Remembering Peak Evgeni Malkin

A couple of days ago, Vancouver writer Cam Robinson put up a very interesting poll on Twitter. It was one that was simple, but tested your memory and vulnerability to recency and fandom biases.

He asked: Who would you rather have in a Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals – Prime Alexander Ovechkin, or Prime Evgeni Malkin? Ovechkin led the way for the vast duration of the 4000-vote poll, but as a few people within the hockey stats Twitter pitched their more objective, historical cases, Malkin pulled ahead and ended up taking the victory.

This led me to think – how well do people remember what Prime Malkin really looked like? That’s not to take away anything from Ovechkin, who was underrated as a playoff performer for years until the Capitals broke through in 2018 (perhaps an article for another day), but given Malkin’s perpetual run as a second or third fiddle in the conversation, now further pushed away by a new generation of star talent, how seriously do we take his prime, and how seriously should we be taking it?

The answer, generally, is that we should take Malkin’s full body of work – not just his prime – much more seriously. Most appreciate him as a superstar and see the Hall of Fame in his future, but even that feels like a bit of an undersell.

For example, when the National Hockey League put out their “NHL 100” list of all-time great players in 2017, Malkin was one of it’s most glaring omissions. Meanwhile, using Hockey-Reference’s “Point Share” historical model, Malkin ranks 51st all-time in total point shares and 13th among players in the Top 200 on a per-game basis. The only post-expansion players ahead of him are understood to be in the conversation for the best all-time at their positions – Bobby Orr, Mario Lemieux, Wayne Gretzky, Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, and Mike Bossy. He ranks 10th in era-adjusted points per game (6th post-expansion) within that same pool. We’re more likely talking about a Top 20-25 player than a not-quite-Top-100, and while Malkin’s 3 seasons since the snub confirm his dominance, they still aren’t his prime years.

No, that goes to a five-year stretch, between his Age 21 and Age 25 seasons. Starting in 2007/08 and finishing in 2011/12, Malkin scored 442 points in 349 games, won two scoring titles, won a Hart Trophy and finished as Runner-up Twice, made three first-team All-Star lineups, went to two Stanley Cup Finals, won one of them, and took home the Conn Smythe Trophy in that run.

He had the third-most points in that stretch and the second-highest points-per-game. He had the second-most Point Shares, and the third most per-game. While only three of those seasons saw him play at least 70 games, all three of those seasons were in the Top 8 in points for that half-decade, including the best individual season in 2009. He was fourth in Evolving-Hockey‘s “Goals Above Replacement” model, which tends to focus on more underlying results (expected goals, drawn penalties, defensive metrics) than point production – meaning the process often matched the box score. Any time he wasn’t first in something, the people above him were also future Hall of Famers, and he was still knocking closely on their doors.

The three biggest seasons – 2007/08, 2008/09, and 2011/12, were all important for different reasons. In the case of 2008 and 2012, Crosby was out of the Penguins lineup with significant injuries, missing 29 games in the former year and 60 in the latter. It was at this point that Malkin carried the team on his back, with a “Bull in a China Shop”-like cadence not seen since Mario Lemieux donned the very same sweater. Malkin’s size, strength, reach, and creativity allowed him to replicate the greatest Penguin – maybe even the greatest player – like no one else has in hockey history, leading to his two most impressive regular seasons. They weren’t his best by point totals, but the gravity of his minutes and his two best goal outputs set them apart.

His best by total came in 2008/09, a year in which the Penguins recognized what they had going with him, and the importance of not overworking Crosby if they didn’t have to. Malkin played 35 seconds more per game than his captain did, and rewarded the team with a 113-point season, a total that no one would surpass again until Nikita Kucherov and Connor McDavid did it last season. He showed that he could dish as much as he could feed, but it was barely the tip of the iceberg for what we were about to see.

Malkin’s absolute peak, in my eyes and the eyes of many others, was the 2008/09 playoffs, where he won the Conn Smythe Trophy and his first of three Stanley Cups. Malkin was so dominant that Sidney Crosby’s best career playoff performance – one of the best of the modern era – became a complete afterthought after the second round was completed (though “Dueling Hat Tricks” remains the seminal game of this era).

Malkin, facing the toughest matchups of the two generational talents, put up an insane 36 points in 24 games. He did so while putting up mystifying underlying numbers, including a 59% share of the expected goals (a number that he was somehow able to top for Pittsburgh’s next cup in 2016). That point total is the seventh-highest ever produced in a single playoff run, and the highest by someone who wasn’t either Mario Lemieux or a member of the 1980’s Dynasty Oilers (Gretzky 4 times, Coffey once).

Hockey Reference doesn’t use their Point Share or Era-Adjustment metrics on the playoffs, but using the regular season formulas for each year as a proxy puts Malkin even closer to the top. Rather than 11 points behind first, he hops into third place, within a margin of error away from Gretzky’s 47-point 1985 run (37.3 and 37.5 adjusted points respectively), and both only trail Lemieux’s 1991 run (44 points -> 39.1 points) as the best relative to their era.

Now that we can look at the turn-of-the-cap era Penguins with hindsight, it can’t be understated how much of a drop off in talent there is between those teams and the Gretzky and Lemieux era Oilers and Penguins; Crosby and Malkin’s extraordinary play masked a deeply flawed roster who played for each other, but truly didn’t deserve the reverence that they got at the time. For both of them to have the runs they had in the regular season and playoffs in those years is a testament to their all-time greatness, and for Malkin to score more points in 2008/09 than anyone would for a decade, and follow it up with a Top-3 performance by a skater in NHL playoff history is mystifying.

What separated Malkin for me in that poll is the fact that, while both him and Ovechkin were champions, peak Malkin had literally delivered on the hypothetical, controlling a playoff like few players ever have and wrapping it up in Game 7 of the Final. I love a good debate of what-if, but there’s a huge advantage to “I literally did that”, and I feel like a lot of people forget just what Peak Malkin was. He was a supernova, a dominant individual who pulled an average team to great heights with his fellow generational running mate, and when the first fiddle fell, he became the whole orchestra. Hopefully, as this generation shifts to “history” rather than “present”, Geno will begin to get the respect and reverence he deserves.

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