Lacing Up: Cooking Up Controversy
In remembrance of the late Ashley Gallant, originator of “Lacing Up,” Matt Paul, Joshua Neal, and, at times, guest writers will hold a week-long email discussion, which will be published on FF Monday mornings. If you have any topics you would like to see us discuss, or if you would like to be a guest in our series, please let us know through the comments section below or on our Contact page, linked at the top of FF.
Joshua Neal We’re a third of the way into the season already, Matt. In some ways it feels like things are still getting into full swing, but we’re getting into the territory where things that were “experiments” or “projects” are now beginning to return results and draw conclusions. “Hot starts” and “slumps” are becoming trends, rather than temporary things in passing. This is a real season, even if it’s shortened, and it’s moving on quickly right in front of our eyes.
The Penguins have played very well for a large part of the season, jumping out to an 11-5-0 record and a tie for first place in the East through the first third of their season. The team is taking on its identity – some aspects of it predictable, some not so much. While it’s not surprising that Sidney Crosby is sniffing the league lead in points, and that James Neal is once again a power play goal-scoring master, it is a bit surprising that Evgeni Malkin is off to a bit of a sluggish start by his standards.
Hearing and seeing what Malkin was doing in the Kontinental Hockey League, Penguins fans expected Geno to come out flying, picking right back up where he left off in a 2012 season that saw him take home the Art Ross and the League MVP. That has not been the case. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette columnist Ron Cook analyzes Geno’s slow start in a piece from Monday.
Matt, is Cook’s evaluation of Malkin fair? Or are we overreacting by being worried about a former MVP who is just struggling a bit right now?
Matt Paul: It’s an overreaction. Malkin has proven year in and year out that he’s one of the best in the game an is capable of being the best in the game. He’s deserving of a little slack, considering he’s less than a year removed from an MVP season.
But he’s not flawless, as we’re seeing this year. One of the major knocks on Malkin is his inability to holster his emotions, taking ill-timed penalties and trying to do too much to compensate for his mistakes. When that happens, his numbers suffer. Through the first 16 games, he tallied just three goals, which is an unimpressive number, to be sure.
All that said, Josh, he still has 18 points through 16 games and sits just seven points back of Tomas Vanek for the league lead (as of Tuesday). One big game and he’s back in the thick of it. If this was Crosby, people would be justifying it left and right. Why is it, then, that Malkin doesn’t get the benefit of the doubt?Josh Part of it, Matt, is the fact that Malkin’s perception as a leader is one that is often disputed. While many can argue that Geno leads by example (see: his collection of hardware), he is a figure that doesn’t possess the same kind of cool, collected demeanor that Crosby usually exudes in his interviews. I think that’s caused people to sometimes question how his role as a leader is taken by the team – especially when you consider that the guy currently leads the team in penalty minutes despite the fact that teammate Deryk Engelland has fought 3 times.
It goes beyond the scoring – it comes to game impact as well. Last season, it seemed Geno could break the game open at any point, and was creating his own chances and goals organically. Of his small sample size of goals this year, he has been the recipient of a set up.
Is this a by-product of increased defensive pressure applied to Malkin? I would hesitate to say that this is the case, as he was already regarded as a world class talent. Is it perhaps an adjustment from the larger ice surface back to the smaller NHL rink? What do you think?
Matt: According to Rob Rossi, last season Malkin tallied 10 of his 47 goals in the first third of the season. He also writes: “Evgeni Malkin paced the NHL in scoring last season and in 2008-09. In total, he amassed 63 of 85 goals (72.9 percent) and 147 of 222 points (66.2 percent) after the first third of those seasons.”
Those number show that it takes “Mean Gene,” as wrestling fans might call him, some time to get his legs. Unlike many others, though, Malkin has had time to get his legs, skating from October into January for Metallurg Magnitogorsk of the KHL during the lockout. But, as you said, the rinks are much bigger in Europe, and the game is played differently as well. Others have assimilated back to the NHL without flaw, but maybe Malkin is struggling to adapt?
Personally, I don’t care about the leadership perception. That has nothing to do with his points — though it might have a lot to do with why he hears from fans when he “slumps.” Ultimately, as we’ve discussed before, what it boils down to is a spoiled fanbase that can’t fathom having a player who just won the scoring race not sitting atop the leaderboard again. Malkin isn’t himself, there’s no question about that, but he’s far from bad, and it’s only a matter of time until a sleeping giant awakes.
Josh, how much of this slump do you think can be attributed to a rotating door of left wingers on his line — or is that a thinly veiled attempt at an excuse?
Josh: I think one problem feeds the other. Last year, Chris Kunitz provided a veteran, net front presence that cleared out space and meshed so well with Neal and Malkin at times that it was scary. Bylsma has chosen not to use that format this year at all. There’s not been a single game this season where that effective line configuration from last season was used. That might be a bigger adjustment than the size of the rink – we’re talking about replacing Kunitz with the likes of Eric Tangradi (5 career points), Dustin Jeffrey (21 career points), and Zach Boychuk (18 career points).
That’s part of it, but that’s not all of it. There has been a bit of a mentality amongst certain Penguins fans that prefers to root for one star rather than the other – choosing between Malkin and Crosby. Often times, people point to the fact that Sid was able to be productive with guys like Colby Armstrong and Erik Christiensen whereas Geno only began to shine when big name wingers were brought to town. While I don’t espouse the belief that these facts somehow prove Crosby a superior player, I can hear where the sentiment comes from.
But the bigger question springs out of that Crosby versus Malkin debate, to a different end. Matt, why does Malkin receive criticism like this so readily, when it seems his counterpart star is immune? Is he just an easier target? Or is there something there?
Matt: While I don’t want to stir up another controversy, I do want to point out something I perceive to be true: North Americans have a bias toward North American players. That alone might not seem controversial, but this could: in general, people fear what they don’t understand. Without the intent of getting on a soapbox, I truly believe this is why we have racism and homophobia, among other hatred.
So with that being said, it’s easy to understand why people “choose” Crosby over Malkin. He’s been a household name since he was 15 or 16 years old, has books written about him, and is the go-to-guy for the media. We understand him. Malkin, on the other hand, comes from another world — one that many members of older generations still fear — that has made him a relative newcomer, while also creating a communication barrier. He’s foreign to us, both literally and figuratively.
Malkin can win every trophy possible (which it almost seems he has done), and yet he’ll still be in Crosby’s shadow. I don’t necessarily think he minds that, but who could fault him if he did? To close out, I’m a firm believer this was the force behind Jaromir Jagr’s “dying alive” comments before being traded to Washington. He wasn’t Mario Lemieux, nor was he North American, and as a result, he always was going to be in the shadows, even after Lemieux retired.