It's hard to say what is more troubling as the scuffling Penguins fight to get their season back on track -- Evgeni Malkin's lengthy goal-scoring slump or the lame way he appears to be dealing with it.
I'm thinking lame all the way.
Slumps happen to every player during the long NHL season, even to players with monstrous ability, which Malkin clearly has. There are times when the puck just doesn't go in. So it has been for Malkin, to the point that his goal drought is fast approaching the ridiculous stage. He has scored just three goals in the past 12 games, all three coming in an 8-2 win against the Ottawa Senators Dec. 23. In those other 11 games? Nothing. Going back further, he has scored goals in just three of the past 19 games.
It's no coincidence the Penguins are 3-7 in their past 10 games even after playing well in a 4-1 win at Toronto Saturday night. It's also no coincidence their shockingly inept power play is in a 2-for-21 slide despite getting a goal from defenseman Sergei Gonchar against the Maple Leafs.
The Penguins need more from Malkin.
At the moment, he is not earning his $8.7 million salary.
For the season, Sidney Crosby (27) has more than twice as many goals as Malkin (13). Bill Guerin (14) has more. Jordan Staal (13) is right there with him and Mike Rupp (11), for goodness' sake, is closing fast.
It's surprising the Penguins have put together such a fine record (28-17-1) getting so little from Malkin.
It's also hard to believe the team will be successful in the days and months ahead without getting much more from him.
Malkin has the skill to break out at any time, perhaps tonight in the game at Minnesota. He did have five assists in the past three games, two of which the Penguins won. But the team needs goals from him. It has to be hoping that he gets in the right state of mind to start delivering them.
Now we're getting to that troubling part.
It's one thing to take a slump seriously. All the great ones do. But it's something much worse to beat yourself up so much that you become ineffective and have an even tougher time getting your game right.
"It's happened more than one occasion when Geno is disappointed with how he's playing and frustrated," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said after Malkin was shut out, was a minus-4 and took the blame for a 6-2 loss in Florida Jan. 3. "It certainly does affect his energy level and his posture."
This time, it prompted Gonchar to have what he called "a long meeting" with Malkin last week. Gonchar, a fellow Russian, is Malkin's close friend, mentor and confidante. Apparently, he told Malkin that he can't allow the rest of his game to suffer because he is not scoring goals. At times during this slump, Malkin has seemed to lose focus and has been sloppy with the puck, committing bad turnovers. On more than one occasion, he has compounded those turnovers by immediately taking a silly penalty out of frustration.
Malkin should be beyond that. He is no kid. He's 23. This is his fourth NHL season. He is a scoring champion, a Stanley Cup champion and a Conn Smythe Trophy winner as playoffs MVP. He shouldn't still need Gonchar to hold his hand through the tough times. It's enough to make you wonder what will happen to him if the Penguins don't do a new contract with Gonchar and allow him to leave as a free agent after the season.
Can you say Jaromir Jagr?
You know the sad ending to the Jagr era with the Penguins. An extraordinary player, he was so moody and sulked so much that he talked of "dying alive" late in his time here. He asked to be traded more than once before former general manager Craig Patrick finally granted his wish before the 2001-02 season.
I'm not ready to suggest that Malkin is going to be another Jagr. But it sure would be nice if he could learn a valuable lesson from Crosby. Crosby doesn't blink, doesn't shrink from adversity. He challenges it and fights through it. He's going to have bad games from time to time, but he is never going to beat himself mentally.
How wonderful it will be to be able to say that about Malkin one day.
Ron Cook can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org . First Published January 11, 2010 5:00 AM