I entered the Pittsburgh Penguins' locker room after practice with a theory to test: Center Evgeni Malkin, who, as of Friday, sits two points (89) and two goals (40) away from the league lead in both categories, is the most underappreciated dominant player in the NHL today, and potentially of all time.
What say you, Carl Hagelin?
"In this locker room he's appreciated," the winger said, "but I don't know if you ask around the league if he is."
Well, let's look at the evidence, shall we?
Malkin is second among active players (to teammate Sidney Crosby) and 13th all time in points per game (1.189), despite having never played in the 1980s like seven of the players ahead of him did for a significant portion of their careers. Malkin is tied for third with Crosby among active players in goals per game, at 0.475, behind only Alex Ovechkin and Steven Stamkos. He's an unstoppable force when he's on, as the NHL has seen for the past several weeks.
"He's been dominant. He's found another level. Especially in the second half, we've needed points, and he found a way to elevate his game," Crosby said of Malkin, who has scored 53 points in 32 games since the start of 2018.
Yet the Hart Trophy talk doesn't always include his name, like it does Nikita Kucherov or Nathan MacKinnon or Taylor Hall or Ovechkin or even Connor McDavid, whose team is 17 points out of a playoff spot.
The fact is that Malkin was a Hart finalist twice before winning the award in 2011-12; since then, not only has Malkin not been a finalist again, he has not received a single vote for MVP.
Crosby, meanwhile, has received at least one vote for the Hart Trophy in 11 of his 12 previous NHL seasons. Then again, he also made the NHL's list of top 100 players of all time, while Malkin infamously did not.
It's hard to imagine a player of his skill, his accomplishments -- three Stanley Cups and a Conn Smythe -- and his dominance being underappreciated, and yet here we are.
"As a hockey community, we need to recognize what he's doing. Geno is doing something special," said Phil Bourque, former Penguin and current Penguins Radio Network color analyst. "But it doesn't get as much notice because Sid's here and Phil [Kessel]'s doing what he's doing. And people look at Pittsburgh and they think they're fine. They think they won two Cups. They don't need a guy winning a Hart or a Rocket Richard because they're going to be fine, but he needs to be in the conversation more."
Hagelin agreed. "He's been so special for the last three months. This whole year has been outstanding," he said. "It's a fun ride to be a part of. He's a guy that wants to improve every day, and wants his linemates to improve every day. You just try to go out there every day and help him out. But he really doesn't need a ton of help."
So please join us in informally establishing the Evgeni Malkin Appreciation Society, a nonprofit organization that seeks to strap on an oxygen tank to the Penguins star's accomplishments when Crosby and Kessel suck all the air out of the room. A collective dedicated to keeping Malkin in the conversation, as Bourque said, when the inclination is to take his regular-season exploits for granted on a team seeking its third straight Stanley Cup.
This will be our mission, for Evgeni Malkin cares significantly less about the Hart, Art and Rocket.
"Geno doesn't play for those trophies. He plays for one other trophy," Bourque said. "That's not lip service, that's the truth, and that's incredibly admirable."
Jersey Fouls of the Week
From the Sweet Golden Knights:
this jersey is really out of this world pic.twitter.com/KtbiEw8puX
- Vegas Golden Knights (@GoldenKnights) March 14, 2018
I used to be a UFO nerd as a kid, before I realized how ridiculous it was to believe we were being visited by extraterrestrial beings when they're clearly interdimensional beings.
So this Jersey Foul puts a smile on my face. It also makes me wonder if we're actually seeing this level of unprecedented success from an expansion team or if, in fact, it's just a weather balloon or swamp gas.
Meanwhile, in Tampa:
- Christina (@crissytina20) March 14, 2018
Yeah, no. FrankenJerseys are bad enough, and now we've moved on to player-specific FrankenShirseys, for division rivals no less. Bottom line: The person wearing the "MARKOS" shirt(s) is the clear winner. Much easier on the eyes.
When Vince McMahon dabbled in hockey
Everyone has some passion or interest in their life that, when it comes up in casual conversation, draws an awkward or baffled reaction. Maybe it's a peculiar hobby or an obscure TV show. Or, maybe you're like me, and it's a weekly professional wrestling podcast that can spend upward of five hours talking about the career of an androgynous grappler in a simmering body suit named Goldust.
Since August 2016, "Something To Wrestle With Bruce Prichard" has been a regular part of my road trips and train rides. The format could best be described as a mini-trial on various wrestlers and moments in wrestling, as host Conrad Thompson lays out the history and cross-examines Prichard, a former World Wrestling Federation executive whom you may remember as Brother Love, the red-faced parody of televangelists.
How successful is the podcast? To put in wrestling terms, it's Braun Strowman big -- well over a million downloads per episode. "I don't get it. Who wants to listen to me for three minutes, let along three hours?" Prichard asked me this week during a phone interview.
Well, hopefully hockey fans. "Something To Wrestle With" is doing a live podcast in conjunction with the Florida Panthers on Saturday after their game against the Edmonton Oilers. Free food, free drinks, live wrestling and a guest that Prichard said is "the holy grail for the wrestling business."
If you don't have your tickets for Saturday's @PrichardShow LIVE show...what are you waiting for? You won't have a better time for a cheaper price! Head on over to https://t.co/gH826TFGeV and buy your tickets today. PROMO CODE: WRESTLE pic.twitter.com/W0o9eXmbhx
- Something to Wrestle with Bruce Prichard (@PrichardShow) March 15, 2018
It's the second one of these they've done with a pro sports team; the first was with the NBA's Brooklyn Nets. (Brett Yormark, CEO of Brooklyn Sports and Entertainment, is the brother of former Panthers president Michael Yormark.) Prichard said they were thrilled to get the call from an NHL team.
"Like, what do we have to do with basketball? And then the Panthers called and they got it. I dare say that our brand of humor and our show lends itself more to the hockey crowd. The fans are passionate. You either love hockey, or don't. The fans that are willing to come out and watch a game are passionate about it. And a lot of them are wrestling fans," he said.
I've often felt there was a parallel between hockey and wrestling fans in the U.S., in the sense that we have to constantly justify our affinity for these very acquired tastes that, at times, exist outside the mainstream because of their respective barbarism. Prichard has seen it too. "Right? People love hockey, and others say it's a violent sport. But I choose to say it's a passionate sport. And it's evolved over the years, too," he said.
But there have been hockey and wrestling connections in the past. Like, for example, that time Vince McMahon actually owned a hockey team.
"He owned the Cape Cod Coliseum, and they had a semi-pro hockey team," Prichard said of the Cape Cod Buccaneers, who lasted one season (1981-82). "So he's been in the hockey game before."
While there was never an XHL, McMahon did hire the team's general manager and coach, an ex-goon named Jim Troy, as a business executive with the WWF.
Of course if we're mentioning goons, we need to also mention The Goon, aka Bill Irwin, who had an all-too-brief run in the WWF in 1996 as a hockey-playing wrestler who literally dropped his gloves before matches.
"People were tired of those kinds of gimmicks. They were getting sophisticated. They were wanting more reality, they wanted not the cartoonish characters. Real competition," recalled Prichard, who still laments that a hockey-player character couldn't get over. "If you look at who would make the best professional wrestler, it'd be a hockey guy. And he would have been over in Canada. And Detroit."
Listen To ESPN On Ice
Emily Kaplan and I had two really good chats this week on ESPN On Ice, the podcast where ESPN covers hockey. There was Michael Russo of The Athletic, on the Minnesota Wild and the NHL postseason. There was also Shawn Thornton, now an executive with the Florida Panthers, who had an enlightening conversation with us about the team, as well as Brad Marchand's maturation as a star, the steep decline (again) of hockey fighting this season, and his own favorite Jaromir Jagr story. Stream it here or get it on iTunes. All subscriptions and reviews are appreciated.
If there's one thing we know about all-time great NHL scorers, it's that they usually struggle as head coaches.
Phil Esposito might have the highest points percentage (.533) for Hall of Fame skaters-turned coaches, but that was for just two seasons behind the bench. Denis Savard (.497, three seasons), Bryan Trottier (.454, one season) and most infamously Wayne Gretzky (.473, four seasons) were among those who can do but can't teach.
That's why it was interesting to see the results in the NHLPA players' poll that was released recently, regarding the question of which current player would make the best coach. Derek Stepan, Jason Spezza and Matt Cullen all made the list, and are the level of player one expects could make the transition.
But they didn't win the poll. That would be Sidney Crosby, whom his peers felt would make the best coach after he hangs up the skates.
"I haven't really thought about it a whole lot. Um, we'll see," he told ESPN, before getting a little more candid about his hesitation.
"I don't think I'd love to be a coach at the NHL level, to be honest with you," he said. "It's a lot of video. Not sure I'd want to do the travel when I'm all done. It's one of those things where I'll see where I'm at when I'm done playing. I'm sure I'd love to stay involved in the game somehow. But maybe not this level."
Crosby said he'd actually prefer being a head coach at "the college level or something," because he enjoys mentoring young athletes in the "important years" of their lives, even if that path doesn't lead to the NHL.
OK, so maybe he won't be Coach Crosby like his peers expect. But you know where a lot of all-time great players do end up? Being general managers.
"I don't even know about that one," Crosby said.
I'm not sure why the hockey world roasted Susan Sarandon on NBCSN, working between the benches with Pierre McGuire. She wasn't terrible, she's a legit hockey fan, and I think for a network that's idea of a bold rethinking of coverage is to give us Milbury and Roenick on the same panel, this "celebrity analyst on Rivalry Night" thing is a concept with potential. [Awful Announcing]
Three-person air hockey is going to blow your mind (and potentially your rotator cuff). [The Verge]
Ranking the top black NHL jerseys, which thankfully are not prevalent. [Hockey By Design]
Really interesting words from Mark Borowiecki of the Ottawa Senators, who said he has chosen to turn down fights. "I think [turning down fights] is something I need to do to grow as a player and a person. For me and my health on and off the ice, I don't think fighting is the right thing right now. If it happens spontaneously I'll do it." [The Athletic (paywall)]
Hilary Knight on her SNL appearance and the need for the pro women's leagues to merge. [Sporting News]
Players abandoned by North Dakota's women's hockey program ending have a shot at the national championship with other schools. [espnW]
Shannon Miller, former women's hockey coach at the University of Minnesota Duluth, was the target of discrimination and retaliation by her former employer and won over $3.7 million. [Star Tribune]
Finally, here's Oliver Ekman-Larsson getting elbowed in the head by referee TJ Luxmore. Hockey play, obviously.
- Mark Harris (@TweetsByHarris) March 16, 2018
Hockey tl;dr (too long; didn't read)
"Would the Capitals have a better on-ice product if Brooks Orpik received zero minutes of five-on-five ice time? Probably, but that isn't likely while Trotz is the head coach ... and, frankly, we don't really know if the next guy will be any different." [Japers' Rink]
In case you missed this from your friends at ESPN