Editor’s note: Beat writer Jonathan Bombulie will make a series of Penguins predictions leading up to the start of training camp Sept. 14.
Will Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel play better together or apart?
Despite their world-class skill, there are a couple of good reasons to keep Malkin and Kessel apart. First, they sometimes give uneven performances defensively. While the reward of playing them together can be great, so can the risk. Coaches are often risk averse. Also, the pinnacle of offensive success both players have seen over the past three seasons has come when they’re apart. For Kessel, that was the HBK run of the 2016 playoffs. For Malkin, it was January and February of last season while playing with Carl Hagelin and Patric Hornqvist. Coach Mike Sullivan said he likes the way playing with linemates other than Kessel encourages Malkin to be the shooter on his line. His shot is dangerous.
When Malkin and Kessel were on the ice together at even strength last season, the Penguins were outscored, 30-26. That’s not good, but it looks like an anomaly rather than a trend. Dragged down by a lackluster first half of the season, the Penguins had a minus-15 goal differential at five-on-five as a team. That makes Malkin and Kessel’s numbers par for the course. If the team goes plus-35 or plus-30 like it did the previous two seasons, the Malkin-Kessel pair should rebound accordingly. Even more importantly, the Malkin-Kessel combo was awesome in 2016-17, outscoring opponents 29-10, and pretty good the year before that, outscoring opponents, 27-20. On balance, they’re usually pretty dynamic together.
C. About the same
When Sullivan grapples with the issue of whether to play Malkin and Kessel together or apart, he usually splits the difference. Last season, at five on five, they played 578 minutes together, Malkin played 528 minutes without Kessel, and Kessel played 561 minutes without Malkin. It was almost an even balance. While the overall numbers over the course of three seasons as teammates indicate they produce a little better together than apart, that’s not necessarily going to show itself in a meaningful way in a sample size of 500-some minutes. Chances are, if Sullivan gives them equal minutes together and apart, their production will probably be fairly equal together and apart.
The idea that Malkin and Kessel don’t play well together seems to be the product of a recency bias. Because Malkin played better without Kessel in January and February and because no one other than Sidney Crosby’s line produced at even strength in the playoffs, that must mean Malkin and Kessel are no good together. The big-picture numbers just don’t bear that out. If the Penguins get back up to speed in terms of even-strength production, there’s a good chance that rising tide will lift the Malkin-Kessel combo too. Sullivan will still alternate between loading up his top two lines and spreading his stars throughout the lineup, but more often than not, he’ll find Malkin and Kessel are better together.
Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jonathan at [email protected] or via Twitter @BombulieTrib.