“I want to play my best for the team,” he said last August from his native Russia while working tirelessly to get healthy and improve his overall strength and conditioning.
He’s done exactly that this season. And since the Hart Trophy is given to the player judged to be the most valuable to his team, there is no question that Malkin should be named the league MVP when it’s all said and done.
There are certainly other worthy candidates, but no player has meant more to his club and has done as much for their team as Malkin has this year.
“He’s the guy that night in and night out has been able to bring it offensively to give our team a chance,” linemate Chris Kunitz
said. “It doesn’t matter the situation. It seems like he scores timely goals for our team. He always finds a way for us to get back into it.”
Let’s consider his credentials, starting with goals and points.
With seven games left in the season, Malkin is poised to run away with the Art Ross Trophy as this year’s NHL scoring leader.
He has amassed 97 points, giving him a 10-point lead over Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos and a nine-point advantage over Philadelphia’s Claude Giroux in the league scoring race.
But it’s not necessarily the number of points Malkin has that is eye-popping – it’s more so the number of games he reached it in. Malkin has played in 68 contests this season (six less than Stamkos, three less than Giroux) – meaning he’s averaging an unbelievable 1.42 points per game, surpassing his previous high of 1.38 – recorded in the 2008-09 season when he won the Art Ross trophy and Conn Smythe (as playoff MVP).
If Malkin maintains his current numbers, his average points per game would rank among the NHL’s top figures of the last seven years.
He also has a shot at the Rocket Richard Trophy, as his 46 goals (one shy of tying his career high) put him six behind Stamkos (52) with seven games left to play. Malkin has yet to hit the 50-goal mark in his young career, but there’s a good chance that could change this year.
Overall, Malkin has factored into 39.8 percent of his team’s total goals – the highest percentage for any player whose team currently sits in a playoff position.
All of those numbers in themselves are impressive enough. But what those numbers ultimately mean – and what has made Malkin so special and so invaluable this season – has been the way he’s elevated his game when his team’s needed it most.
“He’s been a great player this year,” center Jordan Staal
said. “Points-wise you see it, but just taking over games and just having that desire to win every game and score the big goals. He’s done so many good things this year, it’s definitely no question that he should be up for the MVP.”
The Penguins are just one point behind the New York Rangers for the top seed in the Eastern Conference despite suffering 338 man-games due to injury, and Malkin has been one of the main reasons for that.
Malkin was especially good between Dec. 8 and March 11, a 40-game stretch in which captain Sidney Crosby
During that time, much of which Staal was also out with a knee injury, Malkin elevated his play and averaged 1.5 points per game while leading all NHL players during that span to keep the Penguins entrenched at the top of the conference.
Here’s a perfect example of Malkin putting the team on his back when they needed it most.
The Penguins went through a tough spot from Dec. 29 to Jan. 11, losing six straight games and even dipping out of the postseason bubble for a short while. They broke the skid on Feb. 13 vs. Florida, but found themselves in danger of losing seven of eight games two days later. They squandered a 3-0 lead to Tampa Bay in the third period and seemed destined to fall back into the rut they’d clawed so hard to get out of. That’s when Malkin came in.
He scored his eighth career hat trick (with two unassisted goals) to give Pittsburgh the 6-3 triumph, their second straight victory. That win was part of an eight-game winning streak for the Penguins.
“He’s definitely been our best player through the stretch and when we turned the season around and went on that little run,” Kunitz said.
Malkin admitted that he sees the signs in the crowd during warmups and hears the thunderous “MVP! MVP!” chants from the fans voicing their support. How could he not? But Malkin’s focus isn’t on accolades. It’s about winning the Stanley Cup. And that’s what makes him so great – and so valuable to his team.
“Of course I see and of course I think about it a little bit. I just try to focus every game,” he said. “I just enjoy it, you know? I just enjoy playing hockey and enjoy playing with my linemates.
“I don’t think about my points now. The season continues and playoffs are coming soon. I just enjoy playing the game and enjoy stepping on the ice every game and every practice.”
If Malkin continues to play this way, he may just see another Conn Smythe (playoff MVP) trophy on his mantle.
But no matter what happens from here on out, the Hart Trophy should be his for the first time ever.
Malkin’s always been known for his ability to produce offense. But his importance to the Penguins can’t be measured strictly in terms of goals and points.
Because this year, he made a concerted effort to improve certain areas of his game that had previously been weaknesses – and succeeded.
Let’s start with his faceoffs.
This had been an area Malkin had struggled throughout his career. But this year, Malkin’s numbers in the dot have improved dramatically. His overall percent success rate is currently at 47.4 – a four-point improvement over his previous career best (43.3, 2006-07). But those numbers do not reflect his dominance over the past few months in the circle.
“The one thing that you see in his game right now that you never saw before this year is him in the circle winning faceoffs, offensively and defensively,” head coach Dan Bylsma said. “In the offensive circle, the left circle, he’s over 65 percent winning faceoffs. It’s contributed to us scoring goals.
“We’re talking about a guy who was under 40 percent last year. Now he’s going out and taking defensive zone faceoffs as well. Battling in those situations as well. Not just battling. His numbers can be really good in there.”
Malkin watched how fellow center Sidney Crosby
worked to improve his aptitude in that area – raising his percentage from around the 49-50 percent mark to over 55 percent the last two seasons – and realized the value of becoming proficient at winning draws.
“I see how Sid played last year and I start working on it,” Malkin said. “Now I understand how important faceoffs are. If we win, we control the puck and we can get a chance to score.”
He and linemate James Neal
have connected for a few gorgeous goals off the draw this year, where Malkin has cleanly won the faceoff back to Neal, who’s then teed it off past the opposing goalie in the blink of an eye.
“The things he worked on in the offseason like his faceoffs, I think you can see that with a lot of the James Neal
goals,” linemate Chris Kunitz
said. “Being able to win draws right behind him, which is one of the toughest things to do – he’s excelled at it so far this year.”
Another area of his game Malkin has turned around is the shootout.
Entering this season, he was just 7-for-29 (14 percent) in shootout attempts. This year, he ranks among the league leaders after going 8-for-11 (72.7 percent).
Three of those are game-deciding goals, which illustrates how clutch he’s been in this area for the Penguins.
Not only has Malkin improved virtually all aspects of his on-ice game, but he’s come into his own off the ice as well.
Malkin has come a long way since he first entered the league six years ago. Back then, the young Russian had to depend on teammate and countryman Sergei Gonchar to be his translator as he dealt with the difficulties of assimilating into a foreign culture.
You could say Malkin was the lowest profiled high-profile player in the NHL during his first few seasons despite producing 100-plus point campaigns and garnering numerous accolades.
But now, Malkin is handling the spotlight that comes with being a professional athlete at the top of his game with confidence and his funny, playful and candid personality is finally shining through.
“He didn’t want to see ‘Gonch’ leave, but once he left he started to really dig into the English,” center Jordan Staal
said. “His personality is starting to come out now. We haven’t really seen it until this year. He’s such a fun guy to be around. I’m sure he’s definitely feeling a lot more comfortable in the room and hanging out with the guys.”
Malkin’s defining moment in this area came at the 2012 NHL All-Star Game in Ottawa, when he held court with reporters during Player Media Day for nearly half an hour, interspersing his dialogue with a few witty and well-placed jokes.
Malkin, who wears an “A” on his sweater as an alternate captain, is the same way around his teammates.
“He’s a character,” forward Chris Kunitz
said with a smile. “He’s a lot of fun. I think he really enjoys being a teammate and a guy being at the rink that loves to poke fun at guys, but also joke around a little bit. He doesn’t mind being the brunt of a few jokes, too. He’s definitely a true teammate in every sense of that that it brings in the locker room.”
But not only is he a good teammate in the dressing room, he puts the team’s goals before his own every time he steps on the ice.
“He’s a good leader too,” Kunitz said. “He’s a guy that goes out and plays as hard as he can every night. He doesn’t take off shifts. He definitely carries us through a lot of games just with his attitude.”