Tim Benz: Penguins rediscovering Evgeni Malkin is bigger than replacing Phil Kessel
There were roughly six months of happy talk about how the Steelers would benefit from addition by subtraction.
Subtract Antonio Brown’s shenanigans and Le’Veon Bell’s constant contract uncertainty.
Benefit by getting a more harmonious locker room, fewer distractions and game plans that weren’t hindered by needing to pacify egos.
Nice concept in theory.
What the Steelers are learning, however, is that while subtracting negatives is a good idea, someone needs to supplement the positive contributions of those troubled-but-productive stars.
See where I’m going with this, Penguins fans?
The narrative around the hockey team in Pittsburgh is similar.
The Steelers missed the playoffs last year, and the Penguins got swept in their first-round series against the New York Islanders. But this year will be better because the team will have better chemistry.
Brooding winger Phil Kessel has been traded to the Arizona Coyotes. Evgeni Malkin is breaking out of his depressive funk of a season ago, which allegedly was augmented by having to play on a line with Kessel. So they won’t be fighting with head coach Mike Sullivan. Therefore, Sullivan, by extension, will be able to implement the structure and discipline he needs to get his club playing the right way.
Great idea. Now, how do you restructure the power play and replace Kessel’s 82 points?
Oh. Right. There’s that.
The Penguins opened up training camp Friday at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex in Cranberry, taking the first steps toward answering those questions and putting those grand plans into practice.
The easy answer is that Alex Galchenyuk, part of the Coyotes return for Kessel, gets back to being the player that tallied 30 goals and 56 points in 2015-16. That was nearly identical production to Kessel that season (26 goals, 59 points), his first in Pittsburgh.
It ended with a Stanley Cup title.
The problem is Galchenyuk hasn’t hit 20 goals since then.
“I’m not trying to think about (replacing Kessel),” Galchenyuk said. “I’m just trying to get my game back. Compete. And get ready for Game 1. Keep working (on my game). That’s what training camp is for.”
It is. It’ll also be for figuring out the power play without Kessel’s presence.
“With his shot, the way he could see the ice over there, he played that spot for a long time,” captain Sidney Crosby said. “We are going to need to find some chemistry and some different looks. The good thing is, we have a good chunk of guys who have played together here in the past. It helps it’s not totally new. I am sure there will be different looks. We’ll have to find different identities just like we do five-on-five.”
Galchenyuk could be the fifth guy on that unit. But he’s a left shot as opposed to Kessel. The team could also go with two defensemen and have Justin Schultz man the point and put Kris Letang on the left side where Kessel used to patrol.
What does all this matter, though? Who cares if Galchenyuk, Dominik Kahun and/or Barndon Tanev combine to replace Kessel?
The real question is whether Malkin can replace Malkin.
Can the No. 71 we have seen in Hart Trophy and Conn Smythe seasons return to replace the guy in the same jersey who slugged through a minus-25, 89 penalty minutes and just 21 goals a season ago?
The Athletic recently published a story that chronicled Malkin’s downward emotional trend in 2018-19. Feuding with Sullivan. Not seeing eye-to-eye with Kessel. Missing his family in Russia. Still struggling with the English language after all these years.
OK. Maybe all that’s true. But I feel like we always read these types of stories about Malkin after the fact, following bad years.
Coming off a good year, or even during good stretches in mid-season, we frequently hear about how much of a vocal leader he has become. How mature he is now after being tagged as petulant, too reactionary and sometimes difficult to coach during extended spells of his career.
On Friday, Malkin acknowledged it’s high time for all of that to stop.
“Every day, I need to come here to do all my best,” Malkin said. “On ice. Off ice. Talk to coach more. Be professional. I’m 33 years old. I want to (show) leadership here. We have a great team again. We have a couple, two, three, four chances to win again. (It’s) just, like, not many more years maybe I have to play in the NHL. It’s just — have fun and enjoy it every day.”
Malkin is off to a good start by saying all the right things there. He also said all the right things by suggesting he was working on his power skating, stick handling, defensive-zone work and his faceoffs.
When does Malkin ever say the wrong thing, though? One of his best attributes is his honesty and verbal accountability. He often shows leadership in that regard.
It’s carrying that accountability and leadership to the ice during slumps and down times that have been sources of angst for Penguins coaches and fans.
Addition by subtraction? Subtract last year’s Malkin and add a healthy version of him from the previous three seasons.
That equation matters far more than anything else.