How Are the Penguins Going to Manage Without Malkin?

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On March 13, Pittsburg announced that Evgeni Malkin would be out of the Penguins’ line-up for six to eight weeks, due to an upper-body injury. As such, the Pens, currently in what is basically a four team race for a two wild-card spots, will have to go down the stretch of the regular season without one of the top-five players in the world.

Luckily, they have Sidney Crosby, another one of the top-five players in the world (still the top, for what it’s worth) to rely on, but nevertheless, losing a player of Malkin’s elk is a tough hit to take for a team fighting to make the play-offs. But, what if there is a chance the Penguins could be better off these next two months without Malkin in the line-up? Is that even a possibility?

You’ll have to follow me on my thinking on this, but it’s not so far-fetched a theory. And it has to do with Leo Komarov scoring 19 goals thus far for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Yup. You read that right.

Ok, so stick with me here. Here’s what’s obvious about hockey. There’s only one puck. Only five players can be on the ice at one time, and no team is ever going to score zero goals for a season. What this means is that each coach, for each team, has to put 5 players on the ice at a time, one of those 5 players is going to end up with the puck, and inevitably, one of those players are going to score a goal…at some point. Naturally, the coach will have his better players be one of the 5 on the ice more often; the better players will get the puck more than their teammates; and the more they have the puck, the better chance for the better player to score more goals.

That’s what’s going on with Leo Komarov.

Someone on the Leafs has to score. Komarov just so happens to be a little bit better than most guys on the Leafs (news flash: Leafs suck), so Mike Babcock puts him out in more situations. Since he’s out more, he gets the puck more. Since he gets the puck more, he scores more than anyone else…on the Leafs. Thus his 19 goals. Now, if Komarov was on another team, where he wasn’t one of the better players, he wouldn’t be on the ice as much as he is with the Leafs and therefore he wouldn’t get the puck as often. If he doesn’t have the puck as often due to less ice-time, he’s not going to score as many goals.

Following?

Good.

Ok, so just as Komarov gets on the ice more—and thusly scores more—in Toronto, actual elite players on other teams get on the ice more and score more. So, with Malkin out, the Penguins need to distribute his ice-time amongst his teammates to fill the void. Some of that will go to the center who replaces him on his line, but some of it is going to be eaten up by Sidney Crosby? Why, because the Pens need points and Crosby is their best player; it’s only common sense that Mike Sullivan is going to tap Crosby on the shoulder and send him over the boards every chance he gets, especially in important situations. Crosby will be on the ice more; because he’s better than everyone else he’ll get the puck more; because he’ll have the puck more, he’s probably going to score more.

Basically what I am asking is, is it possible that Sidney Crosby, who is on fire right now, takes a portion of the ice-time usually given to Malkin, produces more, and Malkin’s injury ends up being a blessing in disguise?

Well, we do know that Malkin won the MVP trophy in 2011-2012, the year that Crosby only played 22 games due to injury. We also know that Malkin’s MVP season led the Penguins to 51 wins and 4th place finish in the Eastern Conference. So, when the situation was reversed for a much longer period of time, we’ve seen Malkin step up in a significant way.

So now, four years later, can Crosby do the same now that the shoe is on the other foot?

Well, looking at his distinguished career, Crosby has won the NHL’s MVP in 2007 and 2014; was the NHL’s leading point-getter in 2007 and 2014; was voted by his peers as the best player in the NHL in 2007, 2013, and 2015; and led the NHL in goals in 2010.

In those years, Malkin played 78 games (2006-07), 67 games (2009-10), 31 games (2012-13, lock-out season was only 48 games), 60 games (2013-14), and 69 games (2014-15). Crosby played 79 games in 06-07, 81 games in 09-10, 36 in the lock-out-shortened 12-13 season, 80 games in 13-14, and 77 in 14-15.

So, in Crosby’s best seasons, he played a significant amount of time without his running mate and was able to produce. 2006-2007 and 2012-2013 were years where Malkin and Crosby basically played every game together, but aside from that, each year that Crosby was considered the best in the NHL—awards wise—he had to do a lot of the pulling without Malkin. In those years—2009-10, 2013-14, and 2014-15—Pittsburg finished 2nd, 1st, and 4th in the Eastern Conference.

Pretty decent results, eh?

Now, I don’t mean to imply that the Penguins are better off without Malkin. They’re not. There substantially better with both Crosby and Malkin in the line-up, however, in some scenarios, sometimes a situation that forces a star player to step-up can be a lightning-in-a-bottle situation that propels the team over the top.

The Penguins are in the midst of a battle to clinch a berth in the playoffs and one of their best players just went down for an injury; I’m thinking Sid the Kid, who has been playing amazing as of late (I wrote a couple weeks ago that he’s back to playing like the best player in the world, and he’s recently catapulted himself into the top-5 of NHL scoring), is going to use this opportunity to put the load on his shoulders and carry the Pens to the play-offs.

It’s not an ideal situation for Pittsburgh, but it’s not as dire as it may seem at first glance. The Pens have been in this situation before; let’s see if their Captain can come through in the clutch one more time.

What do you think?