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Over The Boards

Mailbag: Malkin set for big season, Devils line combinations with Gusev

NHL.com's Dan Rosen answers weekly questions

by Dan Rosen @drosennhl / NHL.com Senior Writer

Here is the July 31 edition of Dan Rosen's weekly mailbag, which runs every Wednesday. If you have a question, tweet it to @drosennhl and use #OvertheBoards.

What player in the League is due for a monster 2019-20 season? -- @TJRinger1

I've got my eyes on Pittsburgh Penguins center Evgeni Malkin.

Malkin, who turned 33 on Wednesday, had a down season by his standards last season with 72 points (21 goals, 51 assists) in 68 games. The plus-minus stat isn't typically the most revealing for how a player should truly be judged, but minus-25 is a blight on his stat line nonetheless. So, too, is the fact that Malkin scored 12 even-strength goals. He scored 28 even-strength goals, 42 total, and was plus-16 with 98 points, including 56 assists, in 78 games in 2017-18. Malkin will have a monster bounce-back season and get back up into the high 30s or low 40s in goals and the low-to-mid 90s at least in points.

Malkin was frustrated last season when he struggled to gain chemistry with Phil Kessel. But that's not a concern anymore. Kessel was traded to the Arizona Coyotes for Alex Galchenyuk. Malkin could have Galchenyuk on his left wing and should have the puck on his stick more. He's at his best when he's allowed to freewheel with the puck, to zigzag and overpower. He'll do that without worrying or thinking about feeding Kessel. It's going to benefit him.

Video: PIT@MTL: Malkin cranks home PPG through traffic

 

New Jersey Devils lineup predictions with the acquisition of Nikita Gusev? -- @WarrenGross

This is my best guess for the lineup with Gusev after the Devils acquired the 27-year-old left wing in a trade with the Vegas Golden Knights and signed him to a two-year, $9 million contract on Monday:

Taylor Hall -- Nico Hischier -- Jesper Bratt

Nikita Gusev -- Jack Hughes -- Kyle Palmieri

Blake Coleman -- Travis Zajac -- Wayne Simmonds

Miles Wood -- Pavel Zacha -- John Hayden

This lineup keeps Gusev and Hall on separate lines. They want the puck and they're left wings, even though Gusev has a right-handed shot. Gusev's strength is distributing the puck. Hughes is also a good distributor, but Palmieri is a shooter. If Gusev needs more time, or if coach John Hynes doesn't want two rookies (Gusev and Hughes) on the same line, the Devils can flop it and put Coleman up on the second line with Hughes and Palmieri or Bratt and move Gusev down to play with Zajac and Simmonds. New Jersey also might want Simmonds on the same line as Hughes because of Simmonds' ability to get to the net and be physical, but that would mean Bratt would have to go down to the third line and Palmieri would play up with Hischier and Hall. There is also the chance that Hughes and Hischier flop, meaning Hughes would play with Hall, leaving the potential of Gusev with Hischier. All of this takes into account that Hughes is ready for a top-six role in the NHL at 18 years old. If he's not, the Devils will have to reevaluate.

Video: Daneyko speaks about Devils trading for Gusev

 

What's the expectation of the Buffalo Sabres this season? Do we see a stronger push than last season or is it another season of what seems like a forever rebuild? What needs to change? -- @SPGavin0409

Low expectations. The push from Buffalo this season will be strong only if the players, specifically captain Jack Eichel, are on the same page as new coach Ralph Krueger. He was hired to be a culture-changer. He was hired to bring out the best qualities of the Sabres, to show them the way to lead, to be a team. Krueger certainly has an X's and O's mind, but the Sabres will only thrive if they believe what he's selling them. That starts with Eichel. The 22-year-old center has taken big steps in his leadership responsibilities and play on the ice (82 points in 77 games last season), but there's more runway there until he gets to take off. He and Krueger must work together well, because if they do, it will flow through the rest of the team. If there are struggles or differences, they will infect the Sabres like they have with the previous two coaches, Dan Bylsma and Phil Housley.

However, even if the Eichel-Krueger relationship is a smashing success, I don't think the Sabres will push to be a Stanley Cup Playoff team this season. There isn't enough talent and depth up front outside of Eichel, Jeff Skinner and Sam Reinhart. Their defensemen are middle-of-the-pack solid with the potential to be better than that, provided Rasmus Dahlin is better in his second season than he was as a rookie, when he was exceptional. However, there are big questions in goal with Carter Hutton (18-25-5, .908 save percentage, 3.00 goals-against average last season) and Linus Ullmark (15-14-5, .905 and 3.11).

 

How does the NHL approach resolving the parity seen in the playoffs? How can the best season records get rewarded more and appropriately since home-ice advantage doesn't seem to play a significant enough role? -- @hawkeystix88

You say resolve with the assumption there is a problem with parity. Quite the contrary. The League views parity as a selling point and a reason for its growth in the salary cap era (since 2005-06). The parity is what makes the Stanley Cup Playoffs so interesting and the most competitive among the four major pro sports leagues in North America. Even if the NHL extended the playoffs to add two teams, creating a wild-card play-in scenario where the last four entrants in each conference play a three-game series, it wouldn't change anything for the top teams. They would still have to win 16 games to win the Stanley Cup. They could still be knocked out in the first round by a team that is peaking at the right time. It'd be the same thing if they reworked the playoff system to be seeded one through eight, meaning the top seed plays the eighth seed, No. 2 plays No. 7, No. 3 plays No. 6 and No. 4 plays No. 5. The fact is the playoffs are a two-month tournament and the top teams aren't gifted ways to go deep. In fact, the first round is usually the most compelling because of that. I don't see an issue with it.

 

Brayden Point, Patrik Laine and Mitchell Marner are still without new contracts. What are the chances any gets an offer sheet? Which of the three is most likely to stay with their current team and which is most likely going elsewhere? -- @mikeybox

The offer sheet is still an option, but if it hasn't been utilized yet by a team for any of the three forwards you mentioned I don't think it is going to be used. Can you imagine the Montreal Canadiens trying that route again after their failed attempt to get Carolina Hurricanes center Sebastian Aho? I can't. They went at it, signing Aho to a five-year, $42.27 million offer sheet, but it was quickly matched by the Hurricanes, who were happy with it because they didn't even have to negotiate the contract. It saved them a headache. I think the Tampa Bay Lightning would quickly match an offer sheet for Point. I think the same for the Winnipeg Jets and Laine. I don't think Marner has any interest in leaving the Toronto Maple Leafs, so I don't even think that's an option for him. Expect all three to be back with their respective teams eventually.

The big question is, when will eventually arrive? That's the key. The Maple Leafs saga with forward William Nylander last season is now the cautionary tale. He didn't sign until Dec. 1, after missing training camp and the first two months of the season. It hurt Nylander, who had 27 points (seven goals, 20 assists) in 54 games last season. It was essentially a lost season for him. He'll recover and be fine, but Toronto certainly doesn't want to go through that again with Marner, and there's little chance Tampa Bay and Winnipeg are interested in doing that with Point and Laine. The next deadline is mid-September, the start of training camp. If they're not signed by then, it'll be a big story. For now, it's just a waiting game.

Video: TOR@BOS, Gm1: Marner scores after hitting both posts

 

With the Chicago Blackhawks' acquisitions this summer, do you see them as a Stanley Cup contender or just a playoff contender? -- @Wolvergene18

I like the Blackhawks more now than I did at this time last season. I like that they were 20-10-3 in their final 33 games. Their 43 points in that span were second in the Western Conference behind the St. Louis Blues, who had 52 in 35 games. They gained a level of comfort with coach Jeremy Colliton and the way he wanted them to play, especially offensively. Defense was their biggest problem last season and they at least addressed it by signing goalie Robin Lehner to a one-year contract and acquiring defenseman Olli Maatta and Calvin de Haan in trades. All of that leads me to think the Blackhawks are a contender to get back into the playoffs after missing the past two seasons.

But will they get the same type of career seasons they got out of forwards Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Alex DeBrincat and Dylan Strome, and defenseman Erik Gustafsson, as they got last season? All five had NHL career highs in points, with Kane leading the way with 110 (44 goals, 66 assists in 81 games). It's asking a heck of a lot for all five to put up similar numbers. Even if they do, the Blackhawks have to improve significantly on defense to be a playoff team. They were 30th in goals against (3.55 per game) and last in penalty kill (72.7 percent) last season. I'm not sold yet that they'll be good enough to make up for what I believe will be a marginal drop in offense. I also worry about their center depth after Toews and Strome. Is Zack Smith, who was acquired in a trade with the Ottawa Senators for Artem Anisimov, going to be their third-line center? To me, he's more fitted for a fourth-line role. Chicago is a bubble team.

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