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Injury leaves Malkin at a career crossroads

By Dan Di Sciullo
NHL Editor


Dan Di Sciullo Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - The story of Evgeni Malkin's NHL career up to this point can be separated into two parts.

The first part ended on June 12, 2009, when Malkin's Pittsburgh Penguins celebrated the franchise's third Stanley Cup title and he was awarded with the Conn Smythe Trophy.

What has transpired since then, however, has been a humbling experience for the now 24-year-old Russian superstar. The recent news that a torn ACL and MCL in his right knee will likely end his 2010-11 season is yet another post-Conn-Smythe disappointment for the man affectionately referred to as Geno.

Much of the talk surrounding Malkin's injury has been about what the loss will do to Pittsburgh's Stanley Cup chances this season, but it could be even more interesting to look at what the ligament tears will mean for Malkin's career.

Although the Penguins have yet to confirm it, it seems almost a certainty that Malkin will need surgery to repair his injury. Recovery from that type of procedure is usually about 4-to-6 months and by the end of rehab Malkin should be back to the way he was before he suffered the injury this past Friday against Buffalo.

Evgeni Malkin's production has dipped since Pittsburgh's championship season.
But, that is merely the physical side of Malkin's nature. The bigger story for Malkin could be how he bounces back from a psychological standpoint. After all, injuries have become a substantial part of the Malkin story, especially since the Pens reached the pinnacle of their sport in 2009.

Prior to winning the Cup, Malkin missed a total of four games in his NHL career, but the centerman sat out 15 games during the 2009-10 regular season alone. He sat out 10 games already this season before tearing his ACL and MCL in his collision with Sabres defenseman Tyler Myers.

Malkin's offensive production has dipped since Pittsburgh's championship season and injuries have almost certainly played a role in that fact.

From the time Malkin entered the league as a rookie in 2006 through Pittsburgh's Game 7 victory over Detroit in the spring of '09, the 6-foot-3 sniper played in 291 NHL games (regular season and playoffs) and amassed 366 points (139 goals, 227 assists) over those contests. He also won an Art Ross Trophy during that stretch and was twice runner-up to Washington's Alex Ovechkin for the Hart Trophy.

However, in 123 games since, including 13 in last year's playoffs, Malkin has posted just 125 points (48g, 77a).

It's not that Malkin's post-Cup production is bad, but he has dropped off enough that it's fair at this point to ask if he is still a dominant player or simply a very good one. The first set of numbers show a player clearly on his way to the Hall of Fame, but the second group reveals an All-Star and not much more.

Although a team as talented as the Penguins can never be counted out of the Stanley Cup conversation in February, Malkin's current injury combined with the concussion to team captain and fellow superstar centerman Sidney Crosby have certainly dampened the club's Cup expectations. After all, the thing that has truly made the Pens championship contenders in recent years has been the prospect of both players dominating the way they did nearly two years ago.

Before the injuries to Malkin and Crosby came this year, it was clear that only one part of the dynamic duo was pulling their weight in that equation. Crosby was continuing to grow and improve as a player, but Malkin was still struggling to regain his magic touch.

Perhaps, the months of rehab and time away from hockey Malkin has ahead of him will help him get back to the basics of what made him such a special player. Pittsburgh was at its most dangerous when the opposition looked at Malkin as 1-B to Crosby's 1-A, but in recent years the Russian has taken on more of a second-fiddle status and that has made facing the Penguins a less daunting task.

Even though Pittsburgh is currently seeded fourth in the Eastern Conference playoff picture, the uncertainty surrounding the rest of Crosby's season has made the loss of Malkin hurt even more.

Clearly, Geno's absence will not help the Pens win a Cup this year, but if the time off can get him back to his 2008-09 form, Pittsburgh could come back even stronger in 2011-12.

MORE BAD NEWS FOR SAVARD

While the Penguins are trying to figure out a way to get their concussed superstar back on the ice for a playoff push, the Boston Bruins have come to terms with the fact that they'll be without their best offensive weapon for the rest of the season.

Bruins forward Marc Savard was placed on long-term injured reserve Monday with a concussion, ruling him out for the rest of the regular season and the playoffs.

Savard has suffered two concussions in the last 10 months. He was taken off the ice on a stretcher last March after getting drilled by Pittsburgh's Matt Cooke and suffered another brain injury when he was driven into the end boards by Colorado's Matt Hunwick on Jan. 22.

"We feel that it's best for his short-term, medium-term, and long-term welfare, security and his family," said Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli of the move.

Savard missed the rest of the 2009-10 regular season and the first round of last year's playoffs following Cooke's hit, but he was able to return for Boston's next series against Philadelphia, which the Bruins lost in seven games.

However, over the summer months it was revealed that Savard was still suffering from post-concussion syndrome. The condition caused him to miss the first 23 games of this season and Savard never really got untracked offensively in 2010-11, causing many folks to wonder if he had ever really recovered from the Cooke hit. Savard, who was Boston's leading scorer for three straight seasons prior to the 2009-10 campaign, had just two goals and eight assists in 25 games this season.

Hopefully, Savard can make a full recovery and at some point return to form as one of the league's top playmaking centers, but right now his general health is the most important thing.

For now, Savard's story should serve as a reminder about just how little is known about concussions. No matter how many doctors say it's safe to return to game action, the fact remains that there is still no concrete way to tell when a player is ready to come back from a head injury.

Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Dan Di Sciullo at ddisciullo@sportsnetwork.com.

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