Are You For Real?: Malkin, Sundin, Backstrom
It's been a wild week in the NHL, and we're only halfway through. We now know more about Sidney Crosby's high ankle sprain and the effect it will have on the Penguins and expected ratings for the NHL All-Star game. Coach John Ferguson's turbulent tenure with the Maple Leafs is over after he was unceremoniously canned in favor of a blast from the past (Cliff Fletcher). Former backup Ilya Bryzgalov signed an extension with a group of one-time cellar-dwellers who have become legitimate playoff contenders. And there's talk of a possible ownership change in Edmonton; billionaire Daryl Katz's bid to purchase the Oilers is up for review.
However, here at ESPN, we remain a constant with our sage wisdom on all things hockey (ahem). So let's get down to it and ask some superstars, are you for real?
Silly question, isn't it? Of course this former second overall draft pick is for real. But can the Russian star continue to produce with "Sid the Kid" out of the lineup? He's never been the focal point of the offense before now. Can Malkin handle the pressure of playing against the opposition's best checking line and continue to produce? He's a great player, already, at the age of 21, but can he lead the Penguins towards a playoff birth while Crosby only watches for the next 6-to-8 weeks?
John: Clearly Malkin must lead Pittsburgh should they have any hope of holding onto a playoff spot, but that wasn't the question. Can he do it? Sure, why not? Evgeni has four points in the first two games since Crosby went down. Last season he registered four points in the three games Sidney missed due to injury in November. So based on history, he seems poised to do fairly well. It also doesn't hurt that Malkin's having a great January, with 14 points in 10 games. He's shown some good chemistry with Ryan Malone over the past couple of games and should be just fine.
Victoria: I'm not as convinced. Until now, he hasn't had the chance to prove himself as a leader for any extended period of time. Anyone can rise to the occasion for a couple of games here and there. Crosby, however, isn't out for a week or two; he's out for almost two solid months. Malkin will do his best to take over the scoring reigns, solo, and there's little doubt he'll manage for a while. But the responsibility will take its toll eventually. He'll grow frustrated without having another exceptional talent at his side, and opposing teams will figure out how to target him effectively. Malkin's production certainly won't go into a nosedive, but the points won't come as easily as they have thus far. It's illogical to think that a player could be as good skating without Crosby, than with him. That simply doesn't make any sense. And Malone is no substitute.
As mentioned earlier, the Maple Leafs are no longer run by John Ferguson, and that firing could play significantly into the team captain's future. Ferguson always seemed hesitant to trade away the face of the franchise, but the man brought in for the interim might not feel the same way. With an eye to history, Cliff Fletcher rarely saw a trade offer he didn't like. In the mid-90s, Fletcher faced a similar problem as then-GM in Toronto. He dealt away captain Wendel Clark to acquire a young Mats from the Quebec Nordiques. He'll likely be ready to pull the trigger again, if the opportunity presents itself. But how will Sundin react?
John: In all honesty, I'm a Leafs fan through and through and love Mats Sundin, but the franchise needs to rebuild and everyone is aware of that. But you don't serve as the captain of the most scrutinized team in the league for a decade and not grow a thick skin. Sundin will, no doubt, be able to weather the storm, ignore the trade rumors in Toronto and continue to produce. He's on pace for his best season in the past 10 years and there's no reason to think that can't continue. In fact, his point production should only get better if, and when, he's traded to a contender.
Victoria: Should get better? Anyone who owns Sundin in fantasy can only pray he gets dealt sooner, rather than later. Considering he's managed 52 points in 49 games, stuck with those other blue and white yahoos, just imagine what he could accomplish amongst those with their heads screwed on straight (sorry, but I'm a frustrated Leafs' fan as well). Sundin has a no-trade clause and he'll only go to a legitimate contender. Therefore he'll have the opportunity to skate alongside some extremely talented individuals. Just watch his production explode. Keep in mind, without being brash or mouthy about it, Sundin has been one of the best players this game has ever seen. And he's got at least a couple of solid years left before slowing down, regardless of which organization he belongs to.
Some of us here at ESPN (who will remain nameless) pegged Backstrom before the season started as the leading candidate for this year's Calder Trophy. Others (who will also remain nameless) chose another player, but have since jumped on Backstrom's bandwagon. The youngster has eight assists in his past two games and is really clicking on a line with Alexander Ovechkin and Viktor Kozlov. He's closing the "rookie of the year" gap on Patrick Kane, but can he overtake him?
Victoria: Why should I remain nameless? Backstrom was a perfectly legitimate choice for the Calder at the year's onset; it just took him a while to warm up. And in all honesty, the injury to Michael Nylander also helps. But nonetheless, a little credit please! With 31 of his 40 points coming in the past 27 games, the young lad seems to have finally found his comfort zone on Washington's top line. As a trio, they're scoring a heap and Backstrom will remain a strong fantasy player for the duration of the season. And although he likely won't win "rookie of the year", he will give Patrick Kane a run for his money.
John: Fine, fine, you deserve your due. Backstrom, second among NHL rookies in scoring, is an elite playmaker indeed. He certainly is the perfect linemate for a sniper like Ovechkin. It's safe to say this kid is talented, and I agree, there's no reason to think he won't continue to produce at this pace. There was some concern that Backstrom would lose playing time once Nylander returned from injury, but that's not a worry anymore. Doctors found a tear in Nylander's rotator cuff and that will keep him out of action for at least three months. Backstrom is safe on the top line for now and his production will continue.
Victoria Matiash and John Pereira are fantasy hockey analysts for ESPN.com.
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