Tim Benz: Mike Sullivan nails Evgeni Malkin’s biggest problem. Now fix it. | TribLIVE.com
Tim Benz, Columnist

Tim Benz: Mike Sullivan nails Evgeni Malkin’s biggest problem. Now fix it.

Tim Benz
Penguins coach Mike Sullivan yells instructions from behind Sidney Crosby (87), Evgeni Malkin (71), and Patric Hornqvist (72) during the first period against the Winnipeg Jets in Pittsburgh, Friday, Jan. 4, 2019.

We do a lot of “Take 5’s” around here.

Five takes on the Steelers’ loss to the Broncos.

Five takes on the Steelers’ loss to the Raiders.

Five takes on the Steelers tying the Browns.

Five takes on why the Steelers can never get a win against a lousy team on the road so long as Mike Tomlin is the head coa …

Sorry. Got off track for a second there.

Anyway, Penguins coach Mike Sullivan was recently on 105.9 the X with Trib columnist Mark Madden. And he had a lot of quotes with meat on the bone.

So instead of cramming five takes into one story, I thought maybe we’d space things out a bit and do five takes over five days on five important things Sullivan said during that interview.

And we start with his comments about Evgeni Malkin.

Sullivan spoke of his offseason meeting with Malkin and said both sides were happy with how it went. He heaped praise on Malkin and called him “one of the great players of his generation.” And he claimed Malkin doesn’t get the credit he deserves for his accomplishment or skill outside of Pittsburgh.

Sullivan even went so far as to defend his center’s lackluster 2018-19 season and suggested some on the outside of the organization have been too hard on him.

We haven’t.

His 21 goals were his fewest in a season where he played at least 50 games. His 11.2% shooting percentage was his lowest since 2013. His minus-25 was, by far, the worst of his career. His 89 penalty minutes were his most since 2010.

So maybe a lot of that gloss from Sullivan was a build-up to this quote.

“The aspect of his game where we would really like to see him improve is in his own puck management,” Sullivan said. “And that helps us be more difficult to play against.”

That whole “more difficult to play against” refrain from Sullivan gets oversimplified. He pounds that drum often. Like John Bonham playing “The Song Remains the Same.”

We tend to take that to mean the Penguins need to be peskier, like when they had Matt Cooke and Tyler Kennedy. Or that they need to hit more often, like when they had Chris Kunitz. Or that they need more fighters like Georges Laraque. Or that they need defensemen who drape themselves all over people like Hal Gill did.

But the more I hear Sullivan talk about that absent aspect of the Penguins’ game, the more I think he means his skaters need to make it harder for the other team to take the puck away. He wants the Penguins to make the other club earn possession back when his guys are in control.

Because the Penguins far too often made dumb decisions with the puck that allowed easy takeaways.

“Where we struggled this past season is that we weren’t difficult enough to play against. A lot of that starts with our puck management,” Sullivan reiterated.

Sullivan pointed out that his team was the worst in the league when it came to allowing odd-man rushes.

“One of the big reasons is the decisions we make with the puck in the critical areas of the rink,” Sullivan continued. “That’s one aspect of the game that we are going to focus on moving forward. And Geno is a big part of that.”

Now that Phil Kessel is gone, maybe he’s the biggest part of that.

Oh, and Kris Letang. And, yes, even Sidney Crosby, too.

Maybe now that Phil Kessel is permanently removed as an option from Malkin’s line, Malkin will be less inclined to force give-and-go, East-West, fancy passes. And maybe the presence of a younger, more straight-ahead winger will force Malkin to simplify his game.


Yeah. I struggled to get through that without laughing, too.

We’ll look at the angle of subtracting Kessel more in depth later. Because Sullivan had some interesting things to say on that front, too.

Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tim at [email protected] or via Twitter. All tweets could be reposted. All emails are subject to publication unless specified otherwise.

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