HARD HITS: Malkin somehow still gets overlooked

AP Photo credit sportnet.ca via Canadian Press

Imagine being one of the game’s brightest stars on a team you helped win three Stanley Cups, a Calder, a Conn Smythe, a Hart Trophy and two scoring titles. All this list of achievements and hardly anyone pays attention to you.

That’s the life of Evgeni Malkin in Pittsburgh. The 33-year old Russian superstar will always play in the shadow of popular teammate Sidney Crosby. It makes sense. Crosby was the Next One. Taken first overall by the desperate Penguins in a strange 2005 NHL Draft following the lockout, Sid The Kid had been hyped to be the next great player. He was Canadian and had the face and cool demeanor fans could identify with.

When you look at Crosby, the franchise player and captain of the Pens has been everything advertised. He overcame a serious concussion at only 23 that made people wonder if he’d ever get back to the level he was at. It’s easy to forget he had 32 goals and 66 points in 41 games before his 2010-11 season ended. We didn’t see him much the next year either. It took a while for him to get back to the star player we respected, but loved to hate due to his antics that included embellishment, cheap shots and whining.

As he matured, Crosby grew out of that label. He’s thankfully not that player anymore. Though the “Crosby Sucks, Crosby Sucks”, chants are still fresh at Madison Square Garden. Those used to be awesome games to go to. They were fun and the atmosphere was great. Yes. You had your share of Pens fans turn out supporting Crosby and Malkin, or the other polarizing star Kris Letang. It’s still hard to believe he never won a Norris. He’s gone through his share of setbacks and battled back.

It’s ironic when you look at the Pens’ three best players, they’ve all missed a lot of time. How many more points would Crosby or Malkin have if they’d been healthy? They have three Harts between them with four Art Rosses, three Conn Smythe Trophies, a pair of Rocket Richards (Crosby) and four Pearsons. All the hardware is incredible. No wonder Sid and Geno draw comparisons to Mario and Jaromir in the Burgh. Had Lemieux been healthier, they wouldn’t have just won the back-to-back Cups that Crosby and Malkin matched. I still would take Lemieux and Jagr over them. But that’s a fun bar debate.

It’s interesting when you look at Crosby and Malkin in terms of their career numbers. At the moment, Crosby is at 1246 points (456-790-1246) in 969 games. That averages out to an impressive 1.28 points-per-game. Malkin has totaled 1059 points (408-651-1059) in 893 games. He entered the NHL a year after Crosby in ’06-07. Malkin has a excellent 1.18 points-per-game average. Somehow, the NHL On NBC forgot to include him in this list since 2000. Well, actually it is only from 2000-09. Minimum 300 games. However, Malkin would have had a 1.26 ppg in 242 games because of the cutoff.

Now, if they didn’t do such a cutoff, he’s included. Or had they say done since the century, Malkin is right up there. It’s almost like NBCSN wanted to single out Crosby and exclude Malkin. I don’t get it. No three championships in the Steel City without him. They’re one of the best dynamic duos we’ve seen. Both should be appreciated.

To me, it feels like Malkin isn’t as loved. Maybe that’s my view looking on the outside. Is he Crosby? No. He’s not as complete a hockey player. If you were to ask me who the game’s best player is, I’d still answer Crosby. No disrespect to Connor McDavid or current teammate and scoring leader Leon Draisaitl. Neither are as good defensively. Crosby does it all. That’s why his team is successful.

Malkin is quietly having a great season. Of course, he missed time because he always does. However, he leads the Pens in scoring with 57 points (17-40-57) over 41 contests. So, that’s 13 games he hasn’t played. Why do you think Bryan Rust is so productive? He’s currently got a team-leading 22 goals including 15 even strength with 23 assists for 45 points in 40 games. Hint: it’s got something to do with Number 71.

Malkin makes players better. Just ask Phil Kessel if he misses playing with his former linemate. A proven scorer only has 12 goals and 32 points in his first year with Arizona over 57 games. That’s still better production than Alex Galchenyuk (5-12-17 in 45 GP). Yikes.

The Penguins are currently second in the competitive Metro Division with a record of 34-15-5. Their 73 points trail the first place Capitals by four for the division. Only the Caps (77), Bruins (80) and resurgent Lightning (75) have more points in the East than the Pens.

A team that looked to be in trouble when Jake Guentzel was lost for the rest of the regular season due to shoulder surgery. Especially on the heels of Crosby missing two months. He returned on Jan. 14 and immediately put up four points (1-3-4) in a blowout win over the Wild. In nine games since his return, the Pens captain has five goals with eight assists for 13 points. His team is 6-3-0 since.

However, the thing is that when they were without Crosby and Guentzel to start the new calendar year, it was Malkin who carried them along with the surprising goaltending of Tristan Jarry. As usual, Malkin raised his game following Crosby’s injury in November. Interestingly, he missed almost all of October before being the same player he’s always been, producing 56 of his 57 points over 39 games.

That’s who he is. A future Hall of Famer just like the great Crosby, who could one day be ranked among the all-time best. I believe he will be in the discussion no matter what he finishes up with. Malkin will reach 500 goals in a few years while Crosby will get there sooner. He’s at 456 right now. Malkin has 408. When they’re both done, they could each wind up with 600 goals and at least 1500 points. Crosby will likely be closer to the all-time greats on the scoring list.

It shouldn’t be forgotten how special Malkin is. Even if he has had his moments that drove me nuts due to the edge he plays with, I still respect him for the career he’s had. It shouldn’t be taken for granted.

Body Checks

Peep the latest from Tony DeAngelo being a comedian in the Rangers locker room while teasing friend and teammate Ryan Strome.

That kind of character is great. Not everyone gets the team concept due to irrelevant stuff that doesn’t matter. Once he hits 50 points and 15 goals, how much will DeAngelo ask for this summer? Strome will eventually snap out of his slump and hit new career highs. They’re both likely to want at least $5 million. The Blueshirts face tough decisions ahead.

I’ve already mentioned Chris Kreider enough that I may as well be his agent. Say it again. Since Dec. 8, Kreider has 14 goals and 11 helpers for 25 points in 24 games entering tonight’s special 6 PM start versus the Kings.

The Lightning finally woke up. Now, they’re winning games consistently and closing the gap on Boston, who had a terrible 3-1 loss at Detroit today. With the Bolts on fire, Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point are heating up along with Steven Stamkos and Andrei Vasilevskiy. However, take a closer look at Tony Cirelli and Ondrej Palat. It’s those gritty two-way forwards who are having a good impact. They’ll be key factors if the Lightning finally figure it out this Spring. Ditto for Stanley Cup winner Pat Maroon.

Tampa could be in the market for a defenseman with Ryan McDonagh out. For now, they’ll rely on stud Victor Hedman to log the big minutes with help from Mikhail Sergachev, Kevin Shattenkirk and Eric Cernak.

With his league-leading fifth shutout the other night before permitting two late third period goals to the explosive Avalanche in a tough 2-1 home defeat, how do they ignore what rookie netminder Elvis Merzlikins is doing in Columbus? Since taking over for injured starter Joonas Korpisalo, he’s got 12 wins and his GAA (2.19) and save percentage (.930) are remarkable. Columbus doesn’t score a lot of goals. Elvis has to be in the Calder conversation with front-runners Cale Makar and Quinn Hughes. With apologies to Ilya Samsonov, Dominik Kubalik and Adam Fox, those are my top three.

Rookie Nick Suzuki is quietly having himself a nice season for Montreal, who got a big come from behind 2-1 win in overtime over the top nemesis Maple Leafs in a great Original Six match-up at Bell Centre last night. Marco Scandella tied the game up late in regulation and Ilya Kovalchuk scored on a Suzuki rebound to beat recently acquired goalie Jack Campbell. With 61 points and Carey Price finally rounding into form, the Habs are back in the playoff race. They’re five behind Toronto for third place in the Atlantic Division and trail the final wildcard by six points. The problem is they only have 17 regulation wins (first tiebreaker) and have just 25 games remaining. Having so few wins in regulation is gonna hurt. They’ll have to play great hockey down the home stretch to beat out the teams ahead of them. That could include the Panthers, whose 24 reg. wins, are more than even the Pens and Blue Jackets.

The whole tiebreak system is crazy. You have the Islanders with 68 points locked into the first wildcard, but with only 20 reg. wins while the Hurricanes are at 67 with 22 wins in regulation for the second wildcard over the Flyers, who have 67 but one less regulation win (21). Each have 27 games remaining. The Isles are at an advantage with 29 games left. The Panthers have 28 to go with 64 points. Two behind the Leafs and three off the second wildcard. This is sure to be a wild race.

Right now, James Reimer has outplayed Petr Mrazek to become the number one goalie in Carolina. Is that a good enough tandem for the talented Hurricanes to get in? They boast two young stars in Sebastian Aho and Andrei Svechnikov. Plus leading scorer Teuvo Teravainen, who they stole from the Blackhawks. They have great skaters who can really get up and down the ice. But without a reliable starter in net and Dougie Hamilton out, it’s going to be tough. Do they really have interest in Henrik Lundqvist, who has the NMC? Or is that just another silly rumor?

I still don’t see any scenario where Lundqvist waives it. He loves it too much here. Unless they healthy scratch the 👑, I can’t see him going to management and asking out. They haven’t had the guts yet to talk to HL30 about the complex situation with tonight’s starter Igor Shesterkin and second-year goalie Alex Georgiev. Dicey.

Who wants to win the wild and crazy Pacific? Four total points separate first place Vancouver, who boasts the best overall roster, from fifth place Arizona. You have the Canucks with 65 points headlined by Elias Pettersson, JT Miller and injured finisher Brock Boeser. There’s the explosive Oilers with 64 thanks to the McDavid/Draisaitl duo along with gritty forward Zack Kassian and underrated two-way pivot Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. Then the Jekyll and Hyde Golden Knights, who have abandoned Marc-Andre Fleury in most games. Not much on defense.

Calgary is pretty similar except they have the polarizing Matthew Tkachuk, who gets underneath everyone’s skin. Mark Giordano is out now and the goalies are Cam Talbot and David Rittich. Then there’s the Coyotes, who even after adding Taylor Hall don’t score enough goals no matter who’s in net. They have the best goalies even with Darcy Kuemper out. Antti Raanta is very capable and even understudy Adin Hill is decent. But unless they score more, what a failed trade that could be with the Devils. Hall is a rental who can leave.

It’s pretty insane to think as many as 11 teams are still alive out West. That includes the whole Central with Winnipeg (61), the Predators (59), Wild (58) and Blackhawks (58) bunched up. Your wildcards are Calgary with 62 and the Jets with 61. The same 61 the Coyotes have, but with one more regulation win (21) and one less game played (56). Nashville, Minnesota and Chicago each have 28 games left. So, they can make up ground. Are any of them good enough? I would take the Preds, who have underachieved. Maybe Pekka Rinne can get hot and Matt Duchene, Ryan Johansen and Viktor Arvidsson can earn their money.

Finally, there’s this as the Rangers get ready to host LA:

Jacob Trouba 53 GP 7-16-23 -9 44.1 CF (56.7 D Zone starts)

Neal Pionk 56 GP 6-30-36 +5 50.9 CF (55.3 O Zone starts)

Trouba $8 million AAV

Pionk $3 million AAV

One turns 26 after the deadline. That would be Trouba, who the Blueshirts traded for by sending Pionk and the same first round draft pick they received with Brendan Lemieux, back to Winnipeg so they could select Finnish defenseman Ville Heinola. Pionk turns 25 this summer and is on a much more reasonable contract. He was expendable due to DeAngelo and Fox. Plus Nils Lundkvist is coming soon.

I like Trouba and would do it again. The thing is he’s on a worse roster and doesn’t have the ideal left D partner like he did in Winnipeg. He also doesn’t have Dustin Byfuglien ahead of him. That was last year when he posted career bests in assists (42) and points (50). He cashed in as most do in contract years. He’s a hard-nosed physical player who can skate and log the important minutes on Broadway.

That all stated, he must be better for this contract to make sense. Right now, it doesn’t. Did you know his salary is $12 million for this season? Nobody cares because now, all we do is look at the cap hit. It’s still too high just as I went on the record and said when it was signed. In reality, Trouba is a solid defenseman who isn’t worth over $6.5 million. But that was the market. In no world is he Erik Karlsson or Brent Burns. Speaking of which, how is that working out in San Jose?

Trouba must be more consistent. He entered tonight with no points over his last six. But his main job is shutting down the opposition. There have been too many instances where he’s been caught out of position like the god awful goal Jimmy Vesey scored to clinch Friday’s disgrace. We’ll see where it goes.

Kudos to Mackenzie Blackwood for making the Devils respectable with back-to-back shutouts. That’s one more shutout than the $8.5 million man has since 2017. I had to.

Kieffer Bellows will be good because the Islanders didn’t rush him. He has a scorers instinct. Take note.

About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of Hudson administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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