The late Ashley Gallant was the originator of “Lacing Up,” and its reincarnation is in her honor. Each week, Matt Bodenschatz, Zach Boslett, and, at times, guest writers will hold a week-long email discussion, which will be published on FF.

Matt Bodenschatz: I’m stuffed. Thanksgiving weekend has come and gone. I’ve eaten so much turkey that I feel I could sprout a few feathers at any moment. And, as of today (11/29/10), the Penguins are rolling! What more could we ask for? Oh, wait. How about a dominant Evgeni Malkin?

This edition of “Lacing Up” will feature FF reader and frequent commentor Casey Johnston, who suggested this week’s topic. As usual, Zach Boslett and I will weigh in as well. Casey, welcome to your first official work at FF. Your check is in the mail. And remember that contract you signed. No commenting on any other blogs for the next 14 years.

So what do you think of Malkin? Two years ago he won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP and looked flat out dominant. He’s been good his entire career, but is “good” good enough? This is a guy who has proven capable of being the best in the game. Now, it looks as though he may have lost his spot in the “big three” to Steven Stamkos. What’s the deal?

Casey Johnston: Matt, Zach, thank you for inviting me to this edition of “Lacing Up.” I appreciate having the opportunity to write for a site that I’ve really come to admire the last couple of years.

So, Evgeni Malkin. Like so many other devout Pens fans I’m left wondering where our beloved Geno has gone. In terms of point production, he hasn’t been the same since winning the Art Ross Trophy in 2008-09. In terms of goal scoring, he has yet to live up to those 47 he buried in 2007-08.

Now, last year wasn’t nearly as bad as some would suggest. Even with playing through injuries and having rather spotty scoring, he was still on pace for 94 points. He ended the season on pace for 33 goals, a slight dip from the 35 he scored the year before. Where he really suffered was the assist column. Without the 15 games missed due to injury, Malkin was on pace for 59 helpers, a 19 point drop from the 78 he had the year prior. A 94 point pace is good, but it’s not Malkin Good.

I think it’s no coincidence that this dip started with the loss of Petr Sykora. As talented as Malkin is, where he really plays second fiddle to Crosby is his lack of ability when it comes to playing with anyone. Crosby shows his dominance through his new-found scoring ability; Malkin shows that he needs a more capable linemate to produce. To me, that’s not the sign of an elite player.

Zach Boslett: Casey, welcome. Now I am not a Malkin guy. I love him as a player. I would not trade him for any player in the league… right now. But his production needs to improve for the $8.7 million he is making.

But Malkin has always gotten the shaft when it comes to linemates in Pittsburgh. Crosby is the face of the franchise so he gets to play with the best players. Crosby has proven he can produce with a 2nd line winger and a 3rd line grinder but I don’t think there is any doubt that Crosby is superior to Malkin at this point.

I think any discussion about Malkin’s production has to involve his revolving door of linemates and the fact that he has had NO consistency in his entire career.

Malkin has played center, right wing, and left wing in his career. He has played in the corner on the power play. Top of the left circle. Left point. Right point. And now rover/high slot.

Malkin has played this season with Mike Comrie, Mark Letestu, Eric Tangradi, Tyler Kennedy, Max Talbot, Matt Cooke, Sidney Crosby, Arron Asham, Chris Conner… and I probably missed someone. Malkin has always gotten the short end of the linemates during his career in Pittsburgh except for one season – the year he played with Ryan Malone and Petr Sykora.

I think a little bit of consistency and chemistry will go a long way for the lone Russian on the team who is without his best friend and mentor Sergei Gonchar for the first time in North America and is coming off an injury plagued, difficult season.

Personally, I think finding a winger for Malkin should be the top deadline priority (now that the Penguins goaltending and defense is much improved).

Matt, thoughts? Think it’s time for Malkin to put his big boy pants on and produce regardless of his slow, stone-handed linemates?

Matt: Malkin needs to step it up. I don’t think that’s really much of a debate. But is it true that he’s been shortchanged with linemates? Petr Sykora and Ryan Malone sure looked nice on his wing for nearly a full season. Not sure Crosby has ever had such high quality wingers for such an extended time. Granted, Sykora and Malone were originally tried out with Crosby, but that’s beside the point.

The fact is, early in their careers, Malkin was considered a player who made those around him better, while Crosby never really seemed to elevate the game of others. Now, it seems the opposite. Crosby is dominating, regardless of his linemates, and in the case of Dupuis, has turned a third/fourth liner into a near-20 goal scorer. Malkin, meanwhile, has been given player after player after player to try and improve his game. It hasn’t worked. What happened to the Malkin who elevated the games of those around him?

Let’s be clear, though. I’m not trying to drag Malkin through the mud. Even on his worst days, he’s still better than the vast majority of players on the ice. But I think that’s what stings so much. He’s got all the natural talent to be an elite performer, and we’ve seen him rise to this level on numerous, extended occasions. Yet, we’ve also seen him sink to your standard second line center, who nets 75 points.
So here it is, the question heard round the world. Should Malkin be traded?

Casey: I don’t think Malkin should be traded right now, nor do I think Shero is seriously considering it. I think that the front office and coaching staff would still like to give Malkin a shot at wing once Staal returns. I have to say, I’m still a big supporter of the Great Malkin Wing Experiment. I think he could flourish with a good center like Jordan Staal, and I think Staal has earned the chance to move up to the second line.

There’s another big problem with trading Malkin that I don’t think some have considered. He may not be as tradable as everyone would like to believe. There seems to be this prevailing assumption that Ray Shero can put Malkin on the block in the morning and find a buyer by noon. It may not be that easy. What can we honestly expect to get in return for him? The word is getting out that he has trouble carrying a line, so I would suspect that any taker for Malkin would want him playing with the guy that we would want to trade for.

So what options does that leave on the table? We could trade him for a veteran winger who’s in a contract year, but I don’t see that as a long-term solution. We could trade him for a boatload of prospects and draft picks, but this is the Penguins, not the Pirates, so we don’t make horrible trades. Another option would be to not worry what we get in return, just be happy that we now have $8.7 million in cap space to get a new winger. That, too, is a bad option to me. I’ve looked at next summer’s class of wingers and, short of Zach Parise, I’m not all that impressed. I can see why teams that trade superstars rarely come out of the deal ahead.

That leaves us where we are now. Frankly, I’m not ready to write Malkin off. Yes, he’s been struggling for the last 100 games, but I think there’s light at the end of this long tunnel. I think pairing him with Jordan Staal will yield positive results.

Matt: Well Casey, Zach has come down with the flu. Apparently my question about trading Malkin literally made him sick to the stomach.

Anyway, my question was a bit more tongue-in-cheek than legit. First of all, the rule of thumb is that the team getting the better player always wins the trade. While there could be a few exceptions to that, I do think it generally rings true. Second, you don’t trade a player when he’s not playing well. If Malkin is ever traded, it would have to be when he is playing his best, so as to get fair value in return. Third, as you mentioned, it could be difficult to find suitors. Sure, Malkin is a rare talent. But he makes a lot of money. Any team that would want Malkin would have to have cap space to accommodate him, depth of legit NHL talent and draft picks/prospects to make it worthwhile for the Penguins and to sustain a balanced roster. Essentially, any team looking to add him likely would also have to be a playoff caliber team or, at the very least, a team that needs that number one center to put them over the hump.

For all the reasons mentioned above and the fact that the Penguins are playing fantastic hockey right now, trading Malkin just doesn’t seem logical or likely. Malkin is and likely always will be a polarizing figure among Penguins fans — though never to the extent that Marc-Andre Fleury is. But that doesn’t discount the fact that he remains one of the best players in the game and that the Penguins are better when he plays than when he doesn’t.

Casey, I’ll give you the last word…

Casey: Matt, let me end this by saying that I have all the hope in the world for Evgeni Malkin. I may have made it sound like I actually support the idea of trading him, and if I did, shame on me for six weeks. Though he hasn’t been playing up to his potential for nearly one and a quarter seasons, the potential is still very much there.

Evgeni Malkin is, and will continue to be, one of the top five players in the world. He just needs to rediscover his niche on this team. I believe just as much today as I did in July that his new niche is on Jordan Staal’s wing. We have no quantitative evidence to support that now; all I can say is wait and see.

Malkin is a dominant player. He has been in the past and he will be again in the future (hopefully the very near-future). It doesn’t matter if he’s playing at the center, the wing, or on the Ice Crew, Evgeni Malkin can takeover and dominate a game with no warning to the opposition. I like where he’s headed, and I have a ton of excitement over his future on a line with Staal. If we can’t get Geno a winger, then the next best option is to move him to wing and give him a center. Three months from now, these past 100 games will hopefully be a bad memory.

Matt, Zach, this has been fun. Thank you for inviting me to this edition of “Lacing Up.” Hopefully we can do this again sometime. Stay warm and get well Zach!