Evgeni Malkin’s 2018-19 season proved to be a hot take factory as everyone had an opinion on how he actually played, and a counter-take to every disagreement.
It can basically be summed up like this: He had good numbers, he probably did not play as well as he could have or should have, and everyone — including Malkin himself — acknowledged he needed to have a better year this season if the Penguins were going to make another run at another Stanley Cup.
That bounce-back became even more important once the Penguins started losing what seems to be two players per game to injury, including Malkin himself.
Now that he is back in the lineup and looking healthy, the Malkin redemption tour is in full swing as he casually reminds the rest of the league that, yes, he is still in fact an elite player in the NHL.
The production is back
Not that it ever really went away, because even last season he was still a point-per-game player. But it is back in the sense that it is what he was doing when he was competing for scoring titles and taking over games on his own. With 22 points in 16 games, he is producing at what would be a 112-point pace over an 82-game season. His current 1.375 point-per-game average is the second highest of his career, and while it may not be a sustainable number for a mid-30s player over a full season, it still puts his offensive dominance so far into its proper perspective.
He is carrying the offense when the team needs him to
It is not just the fact that he is scoring that helps. It is the fact that with Sidney Crosby out of the lineup he is once again putting the offense on his back and carrying it. Since returning from injury he has at least one point in 11 out of 14 games, including seven multi-point games.
Since Nov. 1 the Penguins have scored 46 goals. Malkin has scored or assisted on 21 of those goals and been on the ice for 25 of them.
With so many players out of the lineup the depth is going to be put to the test, and even if they pass that test they are still going to struggle to produce goals. The X-factor is having an all-time great in the middle of your lineup that can take over games. Malkin is that player, and he has played like it over the past month.
The good signs are there
For as great as he has played so far Malkin has not been perfect this season. There has been the occasional lapse that drives people mad (overtime in New York; that turnover against Columbus) and leads to a goal the other way. But those lapses have been few and far between, and Malkin is even demonstrating a lot of the telltale signs that he is playing at his best.
He just has that “jump” to him every night where he just looks like he is going to take a game over. When he has that confidence and that motivation he can be the toughest player in the league to stop and as dominant as anyone from this era.
But the biggest sign for me as to when Malkin is on his game is when his play away from the puck shines, especially when he is swooping in behind people and ripping the puck away from them. That has been there. All of it is showing up in the underlying numbers where his line has dominated possession and goals.
The Penguins have the ability to contend this season assuming they can ever get healthy and stay that way. Until that happens they are going to need to lean on Malkin to carry a significant portion of their offense. So far he has delivered in a big way.