Evgeni Malkin is the Penguins' most important player.
The rationale is simple. Malkin, whether due to injury, sub-par linemates or simple underachieving, hasn't consistently brought the same level of production to the ice.
At times in the last two seasons, Malkin played below his $8.7 million salary. For two seasons prior, he was the best hockey player on the planet.
Sidney Crosby may be out, but it will take the lingering effects of a serious concussion to put a snare in his otherwise clockwork consistency. He's a known commodity.
Malkin's inconsistent production—and the fact he's capable of outplaying even Crosby—are what make him more important to the Penguins' success.
The numbers tell the story.
Malkin enjoyed two breakout seasons from 2007-09, posting 82 goals and 137 assists (219 points) in 164 games, as well as 24 goals and 34 assists in 44 postseason games. He was also a combined plus-39 in those contests.
Injuries and bad linemates plagued Malkin from 2009 to the end of his injury-shortened campaign this spring. After playing in every regular season game for two years, Geno missed 54 games from 2009-11, including all of last postseason and seven of the first 13 contests this year.
His production dipped to below a point-per-game last season, and he has posted a total minus-12 since the beginning of the 2009-10 season.
His talent has never gone away, so why the ebb and flow of points?
A torn ACL knocked him out last year, but other lingering knee injuries were said to have held him back for months prior. Max Talbot, Ruslan Fedotenko and Petr Sykora were some of his regular linemates over the down years—players who had almost no success under head coach Dan Bylsma.
Their ineffectiveness contributed to Malkin's own lack of production.
With seven points in six games this year, Malkin already seems to have improved over his performance in the last few regular seasons. He's been a force on the power play, and with James Neal and Steve Sullivan for linemates, he's got players on his flanks who are more likely to execute a pretty play than to fumble an easy one.
His ability to produce points at even strength and on the power play will be crucial for the Penguins in the first half of the season. The team needs him to be their leading scorer not only because of Crosby's uncertain return date, but because of the expectations placed on him with a salary of $8.7 million.
What's more, for the first time since Ryan Malone and Sykora skated for the Penguins, he's also got linemates capable of capitalizing on the space and passing he provides.
Malkin has the almost singular ability to turn an entire defense into pylons, and his passing and scoring in just six games this year are far more reminiscent of his play in the Stanley Cup seasons than anything the last few years. Signs point to improvement.
The Pens have shown they can win with defense, goaltending and sometimes only half of a healthy roster. Adding a consistently productive 71 to the lineup would greatly ease the pressure on the rest of the lineup, though.
Crosby's return will make the Penguins Cup contenders, but Malkin's return to form would make them the overwhelming favorites.