It’s not an easy job being Evgeni Malkin
Malkin, 27, demands a lot from his linemates and it takes a unique blend of skill and smarts to work well with a player of Malkin’s caliber.
One player that has been a perfect fit over the last two-plus seasons for Malkin, who signed an eight-year contract extension with the Penguins this past summer, has been winger James Neal. The duo’s characteristics compliment each other and they’ve developed a rare feel for each other.
However, Neal is currently out of the lineup with an upper-body injury. Head coach Dan Bylsma said Friday that there is no definitive timeframe for Neal’s return, but that it’s closer to week-to-week than day-to-day in scope.
“When you think about Evgeni’s line, (Neal) is a stable in there,” Bylsma said. “They go together in terms of that line, how they play together, what James does in support of ‘Geno.’ That’s not going to be there.”
Now the Penguins and Malkin will have to adjust their lineup for the time being to account for Neal’s absence.
“The speed and puck support that James does is important. To not have that on that line will be something we’ll look to replace and add to that line,” Bylsma said. “You can’t just play a slow, east-west game with 71 and fit in there.
“It’s going to be a different dynamic for that line and for Geno.”
One player that has been working with Malkin through the preseason and during their season-opening 3-0 victory against the New Jersey Devils at CONSOL Energy Center Thursday night is fellow European Jussi Jokinen.
Finland native Jokinen and Malkin had instant chemistry during their first game action together in the preseason. Jokinen tallied a hat trick in that contest against the Columbus Blue Jackets and read off of Malkin extremely well.
“I really like playing with him because he’s a European guy,” Malkin told pittsburghpenguins.com. “He always supports me. We help each other, along with Neal. He’s a great guy. We haven’t played a long time together. He scored a hat trick in a preseason game. He’s a good guy and good player. I like playing with him.”
“Jussi has some chemistry and is a smart player that can play with an exceptional player like Geno,” Bylsma added. “That’s going to continue. Jussi has a good understanding of how to play with a skilled player.”
As far as playing opposite of Malkin and Jokinen, look for Beau Bennett to get some playing time there. Chuck Kobasew will also get some shifts on that line, and Bylsma noted that Malkin will also take some shifts with Chris Kunitz, Sidney Crosby, Tanner Glass and Craig Adams on occasion.
That was the case for Malkin in Thursday’s opener after Neal left the game in the first period having played only 3:49 minutes.
“It’s tough losing Neal,” Malkin said. “We had just 11 forwards. We had to adjust the lines and it made it tougher. It was still a great win, great two points.”
Regardless of who Malkin plays with, he will no doubt be the driving force on his line.
“I’m ready. I’m excited to play,” Malkin said. “The first game I was a little bit nervous. I played all right. I can play better and will play better.
“I’m just doing what I can to help the team win.”