Last summer at this time, when it came from regression from 2020-21 moving forward, it was easy to see that Jeff Carter was in for a fall to Earth after scoring 13 goals in 20 games in a Penguin jersey (regular season plus playoffs). Kasperi Kapanen was due to regress too after a career-high 16.2% shooting season helped lead to 30 points in just 40 games. In both cases, those were right on, but even probably more than it would have been guesses at the time.
Carter still scored 19 goals in the regular season and four more in the playoffs, fine for a veteran forward (more troubling was his advanced stats and getting caved in for large portions of the season with chances against). Kapanen’s “swagger” left him and his play plummeted in what ended up changing his whole playing style, in a very negative way for a dreadful season.
While last year at this time saw those two very obvious cases of an impending negative regression, it could be in the other direction with some positive potential cases for regression this time around.
#1: New year, new Malkin?
Evgeni Malkin has always been a player that carries a long-established narrative of just what he is perceived to be — and also not be.
From one perspective, you had a 35-year old that had major ACL surgery and rehab last summer complete that for a return in about seven months to return to play half a season. And with everyone else in mid-season form, he still found a way to score 20 goals and 42 points in 41 games, without much training or preparation otherwise.
All the while, playing largely with the slumping Kapanen, the injured shell of Jason Zucker and other guys who don’t have much offensive flair or talent to make a lot of skilled plays (Danton Heinen, Brock McGinn, etc).
In some quarters, the context was lost and the end result of the season was seen as a negative on Malkin!
The tough news for Malkin is he is another year old, celebrating a birthday this past weekend for the big 3-6. He misses his share of games and has been unable to stay healthy. These are real concerns, and truthful ones.
However, there is also reason to see a better days ahead in the form of a bounce-back.
Evgeni Malkin’s 5on5 S% was 7.8%, marking the third-lowest of his career. The two times this happened where his 5on5 S% was lower, his points-per-game average jumped from 1.03 to 1.20 the following season, and 1.02 to 1.16.— Dobber (@DobberHockey) July 19, 2022
In 2021-22 his Pts/GP was 1.02#Penguins #FantasyHockey
The big kicker here is going to be the teammate portion. Being as both Bryan Rust and recent trade addition Rickard Rakell have signed new contracts for the Pens, one of those players will be on Malkin’s wing. Probably both at different points of the season, but that represents what should be a nice upgrade.
There’s also the hope that Zucker stays healthy and performs in a contract year, and Kapanen gets his mojo back and rebounds.
No matter how it shakes out, Malkin’s wing situation in 2022-23 should be better. We might not know exactly who those wingers will be — and it will be the usual fact of like that Jake Guentzel + the other best winger on the team will be playing with Sidney Crosby. But either way, between Rust, Rakell, Zucker, Kapanen and then maybe even Heinen as necessary, there is a lot of material in the picture.
This will mean Malkin’s 0.86 Assists/60 rate at 5-on-5 will go up. And, like the tweet above says, his points/game has a very good chance of improving as a result.
As usual with Malkin, the question is: do you get 70 games out of him? Or 50? Or 60-some. That doesn’t have an answer yet and will go the longest way to determining just how far back he will bounce.
With all this context, even at an older age Malkin could be back into the 1.15-ish points/game season. If that becomes 80 points in 70 games next year, the team is likely going to be in very good shape at the end of the campaign.
#2: Finally showtime for Zucker?
In some respects, it seems like Jason Zucker has provided the Penguins with nothing but frustration ever since the trade from Minnesota brought him to Pittsburgh. It’s tough to dispute that, and 2021-22 was the epitome of frustration for all parties as Zucker gutted out (quite literally) a mid-body injury, underwent hernia surgery, suffered a setback, but still gave it his all.
The real story of Jason Zucker, as far back as his days with the Wild, is a speedy winger who goes to the net and sometimes he scores, and sometimes for no discernible reason he hits rough patches when it comes to putting the puck in the net.
No stretch has been so rough as the last year. It’s easy to forget now, due to all the injuries and it feeling like almost a life-time ago, Zucker did score six goals and 12 points in 15 games when he first came over in the spring of 2020.
Zucker’s goal scoring over the years (5v5 situations)
While 2021-22 was a debacle by any definition — including a career-low shooting% at 5v5 — it doesn’t take too long to see Zucker actually did well in 2020-21 in all areas beside games played. He’s not too far off his peak back in 2016-18 where he was scoring over 1 G/60 at 5v5.
As mentioned above, it’s also a contract year for Zucker. His Penguin time has been unfulfilling so far for all parties involved, but the story isn’t over just yet. There’s a lot of evidence pointing to Zucker being mighty unlucky in areas of finishing and injuries in the past 20 months. There’s no guarantee that will turn, but if it does, 2022-23 might finally pay off for Zucker in Pittsburgh.
#3: Team-wide finishing
Overall last year at 5v5, the Penguins were very balanced for expected vs actual. They scored 53.9% of 5v5 goals (9th best in the NHL) against a 53.3 expected GF%.
But there was one aspect that stood out, a lack of finishing ability that ranked just 28th in a 32 team league.
Players like Zucker and Kapanen factor into that, with failing to convert opportunities to goals. The departed Evan Rodrigues was up there too. Even though Rakell scored at a rate near expectation, he had just four 5v5 goals in 19 regular season games last season, which will be counted on for an increase after a big contract.
Overall the Pens scored 269 total goals (11th best in NHL), they could and probably should have the talent to out-perform that in 2022-23.