Has Evgeni Malkin Maxed out for the Penguins, or Is This Just the Start?

Steve Silverman@@profootballboyFeatured ColumnistJuly 31, 2012

The 2011-12 season was an award-winning one for Evgeni Malkin.
The 2011-12 season was an award-winning one for Evgeni Malkin.Harry How/Getty Images

Flat-out talent.

When it comes to all-around ability, Evgeni Malkin does not have to take a backseat to any player in the NHL.

Perhaps fellow Russian Pavel Datsyuk is a better defensive player and regularly can create more "Oh Wow" moments when stick handling, but Malkin may be the most dynamic offensive player in the game.

Malkin dominated for the Penguins last year, and he won the league's Art Ross Trophy as the leading scorer in the NHL. He also came away with the Hart Trophy as the league's Most Valuable Player. With Sidney Crosby sidelined for much of the season with concussion-related health issues, Malkin stepped up his game and took the team on his shoulders.

Malkin scored 50 goals and 59 assists for the Penguins. As Malkin stepped up his game, other Penguins stepped forward as well. Most notably James Neal, who added a career-high 40 goals and 41 assists.

In addition to putting big numbers up for the Penguins, Malkin seemed to play with more emotion and fervor than he has ever demonstrated before.

Head coach Dan Bylsma said Malkin wanted to help his short-handed team and was prepared.  "It was, I think, that [Malkin] was really motivated to come back and help our team, and he knows, feels, that him at an elite level is a big part of the success of our team," Bylsma told Nicholas Cotsonika of Yahoo! Sports.

There is no reason to think that he won't play at a high level again, but you can question whether Malkin will do it season after season. A look at his career shows an up-again, down-again type of pattern, although injuries have had much to do with his uneven levels of production.

The 6'3", 195-pound Malkin began his career in Pittsburgh with an 85-point season as a rookie in 2006-07. He followed that with 100-plus-point seasons the next two years, including a league-leading 113 points in 2008-09.

The Penguins won the Stanley Cup that season, defeating the Detroit Red Wings in seven games in the Stanley Cup Final.

However, in the second game of the Eastern Conference finals against the Carolina Hurricanes, Malkin performed a move that Penguin owner and Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux would be proud to call his own.

In the third period, the Penguins had a 5-4 lead and were trying to hold off the Hurricanes. Malkin took control of the puck behind the goal line on the left side of the goal. He skated out to the opposite side, shifted the puck to his backhand without stopping and roofed the puck past Cam Ward.

The goal completed a hat trick and clinched the game for the Penguins, who would go on to sweep the series.

It was an amazing shot to watch at full speed; however, the skill level was nearly inconceivable when viewed in slow motion. The shot seemed like it was performed on a video game and not in an NHL playoff game.

The shot created the impression that Malkin could do anything he wants on the ice.

However, Malkin had a 77-point season in 2009-10 and a 37-point season the following year. In Feb. 2011, Malkin tore his anterior cruciate ligament and medial collateral ligament. He missed the rest of that season and only played 43 games that year.

He came back in explosive fashion last year.

One might surmise that another brilliant year is on tap in 2012-13. However, Malkin will have a healthy Crosby to share the stage, so is it possible he cedes some of his leadership responsibilities to the Penguins' captain?

Penguins coach Dan Bylsma must make sure there is no letdown in Malkin's game. He is simply too talented, and the Penguins can't afford any backtracking from Malkin.