PITTSBURGH - MAY 12:  Evgeni Malkin #71 of the Pittsburgh Penguins moves the puck against the Montreal Canadiens in Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Semifinals during the 2010 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Mellon Arena on May 12, 2010 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Gregory Shamus/NHLI via Getty Images)

Both inside and outside Pittsburgh, the consensus seems to be that the Penguins could improve their team by trading Evgeni Malkin.

And who knows, maybe they could improve by doing it.  Maybe they could take a leap forward, acquiring two excellent players in exchange.  But the reason most often stated – namely, that Montreal took away the centre ice position and the Penguins need some threats to score on the wing – strikes me as unreasonable.

For starters, nobody has really sold me on the fact that Montreal was able to isolate centre ice.  I’m sure they focused on those players, and those players didn’t have a great series, but to my eye they got their chances.  Tyler Dellow’s busy running a series right now showing Crosby’s chances against the Canadiens, and I’m fairly confident that it will show Crosby getting chances and just not scoring all that often.  Over a seven game series, these things will happen.  And, had guys like Marc-Andre Fleury played a little bit better, Montreal wouldn’t have squeaked out a seven-game win and we wouldn’t be talking about this anyway.

The other thing is that Pittsburgh won the Stanley Cup last year.  Normally, this sort of thing would represent proof that a team can win with strength down the middle and not much on the wings.  People point to Fedotenko and Ponikarovsky and say this team needs an upgrade on the wings, but last year they could have (and did) say the same things about Sykora, Satan and Dupuis (combined playoff numbers: 40GP – 1G – 6A – 7PTS).  The Penguins’ model this season was the same as the Penguins’ model last season.  Last season it worked, this season it didn’t.  So with a Stanley Cup victory one year in hindsight, I think it’s just a touch idiotic to be going on and on about how the team needs strength on the wings.

Secondly, if the Penguins were to move a centre, that would leave Jordan Staal in the number two spot.  But while Malkin may have had an underwhelming playoffs, Staal was worse.  In fact, of the Penguins top three lines, the only line that got outscored – the only line where all three players had minus ratings – was Staal’s line.  Staal was a minus in the playoffs this year, a minus in the playoffs last year, and a minus in the playoffs the year before that.  We can talk about ice-time and circumstance, and they matter, but Malkin hasn’t been a minus player once in the last three playoff years and has outscored Staal by a 3:1 ratio over that time period.  That’s significant, and there’s a big drop off between a world-class player in Malkin in the #2 slot and a pretty good player in Staal in the #3 slot.

Of course, during the Penguins’ cup run in 2008-09, their best player was Malkin, who out-scored Crosby both en route to the finals and in the last series, against Detroit.  Here’s the stats line from that seven game series against Detroit:

  • Crosby: 7GP – 1G – 2A – 3PTS, –3
  • Malkin: 7GP – 2G – 6A – 8PTS, even

I don’t buy in to using one or two playoff series to define “clutch” because it’s such a short span of time I don’t know how anyone can form big conclusions from it.  But for those people who do believe they can watch one playoff series and pick out “clutch”, Malkin’s numbers are pretty amazing.

The Penguins don’t need to trade Malkin.  In fact, I’d argue that it probably isn’t in their best interest to trade any of their top-three centres – but if they were going to trade one, Jordan Staal would seem to be the logical candidate.  However, they’ve had lots of success using the three men down the middle strategy and picking out reclamation projects for the wings.  It may not have worked this season, but it didn’t miss by much and it worked just fine the year before.