Are the Penguins Better Without Evgeni Malkin?

USATSI_9254104_154158418_lowresThe Pittsburgh Penguins lost to the New York Rangers on Saturday, which subsequently spawned dozens of thinkpieces about what went wrong. And given that Saturday also marked the return of one Evgeni Malkin to the Penguins’ lineup, you can probably imagine the direction most of the articles took.

In short, Pittsburgh has a Malkin problem.

Statistics junkies point to the fact that the Penguins have gone 14-2 without him in the lineup. He was injured back in March, but in truth Pittsburgh spent large chunks of the season on a tear.

The 29-year-old Russian had 58 points in 57 games in the regular season, including 27 goals. He registered 162 shots on target, which put him in line for his second-best efficiency rating in his career. On the other hand, his shot totals were lean – even when taking the injuries into account. And he’s still never been more effective than in the 2007-2008 season, where he fired 272 shots and potted 47 goals.

But the case doesn’t really have to made for Malkin as a fixture on the Penguins, does it?

There are issues with players returning from considerable injuries, especially in the post-season, and one could argue that “rhythm” plays a role. Putting the two-time scoring champion back in the roster and finding space for him on a team that’s learned to adjust can present a unique set of challenges, but one has to imagine that’s what hockey is all about.

Malkin slipped into Game Two against the Rangers for over 18 minutes of ice time and he picked up an assist in the third period. He didn’t register a shot and had some trouble finding his passing game. Head coach Mike Sullivan fiddled with his lines and put Malkin between Conor Sheary and Bryan Rust because Malkin likes to play centre. Later, the Russian was moved to the wing alongside Sidney Crosby.

There were lapses, but Malkin’s preference is clear. “I like [to] play one position whole game,” he said. “I think it’s just one game. It’s because we have five centres and it’s little bit tough for coach, but I think next game I will play at centre.”

Whether or not that happens is Sullivan’s call, with Nick Bonino fitting in nicely with Phil Kessel and Carl Hagelin. Kessel had a pair of power play goals on Saturday and the group played together for most of the game.

It’s also worth noting that Chris Kunitz played just over a dozen minutes on Saturday, his lowest minutes of the season.

So is Malkin’s return really upsetting the apple cart for the Penguins? After all, they took Game One in convincing fashion with a 5-2 final score. And they had a regular season goal differential of 183-170 before his injury, with a 67-35 differential without him.

While it’s tempting to look at the numbers as telling the whole story, the truth is that there are often intangibles in play. Statistical analysis helps when it comes to sorting through the murk of hockey’s mystifications, but it doesn’t always tell the whole story.

The argument, at least for the time being, seems to be that the Penguins are not a better team with Malkin in the lineup. In order to flip this current reality on its head, Pittsburgh is going to have to find the right combination for one of the most talented players in the world. And they’ll need to do it in a hurry.

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