In some respects, it's fitting that Evgeni Malkin wasn't even the center of attention of a game in which he accomplished one of the NHL's rarest feats. Malkin became just the 88th player in league history to reach the 1,000 career point mark on March 5, joining Mario Lemieux, Sidney Crosby and Jaromir Jagr as the only Penguins to hit that milestone while playing exclusively (to that point in their careers) in Pittsburgh.
And yet, Alex Ovechkin reached the 1,200 point mark in the same game. That's the way it goes for Malkin. Overshadowed by countryman Ovechkin in his own 2004 draft class. Eclipsed in Pittsburgh by Crosby's all-around brilliance. Left off the NHL all-time top 100 players list. Brilliant, but always always playing second fiddle.
Today, as the Penguins face the possibility of having to secure a playoff spot without his services, let's take a minute to celebrate Malkin's prodigious offensive talent. How good has the kid from Magnitogorsk been? Consider:
• With 1.18 career points per game, Malkin ranks 14th all-time in NHL history. The only players ahead of him are Wayne Gretzky (1.92), Lemieux (1.88), Mike Bossy (1.5), Bobby Orr (1.39), Marcel Dionne (1.31), Crosby (1.29), Peter Stastny (1.27), Peter Forsberg (1.25), Kent Nillson (1.24), Phil Esposito (1.24), Guy Lafleur (1.2), Joe Sakic (1.19) and Dale Hawerchuk (1.19). The only active player ahead of Malkin is Crosby. In case you're wondering, Malkin's a more prolific per-game point scoring threat than Ovechkin (19th all-time, at 1.12).
• When you adjust for the offensive era in which he has played, Malkin's scoring talents become even more apparent. Hockey Reference tracks a stat called Adjusted Points, which adjusts a player's point total for the offensive era in which he played. With Adjusted Points, you can make a more direct comparison between someone who played in the go-go 1980s (when teams averaged nearly four goals per game) and the current era, when teams average about three goals per contest. Malkin has 1,001 career points in 850 games played. But his adjusted points total is an even more robust 1,102. Malkin's adjusted points per game mark is the sixth best in NHL history during the Modern Era (1967-68 to the present day). Among active players, only Crosby can boast a better adjusted scoring rate than Geno.
Malkin's adjusted points rate bests that of Ovechkin (1.24), Patrick Kane (1.18), Steven Stamkos (1.17), John Tavares (1.08) and Ilya Kovalchuk (1.07), among all-time great scorers who are still skating. He beat out Jagr (1.2), too.
• Geno is nails in the playoffs. In 158 career postseason contests, Malkin has racked up 165 points. His average of 1.04 points per game ranks 21st in NHL history (minimum 50 career playoff games). Among current players meeting that criteria, only Crosby (1.16) has more points per game. Among Penguins, Lemieux (1.61) and Crosby are the only guys to outscore Geno in pursuit of Lord Stanley. Malkin won the Conn Smythe Trophy while leading the Penguins to the 2008-09 Stanley Cup, ranking seventh all-time in single-season playoff points (36). And, during Pitsburgh's most recent Cup run in 2016-17, Malkin led all players with 28 points.
While Ovechkin is known for taking blistering shots from the faceoff circle and Crosby scoffs at basic physics with his bad-angle goals, Malkin does most of his damage right in the net minder's face. Thirty percent of Malkin's goals have come from within the crease since the start of the 2010 season, according to the IcyData website (2010 is the first year for which they have detailed shot data). That's well above the 21 percent overall NHL average during that time. Geno ranks ninth among NHL players in snapshot goals since 2010, according to NHL.com, and 16th in wristers. Malkin uses his 6-foot-3 frame to slash towards the net, post up and make goalies uncomfortable.
With one (questionable) cross-check to Malkin's ribs by Robert Bortuzzo, the Penguins' chances of locking down a playoff spot and making a deep run are in flux. They're still in solid position to make the postseason, but they'll need Geno and his point-per-game production to make any kind of noise. He might not be the most celebrated player from his draft class or on his own team, but arguably no player will influence the outcome of the next Cup winner more than Malkin.
• Gudbranson fitting in: The Penguins' recent trade for defenseman Erik Gudbranson was a polarizing move among analysts and fans. Sure, the 6-foot-5, 220 pound enforcer would protect the team's stars and throw down with the Tom Wilsons of the world. But the former third overall pick in the 2010 draft also brought some of the worst advanced possession stats in the game and a $4 million salary with him to Pittsburgh. It's far too early to issue a verdict on the deal, but Gudbranson has done a shockingly good job of driving puck possession for the Penguins. In Vancouver, his team generated a paltry 43.2 percent of total five-on-five shots when he was on the ice. The Canucks created 7.4 percent fewer five-on-five shots with Gudbranson skating compared to when he was on the bench. In Pittsburgh, the Penguins are generating 56.3 percent of total shots with Gudbranson skating and creating 8.9 percent more shots with him on the ice.
• Hornqvist, Kessel heating up: Just in time for the playoffs, a pair of high-priced wingers stuck in uncharacteristic scoring slumps have started racking up points. Compared to February, Patric Hornqvist and Phil Kessel are killing it in March. Hornqvist is averaging 0.5 points per game this month (0.15 per game in February) while generating a five-on-five share of scoring chances of of 58.1 percent (51.2 percent in February). Kessel, meanwhile, is averaging 0.9 points per game in March (0.69 in February) while helping the Penguins create 58.3 percent of scoring chances (47.8 percent in February). If the Penguins are going to advance out of the first round--much less win a sixth Cup--both of these guys need to be at the top of their game.
• Shortstop of the (near) future: The Pirates received precious little from their shortstops in 2018, as the team ranked 29th in the majors at the position in Wins Above Replacement (WAR), a comprehensive measure of a player's offensive, defensive and base running value compared to a waiver wire talent. The 2019 competition between Kevin Newman and Erik Gonzalez has left some fans--particularly those who had the pipe dream of a Manny Machado signing--cold. But help could be on the way in the form of Cole Tucker, a 22-year-old switch-hitter whom the Pirates selected in the first round of the 2014 draft. Tucker is known for being a smooth defender with speed (35 stolen bases at Double-A Altoona in 2018), but he has also made impressive progress at the plate. During the first half of the 2018 season, Tucker had a .245 average, .308 on-base percentage and a .324 slugging percentage. After the All-Star break, he had a .281/.370/.407 triple-slash. He carried that more patient, powerful approach over to both the Arizona Fall League (.370/.442/.457) and spring training with the Pirates (.389/.450/.889). The short-term shortstop outlook could be bleak, but Tucker offers hope.
• Kang crushing it: No one really knew what to expect from Jung Ho Kang entering spring training, given that the Korea Baseball Organization star-turned-Pirates slugger missed nearly two full seasons due to DUI-related visa issues and injuries. But Kang is showing early signs that he retains his power stroke, swatting five home runs and slugging north of .700 this spring while securing the Pirates' third base job to open the year. Granted, it's a small sample of ABs against a wildly varied level of competition. Yet it's a reminder of how Kang could inject life into a Pirates offense that ranked just 19th in the majors and ninth in the National League in runs scored last year. During the 2015 and 2016 seasons, Kang's park-and-league-adjusted On-Base-Plus Slugging Percentage was 26 percent better than the overall MLB average. That tied for 32nd-best among all big league hitters over that span. His career exit velocity is 90.3 mph--three mph above the MLB average--and his career hard-hit rate (balls put in play at 95+mph) is 43.4 percent (34.1 percent average), according to MLB Statcast. If Kang can resume stinging the ball like that, it would be a huge boost for a power-starved Pirates lineup.
• Ranking Marte: Deserved or not, Starling Marte has the reputation in some circles as an underachiever. But is that really fair? Consider this: Over the past five seasons, Marte ranks 13th among all MLB outfielders in WAR (16.6). He ranks just behind Justin Upton, and just ahead of Marcell Ozuna. Over that time frame, Marte's production was worth about $131 million, according to Fangraphs' calculations that asses the monetary value of WAR in the marketplace. His actual salary over that stretch? About $18.3 million. Marte might never have become a full-fledged MVP candidate, but he has been extremely valuable--and one of the biggest bargains in the game--in recent years.
• A cornerback upgrade: The Steelers made a splashy (by their standards) free agent signing to strengthen their secondary, landing Steven Nelson on a three-year, $25.5 million contract. The former Kansas City Chief picked off four passes last season--which represents half of the Steelers' team total in 2018--and he looks like an upgrade on both first-round-pick-turned-bust Artie Burns and free agent Coty Sensabaugh. Nelson ranked 15th among all cornerbacks in passer rating allowed (79.1) and catch rate allowed (55.6 percent), according to the Player Profiler website. Burns, by contrast, turned opposing QBs into Dan Marino (128.0 passer rating allowed, with a 60.7 percent catch rate). Sensabaugh was solid (86.0 passer rating allowed, 63.3 percent catch rate), but the 26-year-old Nelson is four years younger and has shown more ability to create turnovers that the Steelers desperately need in 2019.
• Moncrief's catches: In Donte Moncrief, the Steelers added a physical wideout whom they hope can reach new heights now that he no longer has to endure the Blake Bortles Experience in Jacksonville. The 6-foot-2, 220 pound Moncrief showed some upside and end-zone skill during his early days in the NFL with the Indianapolis Colts, but he has become more of a boom-or-bust player in recent seasons. Moncrief ranked 20th among all wide receivers in yards per reception (minimum 100 targets) during the 2017-2018 seasons (14.3). But plenty of balls thrown his way hit the turf. With a 54.4 percent catch rate, Moncrief placed 65th out of 73 receivers who were targeted 100+ times over the past two years.
• Feiler ready for full-time role: In a few short years, Matt Feiler has progressed from going undrafted and toiling on the Houston Texans' practice squad to being the Steelers' projected starting right tackle in 2019. With incumbent Marcus Gilbert now in Arizona, the Bloomsburg product figures to compete with Chuks Okarafor for snaps next season--and Feiler looks ready for the job. Feiler rated as the league's 32nd-best tackle last season, garnering a 71 overall grade on Pro Football Focus' 0-100 player grade system that accounts for a player's pass and run-blocking performance. He started 10 games last season at tackle, and the Steelers excelled when running in his direction. Pittsburgh ranked first among NFL teams in adjusted line yards when running off the right end, according to Football Outsiders, and 16th when running off the right tackle. Adjusted line yards accounts for the down, distance, game situation and quality of the opponent when running the ball. Credit to the Steelers for developing yet another undrafted, starting-caliber offensive lineman.
THE NATIONAL TREND
• Speed it up: Massive changes are coming to MLB over the next couple of years, including a new rule that will require relief pitchers to face at least three batters (except in the case of an injury). A pitch clock, already a staple of minor league baseball and now being piloted in spring training, could be on the way. These and other changes to our National Pastime are designed to address pace of play, which has become a hot topic as the average length of an MLB game spiked from 2:55 in 2007 to a record 3:08 in 2017. On a related note, the average number of pitchers used per game (per team) climbed from under four a decade ago to about 4.4. The tide may have begun to turn last year, as the average length of a game declined by four minutes to 3:04.
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