Q: If it were up to you, when Sidney Crosby comes back, would you separate Crosby and Evgeni Malkin on the power play or make one super unit?
Marc Enie, Shaker Heights, Ohio
MOLINARI: You mean someone else is going to make that decision?
Too bad, because the thinking here is that it's not a particularly difficult one: Crosby and Malkin should be on separate units, because the Penguins have the personnel to put together two groups that are potentially lethal and essentially equal.
One would feature the Ryan Malone-Malkin-Petr Sykora line that now serves as the Penguins' top power-play unit; the other would have Crosby between Jordan Staal and Marian Hossa arrangement would, in simplest terms, give both groups a quality set-up man, an accomplished goal-scorer and a widebody to cause congestion in front of the net and score on rebounds and deflections.
The moderator of this forum would consider going even farther and separating Ryan Whitney and Sergei Gonchar, who are the point men on the No. 1 power play. Putting Gonchar on the right point and Darryl Sydor on the left with the Malkin line, and Whitney on the right point and Kris Letang on the left (thus giving both the possibility of one-timing shots off cross-ice passes) with Crosby, Staal and Hossa seems like a worthwhile experiment, although it might be getting a bit late in the season for such a radical switch.
In any case, the key point is that the No. 1 unit should not have both Crosby and Malkin on it, because guys like Sykora and Hossa are willing to launch the puck at the net whenever the opportunity presents itself, whereas Malkin and Crosby (the latter, to a much greater degree) generally look to feed a teammate rather than take the shot themselves. An effective power play stems not from loading it with as much pure skill as possible, but from having its members possess complementary talents.
Q: What is your take on the difference in Malkin's play (at least on the scoresheet) when Crosby is out of the lineup? How do you think this bodes for these two remaining teammates down the road? Obviously, as Crosby is the face of the franchise, you assume he's not going anywhere.
Mike Kucharski, Cedar Rapids, Iowa
MOLINARI: There never was any question -- at least, there shouldn't have been -- that Malkin had the physical ability to do the things he has while filling in for Crosby as the Penguins' go-to guy up front. The only uncertainty was how he would respond to the challenge of being the player counted on to shoulder that kind of responsibility. Some guys fade when they assume such a burden; Malkin clearly has embraced his upgraded role, and everything it entails. It's the reason he has emerged as a serious contender for the Hart Trophy, which goes to the league's most valuable player.
Malkin's productivity might also rise in Crosby's absence because he gets a little more time in quality situations, and is viewed by teammates as the top offensive option most of the time. When Crosby is healthy, he obviously consumes a lot of quality minutes, and teammates routinely try to get him the puck whenever possible.
Precisely what Malkin thinks about his relationship with Crosby isn't clear, because he rarely addresses issues of such substance in interviews, but to this point, there's absolutely no indication of any friction between the two. That meshes with what people associated with the team say they have been told about the relationship they have.
Your assumption about Crosby almost certainly is correct. It's difficult to imagine him not spending his entire career here, unless he would decide to go elsewhere. It also is conceivable that at some point, Malkin will decide he wants to be recognized as the player around whom a team is built, because he certainly has established that he's capable of filling such a role. There's zero evidence at this point, however, that Malkin is troubled by being overshadowed by Crosby much of the time, or that he has any desire to play elsewhere in the foreseeable future.