Pittsburgh Penguins: Evgeni Malkin, James Neal Displaying Franchise-Line Promise

James ConleyContributor IIIJanuary 19, 2012

Evgeni Malkin and James Neal. 92 combined points. 1-2 in team scoring. BFF's.
Evgeni Malkin and James Neal. 92 combined points. 1-2 in team scoring. BFF's.Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Evgeni Malkin's recovery, it would seem, is complete.

Geno struggled famously with injuries, inconsistency and poor linemates for two seasons following a pair of prolific campaigns in 2007-08 and 2008-09. Many wondered whether he was worth his $8.7 million annual salary, equal to Sidney Crosby's at a time when Geno underperformed and Crosby ran away with the title of NHL's best player.

A season-ending knee injury punctuated Malkin's struggles as he missed the final 50 games of the 2011 season, including the seven-game, first-round loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning.

In 38 games this season, Malkin is back to his load-shouldering form of 2007-09. Offensive mainstays Crosby, Jordan Staal and Kris Letang each have missed significant time. Malkin has had no choice but to carry the team as he did in spring 2008 when Crosby and Marc-Andre Fleury went down with high-ankle sprains.

While Malkin has been everything for the Penguins, he's got a little help.

James Neal is now Malkin's favorite target and is off to the best start of his NHL career. Playing a line with Malkin for most of the season, Neal has 40 points in 45 games and is on pace to set career marks in goals (44), assists (30), points (73), power play goals (22), game-winning goals (6) and shots on goal (350).

Neal is a notorious first-half player, but the chemistry he's developed with Malkin and his place on the first power play unit should give him plenty of opportunities to continue scoring.

He'll have to, as three of Pittsburgh's five best offensive players are on injured reserve.

Staal, second on the team with 15 goals, has missed 11 games this season and is out with a knee injury initially projected to cost him 4-6 weeks. After scoring at a near-point-per-game pace earlier this season, Letang has missed 23 games since being elbowed by Max Pacioetty, but he's set to return on Thursday against the Rangers.

And then there's Crosby.

Given the injuries, much of the offensive load has fallen on Malkin and Neal, and their production has been astounding.

Malkin has 28 points, including two hat tricks and a pair of five-point games, in the 17 games since Crosby last played December 5—more points than any NHL player over that span.

Neal has 18 points (10G, 8A) in those games. For both players, nearly half of their points this season have come in those 17 games, or just over one-third of the Pens' schedule. The scoring has been invaluable to the Pens, who are struggling to find offense outside the top line.

And as Neal and Malkin support the team, they also support one another.

ThePensBlog were the first to quantify how much Neal and Malkin have done for each other this season. As they pointed out, Neal has figured in on around 82 percent of Malkin's points this season.

Going the other direction, when Neal scores, Malkin is 85 percent responsible.

It's not uncommon that linemates and power play mainstays should share such high percentages of one another's scoring. The drop-off in games in which they haven't played together, though, is mind-boggling.

Neal has played 72 games with the Pens over parts of two seasons. In 34 games without Malkin in the lineup, Neal has seven goals and 13 points (.382PPG). In 38 games on Malkin's line, Neal has 19 goals and 34 total points (.895PPG). In other words, he's more than half-a-point-per-game better when playing with Geno.

Projecting Neal's PPG numbers with the Pens over a full 82-game season, losing Malkin would mean losing an additional 42 points.

Similarly, Malkin has been much, much better this season than in the past two injury-shortened seasons. Geno made a strict commitment to improving his game this summer, and good health has aided his comeback, but Neal's presence as a legitimate scoring winger has been huge for Malkin.

From 2009-11, Malkin played in only 110 games with a rotation of linemates like Max Talbot, Ruslan Fedotenko and Alexei Ponikarovsky. His 114 points over those two seasons (1.04PPG) represented the worst scoring stretch of his career.

Now healthy and with Neal to bolster his numbers, Malkin is scoring at a 1.37 PPG clip, the highest points-per-game average in the NHL this season.

Malkin is also enjoying a plus-17 rating turnaround from the 2009-11 seasons to the 38-game mark this year.

League-wide, they've helped each other enter the top ten in a number of offensive categories. Malkin ranks high with 22 goals (7th), 30 assists (7th), 52 points (1st), six game-winning-goals (2nd), 182 shots on goal (2nd) and 1.37 points per game (1st).

Neal ranks first overall in power play goals (12) and shots on goal (192) and is third in total goals (24).

It's safe to say that without Malkin and Neal scoring the way they are, the Penguins would be firmly out of the playoff picture.

Neal will be a restricted free agent at season's end and at his current pace could demand around $5 million per season on the open market. The waistband is tight in Pittsburgh, but GM Ray Shero has to do everything in his power to clear the space to sign Neal, even if it means dumping salary in the form of other starters.

After all, how often can a general manager lock up two productive scorers by issuing only one contract?

James sucks. Let him hear it on the Twitters @Slew_James, or at SlewFooters.com


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