clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Does Malkin Make Sutter Better?

Brandon Sutter has spent more time with Evgeni Malkin this season than he has in the past, but it's not clear whether this is helping either player.

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

With the changes over the summer and the recent rash of injuries, the Penguins have employed some new looks this year. One such look is moving Malkin to wing and using Sutter as the second-line center. Sutter has spent substantially more time playing with Malkin this year than he has in the past. In 82 games last year, for example, Sutter spent only 37 minutes with Malkin during 5v5 play. And in 48 games during the 2012-13 season, Sutter spent only 16 minutes with Malkin at 5v5. This year--in only 36 games--Sutter has already spent more than 134 minutes with Malkin at even strength.

This raises the question: is it working? One way to answer this is to look at how well this duo controls play when they're on the ice together. They have done well this year: as of Tuesday night, Malkin has a 52.5% CF% at 5v5 when he is on the ice with Sutter. We can dig further into the With Or Without You (WOWY) numbers to see which one of these guys is driving play.

Not a good showing from Sutter. Malkin does better away from Sutter by roughly one percent, but Sutter's drop-off is immense. He falls nearly ten percentage points to a 42.4% CF% away from Malkin. This should be unsurprising. Over the last two years, Sutter has put up a 43.1% CF% and 42.6% CF% while spending very little time with Malkin. In short, Sutter isn't doing anything to improve Malkin's possession game.

That isn't bad per se, though. The fact that Malkin and Sutter drive play reasonably well is a net positive for the team regardless of whether Malkin or Sutter does the heavy lifting. But I do think there's a better reason to avoid pairing these two in the future. That reason is based on examining how well these players put up points together compared to when they're apart.

Two big takeaways here. First, both Sutter and Malkin put up more goals and points when playing away from each other this year. This counsels strongly in favor of not pairing them together in the future. Second, Sutter does not improve offensively when playing with Malkin. It is, in fact, the reverse. This is especially important because most of the rationale for pairing these two together is based on the claim that Malkin unlocks Sutter's offensive talent. If offensive talent means goals and points, Sutter does better away from Malkin.

Of course, Sutter and Malkin haven't spent a ton of time together so far this season. It's possible that if we had a more robust sample (say 1000+ minutes), things would look a little different, i.e. Malkin might actually make Sutter better. But the evidence we have from this year and the past suggests that Sutter will not magically morph into a top six forward. Over the last six years, Sutter has scored 1.25 5v5 pts/60 and put up a 45.2% CF% during 5v5 play. Those are below average even for third line players. Combined with the data we have from this year, there is very little evidence to support the notion that playing Sutter with Malkin will help the former grow.

Injuries make it difficult to follow through on this recommendation. Still, I would play Klinkhammer or Megna with Malkin for the time being and put Sutter back on the third line. If Bennett comes back as soon as expected, he should be first in line to get top six minutes.

I know that Johnston said he thinks Sutter is "still growing offensively." That very well may be true. But the evidence we have from years past and this season suggest that Sutter isn't growing with Evgeni Malkin. To maximize both players' potential, Johnston should avoid pairing Sutter with Malkin in the future.