TORONTO – “Do you want the credit, or do you want the wins?”
Mike Babcock poses this rhetorical question during a discussion about Evgeni Malkin, he of three Stanley Cup rings, one Hart Trophy, and permanent status as the second-best player on his own team.
But the coach could also be subtly talking about the members of his own team, a group he is fashioning into his own single-minded pursuit of victory, at the expense of personal accolades or statistical highs or monster paydays.
This week, Sidney Crosby was crowned the most difficult player to play against, the best role model, the best team player, the player best suited to become a coach, the toughest forward to face, the No. 1 player you’d want on your side to win one game, and the second-best choice (behind Connor McDavid, nine years his junior) to start a franchise in the NHLPA players poll.
Malkin did not appear in the top five on any of those lists, just as the no-brainer Hall of Famer was exempt from the NHL’s gala anointing of the 100 greatest players last winter.
And so, with the Pittsburgh Penguins’ “No. 2” centre putting up 38 goals and 84 points, hunting down countrymen Nikita Kucherov in the Art Ross race and Alex Ovechkin in the Rocket Richard sprint, the ol’ “Malkin Doesn’t Get Enough Credit” talking point popped up again this week. Hey! He has 11 more points than Crosby! Where’s the love?
That tired narrative doesn’t fly in the Toronto Maple Leafs dressing room, as they prepare to deal with the three-headed beast that is the defending champions’ offence — now with 100 per cent more Derick Brassard! — Saturday, minus their own top centre, Auston Matthews, who is still saving his separated shoulder from contact.
Toronto has all the respect in the world for Malkin, a force that torched the Blue and White for three points during February’s trip to PPG Paints Arena. Jake Gardiner, bowled over like a rickety farmhouse, used the word tornado to describe No. 71’s performance that night.
“I’m not concerned about who gets public credit and who doesn’t. You can knock yourself out on that one,” says Leafs defenceman Ron Hainsey, whose decade of trying to stifle Malkin was interrupted by a fun couple months last spring when they sipped from the same Cup.
“He wants the puck, and when he gets it, he’s pretty good at not giving it up. If anything, [playing with him] just reinforced what I already knew. I’ve played against him a lot in 10 years. If you’re in a top-four role defensively, you’re either against Sid or him.” Hainsey says.
“They want the puck, and when they get it, they do great things as far as drawing people to them and moving it or beating you.”
Malkin has a legitimate shot at capturing his second NHL MVP award this spring, his third scoring title, his fourth nomination to the first all-star squad, and — above all — co-lead the Penguins to the fourth championship in the Geno & Sid era.
“We’ve been talking about him since I started here, so that’s some credit right here. The other thing I’d say to you is, I think he won the Conn Smythe, if I’m not mistaken, in ’09,” says Babcock, coach of the runner-up Red Wings that June. He’s not mistaken.
“Does he get as much [credit] as if he’d been by himself? No. But he wouldn’t win as much if he was by himself.”
Malkin, 31, pondered that very trade-off in a must-watch Hockey Night in Canada feature that aired in November, revealing his temptation to leave Crosby and the Penguins and become The Man elsewhere.
“I think about that, y’know. I think about that a lot, maybe a loose moment. Maybe if, like, five years ago my contract was over, I change teams and I’m superstar. Like, be No. 1. But it’s hard choice,” Malkin says in the mini doc.
“I think it’s better if I stay and play with Sid. I think I’m right. We win three Stanley Cups, and we’re not done.”
Young Toronto stars William Nylander and Mitchell Marner aren’t on Malkin’s level, of course, but you wonder if they too will hit a crossroads at some point in their 20s: More ice time and accolades elsewhere? Or a better chance to win in Matthews’ shadow?
As if Malkin and Crosby weren’t enough to convince a hockey fan that the road to the 2018 final goes through Pennsylvania, Penguins GM Jim Rutherford went out and mortgaged a slice of the future to acquire Brassard, now centring top-seven scorer Phil Kessel on the third line. Brassard-Kessel could be the fulcrum of many a weaker outfit’s top line.
“Derick’s a good player,” says Morgan Rielly, who shared 2016 world championship gold with Brassard as members of Team Canada. “I hold him in high regard. So… not ideal for us.”
Babcock believes the trend of throwing a superstar or two over the boards on all three top lines can only be mimicked by the fortunate. He’s quick to remind of Pittsburgh’s draft lottery wins, the difficulty of acquiring centremen, and the value in surrounding them with complementary wings.
The mismatches those waves of offence create can be nearly impossible to swallow.
“There’s a trend now with these deep-forward teams, and they’re hard to handle,” Hainsey says. He rhymes off Tampa, Boston, Vegas, Nashville and Winnipeg.
“Winnipeg picked up [Paul] Stastny now. Their third line is Stastny, [Patrik] Laine and [Nikolaj] Ehlers—if you numbered them. Laine is second [overall] in goals.”
Babcock isn’t stingy in praise for Saturday’s foe. He calls Malkin and Crosby elite, elite, once for every consecutive championship.
“They’ve done a real nice job of creating depth,” Babcock says.
“They’ve got a team that’s built for this year.”