The Masterton trophy is “is awarded annually to the National Hockey League player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to ice hockey”.
This year, the Penguins’ nominee is Evgeni Malkin:
The Professional Hockey Writers’ Association proudly announces chapters’ nominees for the 2020 Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy: pic.twitter.com/EpBQDoMhe5— PHWA (@ThePHWA) June 9, 2020
Malkin endured a tumultuous 2018-19 season, that self-admittedly was one of the worst and most frustrating campaigns of his illustrious career. After the Pens were swept by the Islanders in the 2019 playoffs, GM Jim Rutherford answered if Malkin was in the team’s long-term plans by saying:
“I’m not at the point where I’m making any decision on that at this point,” he explained. “I just can’t answer that kind of question right now.”
Yikes. Rutherford was also frustrated and emotional, but that’s not a standard response to give about a generational talent and franchise cornerstone, regardless of the anger at the moment. Still, Malkin was on the ice at 5v5 for more goals against than for, for the first time since an injury-shortened 2010-11. He “only” scored 72 points in 68 games, which represented a -26 difference from the season prior. Malkin’s goals were cut in half. going from 42 goals in 2017-18 to 21 in 2018-19. He was off his game.
Rutherford did ease the blow a little by saying:
“He’s still an elite player,” Rutherford said. “He had a good season. There were times defensively when he could have been stronger, for sure. But he’s an elite player, and he still will be for a few more years. I don’t see any drop-off physically because of his age.”
As is the case almost literally every single summer the Penguins don’t win the Stanley Cup, articles came out in the summer about Malkin rededicating himself to a big summer training regimen, with a fresh attitude to look and improve and play better. That probably starts the narrative that gets Malkin on the path to a Masterton nominee.
The funny thing is though, when looking at Malkin’s stats and metrics from year-to-year (via Natural Stat Trick), he surely wasn’t improved defensively this season — he just out-scored all his problems to bounce-back in a big way.
(All numbers at 5v5)
Malkin was tanked last year by the poor play of his most common defensive pair in Jack Johnson and Justin Schultz. And while Johnson, deservedly, gets a lot of blame for his total inability to play NHL caliber hockey, Schultz going off a cliff compounded the issue. Ironically though, the Pens’ goaltending in 2018-19 saved Malkin’s season from being even worse — and still Geno helped produced positive xGF and scoring chance numbers.
This year, Malkin DIDN’T get the goaltending (a problem for most on the team), but he simply out-scored all the issues. With a big nod to the emergence of new right winger Bryan Rust, Malkin was able to help tip the ice and fill the net.
Thus, a 48.9% 5v5 Goals For% rate in 2018-19 when the sky was falling turns into a 57.5% very dominant performance. It also helps perception and reality that Malkin was a very big part of cleaning up an annoying habit. Geno was on for 12 power play goals AGAINST last year, helped cut that down to just 4 this season. Considering most blame for PPGA was laid at the feet of Malkin, Kris Letang and Phil Kessel for poor decision making and turnovers, that’s a good way to feed into a bounce-back too by not regularly having to fish the puck out of one’s own net while he is enjoying a power play.
Evgeni Malkin won’t win this award. Really, Pittsburgh didn’t have the normal “really old guy who still plays hockey” or “guy who came back from a really bad injury” to tab this year as the standard type of player that gets Masterton attention. Still, it’s nice to recognize the universal truth that Malkin’s age-33 season was among the best out of everyone in the entire league, and doing so after a poor season the year before showed some nice perseverance and re-dedication to his craft.