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What does history tell us to expect Evgeni Malkin to do upon his return?

A look at how the Pens’ star center has rebounded coming back to the lineup from injuries over his career

NHL: MAR 16 Bruins at Penguins Photo by Jeanine Leech/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Pittsburgh Penguins find themselves unjustifiably in a position that they would rather not be in, to quote a wise Macho Man, when it comes to having to deal with having Evgeni Malkin missing from their lineup. The talented center has found himself on the injury list with alarming frequency, playing just 509 of the team’s last 659 games since the 2013 lockout season.

This year Malkin has only played in 29 of the team’s 50 games so far, and is nearing a return from a presumed knee injury that has kept him out of the lineup since March 16th. It’s the latest of a too long history, but it also at least gives us quite the history to pour back over.

How does Evgeni Malkin perform coming back from long injuries? What might the Pens be able to expect from their big center when he gets cleared to return? Here’s a list of some of the times that Malkin has missed a fairly extended period dating back to 2013 and how he has produced points upon his return.

Detail of Evgeni Malkin’s various returns from injuries

Last Game Next Game Next 5
Last Game Next Game Next 5
Oct 5 2019 Nov 2 2019 1G+5A
Mar 16 2019 Apr 4 2019 1G+3A
Nov 18 2017 Dec 1 2017 2G+4A
Mar 15 2017 Apr 12 2017 2G+9A
Jan 24 2017 Feb 14 2017 3G+3A
Mar 11 2016 Apr 16 2016 3G+5A
Mar 14 2015 Mar 28 2015 0G+2A
Jan 20 2015 Feb 4 2015 2G+0A
Mar 23 2014 Apr 16 2014 0G+4A
Feb 7 2014 Feb 27 2014 1G+5A
Dec 14 2013 Jan 5 2014 3G+3A
Mar 9 2013 Mar 28 2013 1G+2A

The first thing to notice, other than the sheer volume of injuries, is that Malkin missing time at the tail end of the regular season is nothing new. In 2014, 2016, 2017 Malkin made his return for the playoffs. In 2019, Geno came back for two regular season games (0G+1A) before the playoffs.

Add in 2020, when the whole league went on a four month pause and the unfortunate reality is that the Penguins very rarely have Malkin for the stretch run of the regular season, uninterrupted by injury.

This year, 2021, looks closer to 2019, where Malkin should get back into the lineup prior to the start of the playoffs for a couple of games.

What can we parse from the above data in history?

Don’t expect a lot of goals

Malkin has 19 goals in the 12 instances above, where his next five games (60 total) were tracked. 19 goals in 60 games is off Malkin’s career marks, but considering a lot of the above is playoffs when goal scoring is tougher, that makes sense. In six of the 12 instances, Malkin recorded zero or just one goal in his first five games back from his longest injuries.

Similarly, overall Malkin has just 64 points in the 60 games total. That’s nice for most players, but a bit down for what we would expect for Malkin’s career production.

The takeaway is clear, it is incredibly difficult to return from a fairly lenghty in-season injury in the NHL and play at a superstar level. That doesn’t mean it is impossible, however..

2016 and 2017 lessons

Two areas that bucked the trend of lesser scoring were the Stanley Cup playoff runs of 2016 and 2017. Those returns were Malkin’s most successful — scoring 3G+5A in his first five games into a return against the New York Rangers in 2016 and 2G+9A against the Columbus Blue Jackets. Unsurprisingly, those were both resounding Pittsburgh series wins that helped set them off on a championship trajectory.

If Malkin is able to come back in the form he was in the last five games before he was injured (3G+5A in March 2021 prior to the game where he got hurt), that could be a great sign of future success for the Penguins to add that next layer of production to their lineup.

The Penguins have kept their season afloat, despite missing Malkin for the last 21 games, largely thanks to the center play of Sidney Crosby and others like Jared McCann, Teddy Blueger and Jeff Carter. But to get where they will want to be on a deep run, they will need the missing piece to come back, and return with a lot of impact at the most difficult time of the year.