NEWARK, N.J. -- With 26 points in his last 19 games, it's understandably easy to say we're nitpicking by asking Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma if he needs to see more out of Evgeni Malkin.
Malkin is a force and everybody knows it, but he's also a minus-11 over those last 19 games and a minus-6 for the season. As offensively aware as he is, something just hasn't been right all season with the man they call Geno.
Through 61 games this season, Malkin has 69 points and that unsightly minus rating. After he played in his 61st game last season, when he won the Art Ross Trophy as the League's leading scorer with 113 points, Malkin had 87 points and a plus-17 rating.
"It's a good question because sometimes the statistics can be deceiving to how a player is playing," Bylsma said prior to the Penguins' 3-1 loss to New Jersey Friday night at Prudential Center. "I think since the break he has come out with a rejuvenated effort in terms of playing on both sides of the puck, playing away from the puck."
Read between the lines and Bylsma is saying that before the Olympic break, Malkin wasn't doing all that was asked of him.
"(Since the break) he's done a real good job of defensively playing away from the puck and he's also done a real good of managing the puck in the offensive zone and allowing his linemates to be a part of the offensive zone," Bylsma said. "That's something that at times hasn't been there throughout the year. His last six games have been probably his best away from the puck and managing the puck all year long. Those are things he's been working on. When he's playing that way he's very effective on both sides of the puck."
Bylsma has had talks about just that with Malkin.
"Not just one," he said.
OK, but even though Malkin has two goals and two assists since the Olympics, he's still a minus-4 in those six games. He was scoreless with a minus-1 rating Friday.
Plus-minus might not be the most important measuring stick for a player, but over time it gives an indication as to that player's overall effectiveness on the game.
That's why Bylsma believes some stats can con you, especially in the case of Malkin based on what he's seen lately.
"He's a smart player," Bylsma said. "When he's focused on both sides of the puck he's very good on both sides of the puck."
There's a feeling around the Penguins that Malkin will be better away from the puck as soon as he establishes chemistry with Alexei Ponikarovsky, who arrived in Pittsburgh on the eve of the trade deadline and played only his fourth game as a Penguin on Friday.
Ponikarovsky is a big-bodied player with a nose for the net. He scored his 20th goal of the season in his Penguins' debut against Dallas last Saturday. That's when Bylsma put him on the left wing with Malkin and Ruslan Fedotenko, who has had his own share of struggles all season, with only 25 points and a minus-17 rating.
Meanwhile, in 61 games with the last-place Maple Leafs, who are ahead of only Edmonton in goals against this season with 223, Ponikarovsky was miraculously a plus-5. He was a plus-56 for his Leafs' career, but a minus-2 since joining Malkin's line.
"I think Alexei adds a lot to that line in terms of his size, his ability to play in the offensive zone and going to the net," Bylsma said. "That line is a little more defensive conscious with Alex on it. One thing I noticed about him before we acquired him is he's always on the defensive side of the puck, always working to get back and that adds another element to that line that wasn't there before."
In no way will Ponikarovsky's defensive awareness turn Malkin or Fedotenko into Selke Trophy candidates. However, the newest member of the line believes it can work to at least limit the chances against.
"Sometimes there is just a miscommunication and they score the goal," Ponikarovsky told NHL.com. "We just have to take a little bit more time and adjust to it all."
Maybe then Malkin will lose that unsightly minus next to his name and there will be no reason to nitpick.
"(Malkin) likes to take the puck and with the speed doesn't stop too much, just creates chances off the rush and through movement," Ponikarovsky said. "But, he looks back, too. He knows he has to play defense."
Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl