In Sidney Crosby’s absence, as a hockey community, we’ve been quick to crown his Pittsburgh teammate Evgeni Malkin as the current best player in the world, after possibly years of ignoring him in Sid’s shadow.
Sid earned fame and glory by becoming the youngest man to become the Captain of a Stanley Cup Champion, scoring the Golden Goal, winning his Hart Trophy, Art Ross, Rocket Richard, multiple Lou Marshes and Lionel Conachers, as well as winning four consecutive ESPY Awards for being the only NHL player anybody working for ESPN could name. He is also, required by law, to be mentioned in every news story or blog post as a way of introducing Evgeni Malkin.
So how about that Evgeni Malkin? He scored an awesome goal last night against the New York Rangers (go to 1:05 on the video below) that put him on a four-game goal streak, and, without getting too carried away with a hot streak, now has 24 on the season. He also leads the NHL in points with 54, as noted by Chris Lund last night:
Last season, in Corsi, a shot-differential metric that counts up even blocked shots and missed shots, Malkin led the Penguins among centres for the first time in his career. Like Crosby, he got hurt, and unlike Crosby, he had a career-low shooting percentage of 8.2%, leading to a performance wherein he scored “only” 15 goals in 43 games. So some of this success could have obviously come predicted using advanced stats, and we knew we’d eventually see a run from him.
There’s an awful lot of hyperbolizing going on over the small stretch of games the Pens have played recently, and while that’s now eight goals in seven games, he’s also shooting at 21.6%, a number that is rarely achieved in hockey over a full season because of all the lucky bounces required to maintain it.
Now, Crosby may not be the right comparison for Malkin, because during a TSN broadcast this week, host James Duthie posited the question to his panel: “With the benefit of hindsight, who should have been taken first overall in 2004?”
The two options, of course, were Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin, although I was very disappointed to see that A.J. Thelen wasn’t on the ballot (weird thing about that draft: by my count, 26 goalies were selected, none of them are currently starters, before Pekka Rinne was selected with Nashville’s 258th pick).
Two of the panelists picked Malkin, and only one saw fit to take Ovechkin with the benefit of hind-sight. It’s almost a no-brainer comparing their numbers: Ovechkin has 320 goals in 520 games, and Malkin has 182 in 391. Malkin’s on a 38.2 goal pace per 82, while Ovechkin’s career rate is 50.5.
The real fact is that Ovechkin possesses a goal-scoring and shot-creating talent unrivaled by any other. Since the lockout, nobody has come even close to the 2693 shots put up by Ovechkin. He was in a down slump for a while, but appears to have played his way out of it and has been scoring goals again, having scored just once in the eleven games his Washington Capitals were slumping in November and December. While a tonne of credit is given to Malkin on his 24-goal season, Ovechkin is only slightly behind with 19, so he’s well within reach.
Malkin, for sure, is having a fantastic season, but is it worth enough to make us think that he’s better than arguably the best pure goal-scorer in the game for a decade (although the numbers that each respective player is putting up this season quite easily refutes that, but, really, that’s just over half a season versus entire careers). The last 40 games have been terrific for Malkin, but is that enough to make us forget about Ovechkin’s body of work prior to 2011?
When Ovechkin had an off-year, he still scored 32. Malkin, credit to him with he’s healthy, has had his recent injury troubles forcing him to miss games and lose ground in the race. What would make Malkin a greater pick in hindsight is if he could stay healthy and also play a dominant two-way game as a foil to Ovechkin’s offense-first shooting ability. The possession numbers, with the exception of last year, don’t prove that Malkin is a player who dominates strong opposition, and he actually saw some very sheltered shifts in his years as a Penguin. It’s not like he’s a comparable to Patrice Bergeron, David Backes, Ryan Kesler or Jonathan Toews.
He’s having a wonderful year and he should get credit for what he’s been doing, but he has a long way to go to convince us that his body of work is greater than that of Ovechkin’s. Even with the Stanley Cup Ring and Conn Smythe Trophy, that’s just what Evgeni signed up for when he came over to play for the Penguins.
But has he been more important to the Penguins in the last seven years than Ovechkin has to the Washington Capitals? That answer is a “no”.