What’s more surprising, that Deryk Engelland has two goals this season, or that Evgeni Malkin only has three? The Russian superstar has had an uncharacteristically anemic season when it comes to scoring goals. Assists are a different story, as he leads the team with 17, so let’s not detract from that. Malkin is known as a goal-scorer though, and that’s what he’s paid the big bucks for. So, what’s going on with Geno? Is he having a slump like Alexander Ovechkin suffered through at the start of last year’s lockout-shortened season? Is the Olympic pressure getting to him? Is it time for a change of scenery?
The Pittsburgh Penguins are 21 games into the 2013-14 regular season, and they sit 1 point ahead of rival Washington for the lead in the Metropolitan Division. The Pens started the season strong, getting out to a big lead, only to watch it slowly slip away. They expect a lot out of Malkin, and well they should, as he’s the highest paid player on the squad and has proven in the past that he can be the best player in the league.
An emotional and sometimes enigmatic player, Malkin can be unstoppable when he wants to be, but is also akin to taking retaliatory penalties and can be downright lazy in his own zone. Often, his passes in the Penguins’ zone are intercepted, or go nowhere at all. Even NBC announcer Pierre McGuire has sounded off on Geno’s lackluster play. Speaking about the 5-1 pounding against the Rangers, he stated: “Evgeni Malkin didn’t compete hard enough. You can’t massage it, you can’t masquerade. I mean the bottom line is if you want to play in this league you got to compete every single day and every single night. And he’s a star player, he needs to compete harder, I think he knows that.”
So, how do you solve a problem like Evgeni? As a coach, Dan Bylsma needs to get down to a personal level and find out what motivates his superstar. Changing the lines isn’t the answer, and Malkin could be an NHL leader with two beer leaguers on his wings. Sure, missing James Neal due to injury hasn’t helped, but it isn’t the reason. Jussi Jokinen has been stellar on the Malkin line, and the two seem to complement each other. No, Bylsma will have to dig deeper to get Geno to crank the motivation meter up to 11.
The question of national pride could be on the line too, as the Olympics are coming up in 2014, and Malkin and Team Russia have a lot at stake playing in front of a home crowd. After disappointment in Vancouver, the Russians need to show the hockey world they have what it takes, especially as this is their Olympics on their ice. We’ve seen in the past that Malkin will give the extra effort when he is playing for the national team. Perhaps he’s just saving his strength.
With the halfway point of the season only a month away, and the Penguins sitting near the top of the Metropolitan, GM Ray Shero has to start looking at his team’s strengths and weaknesses, as well as his cap space. Malkin isn’t playing poorly enough to be traded… yet. Shero knows that Jeff Zatkoff is not a playoff caliber (or really NHL caliber) goaltender, even as a backup, and he also has a few weak spots in his defense. Malkin is a huge chip to trade, but it would bring in massive dividends if he were to offer. There isn’t a team in this league who wouldn’t want Geno on their bench, and most would pay handsomely to get him. It is doubtful that the trade option is even on the table, but Shero is cunning, and he isn’t dumb. When you’re stacked for talent at center like Pittsburgh is, it could behoove you to cut some of the fat (and the cap hit) to claim a good backup for the notorious playoff trainwreck that is Marc-Andre Fleury.
It’s still early to give up on Malkin, and many gave up on Ovechkin before he turned it around last season and put up incredible numbers. Maybe Malkin needs to take a page from his Russian brother and find that will to produce. If not, he may be donning new colors for the first time in his NHL career. It may not be what he wants, but as we all know, life is unfair.
Scott Huntington is a writer, reporter, blogger, and long-time hockey fan. When he’s not watching hockey he’s doing research for CJ Pony Parts or spending time outside with his family. Scott will posting his thoughts on the NHL throughout the season and you can also find him on Twitter @smhuntington