At the core of the swirling offseason debate surrounding the Pittsburgh Penguins and their willingness to trade center Evgeni Malkin is one fundamental question: How much of the team’s poor 2018-19 season can be pinned on the 32-year-old Russian superstar?
A closer look at Malkin’s stats gives one answer: He’s shouldering more blame right now than he should.
A look back at some video from the failed season gives another answer: His most high-profile gaffes were precisely the kind of plays that sent the Penguins to their doom.
First, the stats.
Malkin led the Penguins with 84 giveaways and 89 penalty minutes and had a team-worst minus-25 rating this season. Those facts have been pointed out repeatedly already this offseason. They’re not in dispute, but they are awfully misleading.
Start with the giveaways, even though that’s a stat compiled subjectively by the off-ice officiating crew in each NHL building and is not a metric often used by serious statistical analysts.
Malkin’s 84 giveaways may have led the Penguins, but the total was tied for 26th in the league. Want a partial list of some of the players with more giveaways than Malkin this season? Calgary’s Johnny Gaudreau (124), Edmonton’s Connor McDavid (89) and Tampa Bay’s Nikita Kucherov (89). Skill players who often have the puck on their stick generally lead the league in giveaways.
On top of that, a high giveaway total has never slowed Malkin in the past. This year was the fifth time he topped 70 in a season in his career. Here’s a look at the first four times he did it:
• 2007-08: 76 giveaways, 47 goals, 106 points
• 2008-09: 81 giveaways, 35 goals, 113 points
• 2011-12: 73 giveaways, 50 goals, 109 points
• 2017-18: 73 giveaways, 42 goals, 98 points
There’s a case to be made that Malkin was too careless with the puck this season, but using the giveaway stat is not a good way to make it.
Now move on to the penalty minutes. Malkin took a total of 31 penalties to accrue his 89-minute total. He also drew 26 penalties.
That minus-5 differential isn’t great, but there are six players on the team with worse – Phil Kessel (-9), Kris Letang (-8), Jack Johnson (-8), Marcus Pettersson (-7), Derick Brassard (-6) and Dominik Simon (-6).
A case can be made that the Penguins would benefit from Malkin controlling his anger and frustration at times, but the 89-minute total alone doesn’t make a compelling argument in that direction.
Finally, look at Malkin’s team-worst minus-25 rating.
As is often the case with that stat, some context is required. Malkin was a minus-10 when the Penguins had their goalie pulled this season. He was a minus-5 in overtime. He picked up 12 minuses when he was on the ice for a shorthanded goal against.
In even-strength situations in regulation time, Malkin was on the ice for 46 goals for and 46 goals against. He’s too good a player to simply break even like that, but his season wasn’t the abject two-way disaster the minus-25 figure suggests.
There’s a little more to the plus-minus story, however.
Remember those 12 minuses he picked up while the Penguins were on the power play? Many of those goals against can be directly attributed to Malkin.
• Oct. 6 vs. Montreal, Joel Armia beats Malkin to the far post on a two-on-two rush.
• Nov. 11 vs. the Islanders: Malkin stands flat footed near the offensive blue line as a blocked Kris Letang shot turns into a Josh Bailey breakaway.
• Jan. 11 vs. Anaheim, Adam Henrique strips a puck off Malkin’s stick at the red line to set up a Jakob Silfverberg breakaway.
• Jan. 28 vs. New Jersey, a Malkin turnover to Pavel Zacha in the defensive zone sets up a Brian Boyle goal.
A closer look at the five minuses Malkin picked up in overtime produces a similar list.
• Nov. 19 vs. Buffalo, a Malkin turnover at the offensive blue line leads to a Jack Eichel goal on a two-on-one.
• Dec. 8 vs. Ottawa, a bad line change by Malkin leads to a too-man-men-on-the-ice penalty, and Ryan Dzingel scores on the power play.
• March 1 vs. Buffalo, at the end of a long shift, Malkin can’t handle a Pettersson pass in the defensive zone. Conor Sheary picks up the loose puck and scores.
• April 6 vs. the Rangers, Malkin stands idly by near the blue line as Ryan Strome enters the zone, circles and scores from the left wing.
Is it wrong to make broad proclamations about an 82-game season based on a short list of isolated examples? Absolutely. But the list isn’t that short, and each example plays right into coach Mike Sullivan’s theory that the Penguins lost this season because they weren’t hard enough to play against.
In conclusion, mixing some limited statistical analysis with a small sample of anecdotal evidence often creates more questions than answers, which is part of the reason it’s hard to quantify how bad a season Malkin had and what can be expected from him in the future.
Three questions, though, have already been pretty much answered.
Is it reasonable to assume that Malkin’s game is irreparably broken and he needs to be traded away for the Penguins to get anywhere next season? No.
Is it reasonable to expect Malkin to transform himself into a checking-line center who dumps every puck in as soon as he crosses the red line and never tries to beat an opponent one-on-one? No.
Is it reasonable to ask Malkin to clean up some of the ugly examples of careless hockey enumerated in the previous two lists? Absolutely.
Perhaps that’s the compromise that the star player, coaching staff and management need to reach.