Pittsburgh Penguins: Is Evgeni Malkin Better off at Center or Wing?

Eron NoreContributor IIIJuly 6, 2011

Pittsburgh Penguins: Is Evgeni Malkin Better off at Center or Wing?

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    A few days back I published an article where I discussed the reasons that I think Evgeni Malkin, not Sidney Crosby, will be the key to the Pittsburgh Penguins 2011-12 season.

    This was not meant as a slight to Crosby. He is without question the better player, leader, and will most likely have a greater statistical output. But for the Pens to get where they want this season, Malkin will need to return to his 2008-09 form.

    Last season really is not good for the argument either way, because both Sid and Geno ended up injured. But the 2009-10 season was a giant disappointment, and maybe not by coincidence, so was Malkin's play.

    Many sources such as Rob Rossi and Coach Dan Bylsma have indicated what we want to hear. Malkin is dedicated and passionate about his return to hockey and has a true burning desire to show that he is one of the top hockey players in the world.

    Consider that when Malkin is at the top of his game, and on a line separate from Crosby, stopping the Penguins becomes a chore that most NHL teams are not up for.

    Remember that Malkin, not Crosby, won the 2009 Conn Smythe Trophy not only for his overall playoff performance, but his eight points in the Stanley Cup Finals. The Red Wings neutralized Crosby, but even they could not stop Malkin from being the dynamic playmaker many believe him to be.

    So with that said, it is clear that Penguins probably benefit more with Malkin and Crosby separated at even strength. But should Malkin be at center or on the wing?

    Let's take a look at some of the factors.

Malkin as a Goal Scorer

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    Since 2007-08, Malkin's goal scoring has declined each season. That is not to say that he did not have a productive season in 2008-09. After all, he did score that Art Ross Trophy despite a drop in goals.

    Malkin has played five seasons for the Penguins now. His regular season goal totals are as follows: 33, 47, 35, 28, 15. The last two seasons Malkin played under 70 games.

    Another interesting stat is his power play goal scoring. Malkin has a booming shot when the PP is clicking. In each of his five seasons, with the exception of last year, he has remained consistent in goal production with 16, 17, 14, 13, and 5 respectively.

    Over the course of his career, Malkin has scored 65 of his 158 career goals on the power play. That is just over 41 percent of his goals.

    For those of us that were not math majors, that means nearly 60 percent of Malkin's goals come at even strength since he is rarely used as a penalty killer.

    Malkin seems to strive when he has the room to create and move. The year he lead the league in scoring, his linemates were largely Peter Sykora and Ruslan Fedotenko. Sprinkle in some Maxime Talbot in the playoffs and there you had it.

    While neither were in their prime, and Talbot never had a prime, the first two had a similar mindset geared towards a European flow and control of the puck.

    In recent years he has spent time with Crosby, which works but doesn't maximize the ability of both players since the tend to defer to one another.

    To get Geno firing on all cylinders as a goal scorer, this category seems to favor him as a center. It allows him the room to create, play at his tempo, and receive from players on his line.

Malkin as a Passer

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    When healthy, Malkin seems to consistently hover around the 50 assist mark. In every season but last year and his total of 49 in 2009-2010 he topped that mark.

    His Art Ross Trophy winning season, he amassed 78 assists! He has never really played with a truly elite winger, so clearly he can pass the puck well and make the most of his skating and abilities.

    Once again, the power play stats must be considered. In his career, Malkin has scored 98 of his 260 career assists on the PP, or nearly 38 percent of them.

    It would seem that he does not rely as heavily on the extra man to rack up assists. Why is that? Likely because Malkin is a world class talent that sees the ice well and when he is at the top of his game draws players to him.

    This results in an open man somewhere, and Geno is often able to find him. The question is, can the guy on the other end of the pass bury it?

    If Evgeni is to play on the wing, it will be with Jordan Staal at center. "Jordo" is an enigmatic one when it comes to putting the puck in the net.

    There are times where he looks ready to become a dominant power forward in the NHL. Then there are times when it looks like he could not put the puck in the ocean if you gave him three tries from a long pier. Somehow, his stats always even out though.

    It probably is not a coincidence that Staal's biggest goal scoring year of 2006-07 was spent largely with Malkin. I do not fully remember the circumstances, but I think Staal served as the wing and Malkin was the center.

    Staal could take a big leap forward in terms of offensive production with a healthy Malkin. That could help take the pressure of Crosby (understatement of 2011).

    Either way, the pairing of Malkin and Staal would seem to have no affect on Geno's passing. For this category, it is a push so we will say he should play wing for the sake of argument.

Malkin's Other Attributes

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    Generally speaking, the Penguins do not fare well in the faceoff circles. Verifiable individual numbers are hard to find, but as a team that Penguins ranked 21st, 19th, 19th, dead last, and dead last in Malkin's five seasons showing 2010-11 are the most recent (21st).

    If I had to lay money on it, I would guess that Malkin is somewhere between 42 and 44 percent between the dots for his career. Obviously that does not get it done.

    One of the benefits to playing on a line with Staal is the possibility of mixing and matching responsibilities. Staal, for example, has developed in to a better faceoff guy than Geno.

    There could be scenarios where Staal lines up at center to take the draw, but Malkin has the defensive and offensive responsibilities as a center. A designed hybrid line to take advantage of what each player does best.

    It is not a stretch to think that Staal can be a superb defended as a "winger", but only if the matchup at hand is favorable. In this instance, I would defer to defense first so Malkin is again going to ride along side of Staal.

Three Centers vs. Two: Which Is Better?

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    The wild card in this discussion is the philosophical discussion of whether it is better for the Penguins to employ lines with two strong centers or lines with three strong centers.

    When the Penguins won the Stanley Cup, they used the three center approach. Crosby, Malkin, and Staal each had a line and a role.

    Sid sparked the team with his near-constant attack and dedication to back-checking. Malkin and his group would continue the attack, leaving an opponent battered and tired. By the time Staal and his group got on the ice, it was either to control the tempo or to shut down the opponents top line.

    It is hard to argue with the results of this approach. The Penguins lost a close Stanley Cup Final to the Red Wings one season, then came back the next year and won a close Final over the Red Wings.

    Salary Cap depletion forced the team to explore some other options in the past seasons, such as pairing Malkin and Crosby. Last season Coach Bylsma was committed to having Staal and Malkin paired up, but both players spent so much time injured that it never took off.

    If Staal and Malkin are to play together again this season, the Penguins will need to find a competent replacement for Staal as a third line center. Mark Letestu and Dustin Jeffrey are potentials, but can either fill the skates of Staal in terms of what he does?

    That last part is why I am in favor of a three center system. Think of the times where Staal, Matt Cooke, and Tyler Kennedy get out there and just wear down the other team with their endless, near perfect cycling.

    Hockey is a game that is much more than skating back and forth. That cycling, grinding, mucking is as important to the winning of games as pretty passes and having two star studded lines.

    My vote on this category is to play both Malkin and Staal at center.

Coach Bylsma's Decision

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    At the end of the day, this discussion is largely academic. Coach Dan Bylsma will be the one making the decision. He does not care what we think, especially not what I think.

    Luckily for Penguins fans, Bylsma and his staff are not afraid to try new things. While all signs point to Staal and Malkin playing on the same line to start the season, if it fails they will shift directions.

    Figure that the Staal-Malkin experiment will get a minimum 10-game trial. Anything less than that would not allow for any type of cohesion.

    I am not convinced that this will make the team better though. There is a lack of depth on forward and when you clog it all up at the top, the bottom lines' flaws will be exposed if they are forced into playing significant minutes.

    Unfortunately for me, Bylsma has that whole Stanley Cup ring thing going for him and now that Jack Adams Trophy thing too. Alas, he has earned the right to mold this team however he likes, internet buffoons like myself be damned.

    Sadly, in July this is all we Penguins fans have to think about and hopefully the readers will chime in and let me know what you think.

    Seriously, what else are we going to do until the season starts? October cannot come soon enough—drop the puck already!