Evgeni Malkin Injury Puts Pressure on Phil Kessel to Prove His Worth

Adrian Dater@@adaterNHL National ColumnistMarch 12, 2016

Mar 3, 2016; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Penguins right wing Phil Kessel (81) skates with the puck against the New York Rangers during the second period at the CONSOL Energy Center. The Penguins won 4-1. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Phil Kessel's salary this season is $10 million. That's $121,951.22 per game in an 82-game regular season. He's in the second year of an eight-year, $64 million contract originally signed with his former team, the Toronto Maple Leafs. Toronto, according to General Fanager, retained $1.2 million of his $8 million cap hit when it traded him to the Pittsburgh Penguins last year, which means his actual cap hit to the Pens is $6.8 million.

Whether it's $10 million, $8 million or $6.8 million, there is no arguing this point: The Penguins haven't gotten enough value in return from Kessel for what they're paying him. He can still change that, however.

Now would be the perfect time for Kessel to better justify the faith that Pittsburgh put in him, in light of the news Saturday that 2012 Hart Trophy winner Evgeni Malkin will be out six to eight weeks with an upper-body injury following a collision Friday night with Columbus' Dalton Prout.

PITTSBURGH, PA - MARCH 14:  Evgeni Malkin #71 of the Pittsburgh Penguins is tended to by medical staff after an injury in the first period during the game against the Boston Bruins at Consol Energy Center on March 14, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (P
Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Although Kessel has 20 goals this season, marking the eighth year in a row he's accomplished that (including the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season), his play has not earned him much praise. 

“I expected a lot more,” former longtime Penguins broadcaster Bob Grove told 93.7 The Fan in Pittsburgh, via KDKA CBS 2. “If he can score 25 goals with the worst team in the league last season in Toronto, you surround him with better talent in a better situation, a winning situation, you expect more from him.”

The Penguins are fighting to hold on to the last wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference playoff race, entering Sunday only four points up on Philadelphia, with the Flyers holding a game in hand. Now, they have to go into the final 14 games, and into the first round or further if they get that far, without their second-leading scorer in Malkin. 

Captain Sidney Crosby, who is earning a cool $12 million in actual salary this season, will bear the most pressure in making the Penguins a playoff team in the absence of Malkin. Crosby has been tremendous in the second half of the season, entering Sunday's game against the New York Rangers on a seven-game point streak.

But the Penguins will need more from Kessel. His scoring production is the lowest it's been on a per-game basis since he scored 19 goals in 82 games for the 2007-08 Boston Bruins. The Penguins gave up three young players, plus first- and third-round picks in this year's NHL draft, to get Kessel as part of a larger trade. General manager Jim Rutherford gambled that a change in scenery from the pressure-packed media environment of Toronto and a chance to play with Crosby and Malkin would rejuvenate Kessel's career. But too often this season, he's looked like just another guy.

Grove told 93.7 The Fan in Pittsburgh:

Here’s the things about his 20 goals. He doesn’t add anything else. This is not a guy who wins battles along the boards. This is not a guy who pressures guys on the forecheck and takes the puck off them. This is not a guy who is killing himself on the backcheck. You get none of that. So the one thing he does in his career in the National Hockey League is finish, score goals. He’s not a factor on the power play and he’s just missed so many great chances at some critical portions of games that just makes you shake your head.

Indeed, Kessel has scored just three times on the power play—only once in his last 46 games. On a team with Crosby, Malkin and Kris Letang in the top unit, that's a shockingly low number. 

In Kessel's defense, it often takes time for players in their first year on a new team to develop chemistry with linemates, no matter how good things look on paper. And, Kessel has been better in the second half. He has seven points in his last eight games, including two assists in a big 3-2 win Friday against the Blue Jackets on the road.

While losing Malkin no doubt will make things much tougher in the Penguins' playoff quest, they are 5-4-1 in games he's missed already this season and, according to NHL.com, an impressive 70-45-9 in career games without him.

Kessel was Malkin's linemate at right wing, so having to produce more automatically just got harder. At Saturday's Penguins practice, according to NHL.com, Nick Bonino took Malkin's spot centering a line with Kessel and Carl Hagelin. Bonino is quite a step down from Malkin in terms of skill and creativity.

But it's up to Kessel now to make Bonino, or whoever else he skates with, better.

After all, that's why he gets the big bucks.


Adrian Dater covers the NHL for Bleacher Report.