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Can Evgeni Malkin make chicken salad out of Kunitz+Fehr?

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The Pittsburgh Penguins aren't doing Evgeni Malkin any favors. It might be for the good of the team, but can the star forward overcome getting "leftovers" and produce? And if not, will the team be strong enough to beat Henrik Lundqvist by treating Malkin like an after-thought?

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

An interesting story line is how the Pittsburgh Penguins are treating the return to the lineup by an MVP caliber player in Evgeni Malkin.

Malkin hasn't been reunited with the wingers he had been playing with, since Carl Hagelin and Phil Kessel have found great success in his absence with Nick Bonino. Of course, you'd have to dismiss the fact the trio has produced 0 even strength goals so far in 3 playoff games.

The question then becomes, where to place Malkin? After his first game, Malkin made it clear he doesn't prefer to play on the wing, so scratch playing with Sidney Crosby and Patric Hornqvist.

Matt Cullen has meshed so well with Bryan Rust and Tom Kuhnhackl, there's no reason to break that trio up.

Which leaves healthy linemate options as 2 out of 3 of: Eric Fehr, Conor Sheary and Chris Kunitz. Malkin started last game with the first two, but when Sheary showed flashes of puck-skill he was quickly promoted to the Crosby line, leaving Kunitz to play with Malkin.

To say Kunitz and Fehr aren't ideal candidates right now, to productively play with a skilled center would be an understatement. Look at their stats in the last 11 games:

Goals Assists Points ES Points
Kunitz 0 2 2 1
Fehr 2 1 3 2

(Of those goals, one of Fehr's goals was an empty-netter as well.)

So, the Penguins plan for Malkin appears to be giving him 2 wingers who in their last 22 combined games have 3 total even strength points (1g+2a). A feat made more astounding considering Kunitz has been on the ice almost exclusively with Crosby as his center. Possibly tougher is Fehr has been playing mostly 4th line limited minutes without a trace of the skill that he'll have to adjust to when sharing the ice with #71.

Can Evgeni Malkin make chicken-salad out of this chicken..skat? It's possible, but it's also conceivable he generates little to nothing without productive wingers.

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Malkin vs. Bonino - who is better with Hagelin and Kessel?

A common, sensible refrain in favor of not wanting to break up the Hagelin - Bonino - Kessel line is the success all 3 experienced in the last 16 games of the regular season where Malkin was injured. At about a point/game a piece, all three played fantastic hockey and helped fuel the Penguins terrific finish.

However what is often overlooked is that Malkin's advanced numbers with Hagelin/Kessel are practically on par with what they did playing with Bonino. Also glanced over is that the "HBK" line benefited from a red-hot streak and unsustainable run of excellent play. Early playoff returns are already showing this, as the line hasn't scored at even strength in all 3 games of the NYR series so far.

To illustrate both points, from Hockey Analysis, see below. Using Hagelin as the control, since he came over mid-season and played largely with Malkin+Kessel while Malkin was healthy, and then with Bonino+Kessel while Geno was injured, that provides a simple and rough estimate of how both lines have performed.

Bonino+Hags Malkin+Hags
5v5 Sample 163 mins 130 mins
GF/60 5.50 4.62
GA/60 1.10 2.31
CF/60 67.85 66.57
CA/60 46.94 45.77
GF% 83.3% 66.7%
CF % 59.1% 59.3%

Across the board, these numbers are incredibly similar, and both very impressive.

Playing with Bonino added Goals For and cut some Goals Against, which is why it makes sense in a recency effect not to want to break this line up. Playing with Malkin showed a comparable but slightly stronger Corsi, and 4.62 GF/60 is nothing to sneeze at either.

The most important thing to remember is these numbers only tell the story of the past, and do not guarantee what will happen in the future. "HBK" isn't going to see 83.3% of the pucks go in the friendly net into perpetuity. They're not going to score 5.50 goals/60 forever either, as we've seen with that line scoring zippy through three games.

In truth, the 4.62 GF/60 isn't going to last either, but being as the shots for vs. against are remarkably similar, there's no evidence that Hagelin/Bonino/Kessel have been, deep down, having a better process than with Malkin there.

***

Let there be no doubt, the NHL playoffs is all about team over ego. But making the best team possible requires constructing it to be in the strongest position. The easiest way to do that is by putting the most skilled players with each other. The Penguins aren't doing their second best forward any favors by placing him with two older, slower, unproductive wingers in Kunitz+Fehr, while having a 3rd line center play with top-6 caliber wingers.

There could be valid reasons for this train of thought. Perhaps coach Mike Sullivan is more comfortable with Malkin as a bit player as he returns to form from injury -- not playing him in the last 5:27 of Game 3 would support that. At this point of his recovery (and how the other 3 lines have played), maybe Sullivan just needs Malkin to be a guy on the team and is willing to bet that Crosby and Kessel and Cullen can continue to carry their lines to all the ES scoring the team will need. Hey, that worked in Game 3, and if it keeps working it's impossible to argue. It's playoff time, so as the old saying goes, "if it's dumb and it works, it's not dumb".

If the Penguins can keep finding ways to win, they're fine with Malkin basically being an afterthought, with the bonus of being if he can create anything on his own. This, is aside from the area of the game where he definitely can (and is) helping the team; on the power play. Malkin has 2 assists in as many games on the PP,  a unit that has not functioned smoothly without him.

However, it has to be front of mind to always remember that Pittsburgh is facing a Rangers team that is playing a very focused and tough Henrik Lundqvist. "The King" is doing everything humanly possible to keep the puck out of the net with a regal .941 save percentage. A team isn't going to luck it's way into many goals against Lundqvist this time of year.

To put enough pucks behind him it would be wise for the Pens to be at their absolute best alignment. It sure doesn't feel they are with Evgeni Malkin skating with the 2 recent most unproductive wingers on the team, with the replacement HBK line failing to produce ES goals as well.