championship with Sidney Crosby as the centerpiece.
But they have zero leverage, as Malkin has a full no-trade clause. If the Steelers’ trade of All-Pro receiver Antonio Brown taught us anything, it’s not to expect much in return for an aging superstar who has control of where he wants to play.
And general manager Jim Rutherford’s trade history in attempting to find the Penguins a third-line center the past two seasons doesn’t necessarily inspire me to trust he would get a great return. His top priority shouldn’t be to trade Malkin (or defenseman Kris Letang) but to surround them with a better, faster supporting cast.
In that regard, the Penguins need only to look at their own history. For sending a 28-year-old Jaromir Jagr to the Washington Capitals, the Penguins got the forgettable trio of Kris Beech, Ross Lupaschuk and Michal Sivek. And, at age 33, Jagr scored 54 goals and 123 points for the New York Rangers.
Malkin is no Jagr, nor is Malkin coming off a 52-goal, 121-point season as Jagr was. By his own admission, Malkin had a bad season — at least by his own Hart and Ross trophy standards. He finished with 21 goals and 72 points in 68 games, his lowest output in a season in which he played 50 or more games.
But Malkin was still a point-per-game player, one whose minus-25 is misleading. When he was on ice, the Penguins allowed 11 empty-net goals, went 0-5 in overtime and gave up 12 short-handed goals. That’s 27 minuses right there, most of which are correctable.
Malkin was at fault for some of those costly plays, but his mistakes were magnified in the playoffs. What he is most guilty of is failing to buy in to Penguins coach Mike Sullivan’s message and going so far as to second-guess his strategy. Neither Sullivan nor Rutherford found that acceptable, and they didn’t hesitate to pin the blame on the players for failing to play the right way.
That message might be getting stale to the Penguins’ stars, especially Malkin, Letang and winger Phil Kessel. Instead of changing the message, the Penguins are threatening to break up a team that won back-to-back Cup championships just two years ago.
At least, that’s what they are leaking.
That’s a bad look for a franchise that hangs a banner to celebrate its NHL scoring champions, and Malkin is responsible for two of those. I also am not convinced trading Malkin would help Crosby but instead place more pressure on the Penguins captain to carry the scoring burden.
It would be a reactionary move, especially after these playoffs have proven to be so unpredictable. The top seeds in each conference were eliminated in the first round, and the Islanders are trailing Carolina after two games in the second round. This style of hockey isn’t a trend. It’s an anomaly. The Penguins need to find a way to maximize the talents of their superstars, not the returns.
If the Penguins are looking for precedent to justify trading Malkin or Letang, the late 1980s Edmonton Oilers are their example. In November 1987, they traded defenseman Paul Coffey to the Penguins for a package that included Craig Simpson, Dave Hannan and Chris Joseph and won their fourth Cup in five years. That August, the Oilers traded superstar center Wayne Gretzky to the Los Angeles Kings and won another Cup in 1990, then reached the conference finals each of the next two seasons.
Those results would make Rutherford and Sullivan look like geniuses, which might be their incentive. But here’s the warning: After 13 consecutive playoff appearances, the Oilers have missed the postseason 18 times since. That includes this season, even with Hart Trophy finalist Connor McDavid.
Maybe that slide into the abyss is coming. The Penguins’ stars are aging: Malkin will be 33 by the start of next season. Letang is 32, and Crosby will be 32 in August. But they remain the backbone of this team, the only remaining players who have won three Cup championships as Penguins.
Trading star players is a risk that doesn’t guarantee a reward. It might be better to get the trio into a room with Penguins owner Mario Lemieux, Rutherford and Sullivan and come to an understanding over which direction the organization is headed and what is needed from all involved.
If coming to a compromise sounds like catering to the players, it might be worth reminding Rutherford and Sullivan that the last GM and coach to tie their fates together ended poorly.
Where Ray Shero and Dan Bylsma were fired for their failures, Crosby, Malkin and Letang led the Penguins to back-to-back Cup championships. Rutherford and Sullivan were at the wheel, but make no mistake about who was steering the ship.
The Penguins should be steering this conversation about Malkin away from trade talk and toward finding a resolution, or someone soon will be worrying about walking the plank.