Penguins Predictions: Will Evgeni Malkin bounce back from subpar season?
In the weeks immediately following a humiliating first-round playoff ouster, Pittsburgh Penguins star Evgeni Malkin took a tremendous amount of heat.
Perhaps the intensity of the flames — the ones that suggested he could be traded as Penguins management mulled how dramatically it would alter the team’s roster — was a bit unexpected, but the general temperature of the conversation was not.
Malkin had a poor season by his lofty standards. Everyone knew it. He knew it, too.
“I had a bad season, and I’m going to get out of the hole,” Malkin told Russian website RUsport.ru at the World Championships in Slovakia. “Sometimes, criticism is justified. This time, it’s probably justified.”
It’s important to note exactly where Malkin fell into a hole last season.
His overall offensive production was fine. Malkin had 46 even-strength points. His average over the previous five years was 45.2.
His power-play production wasn’t bad either. He had 26 power-play points. His average over the previous five seasons was 28.8
The real problems came in two areas.
First, he scored only 21 goals, well off his average of 30.6 from the previous five years.
Second, when he was on the ice at even strength, the Penguins gave up an average of 3.69 goals per 60 minutes. That’s the worst such figure of his career.
For the Penguins to bounce back from a disappointing season, Malkin will need to improve in those two areas. While it’s an imperfect stat for a lot of reasons, the best way to gauge Malkin’s progress in both might come from looking at his plus-minus rating.
After posting a team-worst minus-25 rating last year, what will Malkin’s plus-minus rating be this season?
A. Better than plus-5
Malkin undoubtedly contributed to his minus-25 with some lackadaisical play, but he was also a victim of circumstance much more than the average player. For instance, when he was on the ice on the power play, the Penguins gave up 12 goals. In the three previous seasons combined, that total was seven. Get that stat and a few others back to normal and Malkin should be back to his career average, which is around a plus-8.
B. Worse than minus-5
Expecting a 33-year-old hockey player to make significant improvements in any facet of his game is flying in the face of mother nature. Also, the Penguins are counting on the departure of Phil Kessel to boost Malkin’s all-around play, and there’s a problem with that theory: When Malkin and Kessel were on the ice together at even strength last season, the Penguins gave up 3.67 goals per 60 minutes. When Malkin played without Kessel, that figure was 3.71. Basically no difference.
C. In between
Puck luck is rarely a satisfying explanation for a poor season from a player, but in Malkin’s case, it applies pretty well. When Malkin was on the ice at even strength, Penguins goalies had an extraordinarily low .891 save percentage. His individual shooting percentage was 11.2, his worst total in a full season since 2009-10. If Malkin makes no substantive changes to his game but those two figures regress toward the mean, he will hang around the break-even point in plus-minus.
C. In between
Malkin will always have an aggressive streak to his game because he’s an offensive player willing to take risks to score goals, but the entire offseason narrative Penguins management has written revolves around being harder to play against. Malkin has bought into that sort of philosophy before, and there’s no reason to think he won’t again. Add in a little puck luck and he should be a plus player. Given his age, though, it’s not wise to think his rating will soar through the roof.
Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review assistant sports editor. You can contact Jonathan by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .