How Do You Solve a Problem Like Evgeni?

When the Penguins are winning and dominating, the focus is on the prowess of Sidney Crosby. When the Penguins struggle, one of the biggest and most pervasive topics of focus is Evgeni Malkin. Such was the case the morning after the Penguins let a 2-0 lead against Boston implode, ending in a 4-2 loss. The first comment that irked me by a local morning sports chat on the radio was bemoaning the “fact” that without Sid in the lineup, the Penguins have “no scoring depth.” Are you kidding me?

This is the team that has more often than not received scoring contributions in single games from more than just a few of the active players on any given night. When scoring 5 or more goals, the Penguins are averaging a respectable 10 contributors. Case in point:

  • 11 Penguins figured in the scoring in the 8-2 win against Tampa Bay.
  • 11 Penguins figured in the scoring in the 7-2 win over Columbus.
  • 9 Penguins figured in the scoring in the 5-2 win over Toronto.
  • 9 Penguins figured in the scoring in the 5-2 win over Buffalo.
  • 9 Penguins figured in the scoring in the 6-3 win over Atlanta.

The strength of this team over the past few seasons has been to get scoring from any guy on any line, forwards to blue liners, first line to fourth. That’s what makes a team like the Penguins dangerous. How do you game plan that? To date, three Penguins have cracked double digits in goals: Chris Kunitz with 16 and Pascal Dupuis and Mark Letestu with 10 each. Two others are poised to break double digits as well: Alex Goligoski and Matt Cooke each have 9 goals. It also bears noting who in the supporting cast have been doing their due diligence in the assist department. Kris Letang takes first prize with 34 assists on Penguin goals, followed by Kunitz and Goligoski with 17 each, Tyler Kennedy with 15, Paul Martin with 14 and Matt Cooke with 13. Both Dupuis and Letestu round out the double-digit club on assists with 11 and 10 respectively.

This team does not fall apart when Sid’s absent as a season in the not-too-distant past proved when Sid went down with a nasty high ankle sprain for several weeks. Pundits were hopeful the team would maybe break even with .500 play at best during his absence. They ended up putting together a body of so many wins that they found themselves getting a playoff berth, so don’t tell me this team has no scoring depth. Players have come and gone, true, but Ray Shero has managed to keep guys coming in who make contributions.

While all this is very well and good, there is still the problem of Geno, and it is becoming a problem lately complicated with his absence from the team with a knee issue and sinus trouble as the reports go. Local radio hockey guru, Mark Madden, has been vociferously but objectively scrutinizing the Russian’s play for a while, fending off what he calls The Malkin Apologists. He’s not wrong. What makes it difficult is that there is no question that Geno is a talented player, and he incites drama when he breaks away, tearing up the ice as he did in the Winter Classic. Even when he’s struggling, he has to be accounted for on the ice. He’s got moves, no question. But when he’s on a team with a charismatic over-achiever like Sidney Crosby, he is held to a much higher standard. For $8.7 million, he should be.

A few adjectives come to mind when looking at Geno’s body of work since he came to the Penguins, and particularly in the past two seasons:

  • Streaky – when he’s on, he’s good for goals and assists all over the place, particularly if he’s coming back after being out for a few games nursing an undisclosed injury – expect big things when he gets back in the lineup again. Then he cools off, fast. He’s like someone who saves a bunch of money and then goes out and blows it in a spending spree.
  • Inconsistent – goes with streaky.
  • Careless – He’s careless with the puck, careless in taking penalties (though he’s been a little better this year, but the kinds of penalties he takes still tend to cost the team), and careless in face-offs (see Ambivalent).
  • Predictable – I will not go so far as to say that Geno is as much of a one-trick pony as Alex Ovechkin, but he’s becoming predictable. As soon as he takes (or receives) the puck upon entering the neutral zone, see if he doesn’t head for the right side, head down, come across the blue line and find some way to lose it or give it away (all those incessant blind drop passes!) before he makes it through the face-off circle area to get a shot off. On the positive side of predictable, you can also pretty much guarantee when he transitions to a defensive mode, he will find a nifty way to pick the puck-carrier’s pocket and go the other way. One troubling note: in the rematch against the Bruins where the Pens won 3-2, Malkin had no take-aways.
  • Ambivalent – I don’t want to use the word “lazy” though it’s often on the tip of my tongue when I watch Geno play because by all accounts he is not, and I am more likely to believe those who work alongside him every day. Maybe complacent is a better word. There’s a certain laissez faire attitude, but not in a cocky way. It’s almost like he’s not quite got his head in the game for 60 minutes. He has often said that he is fine with not being in Sid’s shoes, particularly with all the off-ice responsibilities Sid has. He admits he could never do that. Very humble. Super. However, when your fearless leader is out of the game, Geno is considered the “vice president,” the presumed next in line in leadership. When called, he must step up on the ice. However, it has not been Geno. Instead, Jordan Staal in only a handful of games back on the ice, has suddenly emerged as the leader on the ice figuring in decisively in road wins against Montreal and Boston, registering 5 points in 2 games (2G, 3A). he was shut out as was ther est of the team in the 2-0 loss to New Jersey in a game that placed them in a new position, playing without Sid or Geno. By the next game against brother Eric and the Carolina Hurricanes, Staal was on the score sheet again with an assist, 5 shots and a +2 for his efforts.

When looking at the work ethic of a Sidney Crosby, a superstar who is humble enough to know that he is not perfect but can always work to perfect every aspect of his game (and does), it’s not unreasonable to expect every player will work on improving aspects of his game as befitting his role. Truly, this kind of work ethic is what has not only set Sid apart from Alex Ovechkin, but it has widened the gap and nearly nullified the question of who’s the better player. Now, it is starting to look the same way between Sid and Geno.

For Geno:

  • Face-offs – As a center, knowing he will be expected to take face-offs, he should be working to improve his win percentage. As a wing, he should still work on this in the event that the center is waved out. As the center replacing Sid on the top line, he should really be working on it, but in the recent Boston game, he managed only 3 for 12 for a horrid 25% win percentage behind Staal’s nearly even 13 for 27 (48%) and Mark Letestu’s 5 for 7 (71%).
  • Physical Play vs. Team Play – one of the things I like about Geno is that he is not afraid to be physical. He appears to enjoy checking and is willing to stand up for a teammate, but he needs to improve on his timing. In a heartbreaking 3-2 lost in Philadelphia, Geno drew a late game penalty defending Sid, and it cost them, breaking the 12-game winning streak. As Assistant Coach Tony Granato said in the coaches’ assessment meeting the morning after the Pens’ loss in HBO’s Penguins – Capitals: 24/7, “We’ve been talking a lot about defending teammates, and he’d get confused between what defending a teammate was and making the right play. He saw Sid get hit and went straight at him.” Bylsma waved Granato off having heard enough. No more excuses. And hey, on another note, there’s no shame in a star player utilizing the Murphy Dump to break a neutral zone trap or intentionally banking a shot off the goalie’s pads so the trailing forward can bury it behind that net minder.
  • Mental Toughness and Focus – This aspect of Geno’s game really ties in with everything else. He’s gained a reputation for being able to be goaded into careless penalties if pestered long enough, and some nights it doesn’t take much. Bruce Boudreau, coach of the Washington Capitals, knows it and talked about it with his team in 24/7. One of their keys to the game was to pester the hell out of Geno to get him to retaliate, and they were not disappointed. In the most recent game in Montreal, it was P.K. Subban’s job to make Malkin’s life miserable. In the Boston game, that fell to big Zdeno Chara whose favorite target, Sid, was not available for torture.
  • Shooting Situations (Special and Otherwise) – Geno has admitted often that he is not comfortable taking penalty shots. OK, the first step is to admit you have a problem. Now, do something about it to become comfortable. Analyze the success of others; there are plenty on the team who have a number of successful approaches to experiment with. Heads’ up play could stand some improvement, too. Instead of trying to take the puck on his own through half the opposing team, Geno might try looking up and finding a trailer. He has the skill to play a great game of Keep-Away. Almost no one can hold a puck like he can, so there is absolutely no reason why he should be making ill-advised blind passes to the other team. Nor should he be flicking ludicrous east-west passes lazily along the opposing team’s blue line for them to pick off and odd-man break in the other direction. On the power play, he’s not made to be a blue liner, so he should stay off it and play to his strength, which is the wheelhouse on the right face-off circle. Kris Letang manages to send him a perfect pass for that accurate, killer one-timer Geno is known for. No one has found a solution to stop that shot, and until they do, geno should keep going at it and reaping the benfits.

So, what will get Geno going? His English has improved enough for him to understand what is expected of him, so that’s no longer a valid excuse. He has always worked well with Jordan Staal in the past, but Staal’s unfortunate injuries delayed the solidification of the new 2nd line. Staalsy could not be expected to buoy Malkin immediately because not only was he still trying to get his sea legs, but with Crosby out now, Geno’s been moved to center Sid’s line, and Jordan’s back centering with his old mates Tyler Kennedy and Matt Cooke. Given Staal’s incredibly solid play in the 5-2 win against Montreal, the chemistry between him and Geno has started to register. Malkin was on the ice for every one of the 4 power play goals the Pens scored against Boston. Geno plays a better wing and is comfortable there given his moderate success as Sid’s wing, but he still defers too much to Sid when he himself has a perfect shot opportunity. Staal is the better partner because if in watching Geno’s body language when he’s been on the ice with Staal, he is much more relaxed; maybe relieved is a better word. Staal understands Geno’s unpredictable, creative nature and has incredible instincts with Geno that he can adjust to the Russian, resulting in a positive outcome. It’s a good fit, but it is still in delay with Geno being out indefinitely.

 Then there’s the tough love approach as Mark Madden recalled from the pre-Bylsma era. Michel Therrien used to tell Geno, “I don’t see you in the Top 10.”

Next thing you knew, Geno was in the Top 10.

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