At this point it is not exactly a secret that something was a bit off with Evgeni Malkin during the 2018-19 season. I’m still not going to go as far as saying he had a bad season, but it definitely wasn’t the typical Malkin dominance we have grown accustomed to seeing throughout his career.
He was good. We are used to seeing him be great.
The final numbers offensively were fine, but that production still fell off dramatically after the first month of the season and other aspects of his game just seemed to be, in a word, lacking. The tell-tale sign for me to identify when Malkin is at his best is when he is dominating both ends of the rink, specifically when when he’s swooping back through the neutral zone and stripping the puck away from an opponent. When you see that, you know he is rolling. We never really saw THAT Malkin.
This week the Athletic’s Rob Rossi wrote one of the most in-depth Malkin features that has ever been produced and dug into some of the issues that existed throughout the season and offered a window into how he has worked this offseason to improve. Much of the focus from that has been on the relationship between Malkin and Phil Kessel and how it all deteriorated.
But with Kessel now gone and playing for Arizona the big item to watch will be the relationship between Malkin and head coach Mike Sullivan, because that, too, seemed to be an issue last season. Ice-time. Malkin’s defensive play. His willingness to come back in the defensive zone to help out. All of it was apparently a factor and source of tension and disagreement on both sides.
Player-coach (and player-player) relationships are never perfect. You are in a situation where you are dealing with more than 20 highly competitive, highly driven adults that all have egos, strong personalities, and strong beliefs on what is best for themselves and the team. Sometimes those things are going to clash, especially over a nine-month season when everyone is constantly in a confined space with one another.
Players are going to fight, coaches are going to yell and get frustrated, players are going to push back. It happens.
The key for the Penguins is where that Malkin-Sullivan relationship goes from here.
By all accounts Malkin seems driven to rebound from a down year, and based on photos we’ve seen it looks like he spent his entire offseason pumping iron and living in a gym. He is a proud, driven player and will no doubt have a chip on his shoulder to prove that he is still one of the elite players in the league.
But there are still a lot of variables at play.
Will Alex Galchenyuk be the right winger for him?
Will Malkin get the ice-time he wants (he hasn’t been a 20-minute per game player in six years)?
How will he work with the defense that is still lacking in puck-movers? Do not forget that reported exchange from last season when Malkin, in a team meeting, apparently told Sullivan that Chad Ruhwedel could skate the puck out of the zone when he had no options to pass to. The Penguins are still bringing back almost the exact same defense, and with the Kris Letang - Brian Dumoulin pairing likely to get the bulk of their ice-time with Sidney Crosby, Malkin’s line will probably once again get saddled with defenders that can’t make that outlet pass and will require support.
The Malkin-Sullivan relationship is going to be fascinating to watch unfold because we know how these things tend to play out in sports: The superstar player almost always outlasts the coach. If things go south again for Malkin or the team we will no doubt be subjected to another round of trade speculation to shake things up. But I still need to see that actually happen to believe it will ever happen. Mario Lemieux wants Malkin to be a legacy player and remain in Pittsburgh. There was also the “it’s me and Geno” line from Crosby in Rossi’s article.
If the two franchise icons want someone to stay, that someone will stay. That probably means Sullivan almost certainly has the most to lose in this relationship if things do not work.
In the end, the Penguins do need more from Malkin this season if they are going to be a championship team. Not only because of how dominant Malkin is when he is clicking on all cylinders, but because the depth isn’t quite what it was a few years ago they are going to have to lean heavily on their big-three (Crosby, Malkin, Letang) to carry them. It’s not entirely fair to them, and it sets an almost unreachable bar for them, but that is the situation the team is in.
He is still very capable of being that player, and that he most likely will be.
But it is going to be fascinating to see how it ends up getting to that point and how the seemingly delicate relationship between Malkin and Sullivan evolves.