A Substitute for War

Basketball philosophy

The fall of Evgeni Malkin and drive in sports

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I know a lot of people don’t follow the NHL. But what we can learn from the story of Evgeni Malkin‘s career applies to most sports.

A brief recap of his career is as follows. After the lockout in 2004, 3 superstar talents emerged: Alexander Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, the last two of course terrifyingly on the same team. The first two racked up more fame and traded MVP awards early, but the latter caught up to an equal level of dominance. In 07-08 Malkin finished 2nd in both the points race (with 115) and MVP voting behind Ovechkin. In 08-09 he finished 1st in points (with 117) and 2nd in MVP voting to Ovechkin again, then dominated the playoffs and won the playoffs MVP (Conn Smythe trophy) as the driving force behind the Penguins’ Stanley Cup win. This made him the unofficial “player of the year” and arguably the league’s alpha dog. After this dominant display you could call him no less than a generational, all-time talent. Nobody in the league had a more complete package of size, speed, skill, and hockey IQ. That summer he signed a contract as rich as any the NHL has had (only 9 million a year, but hey, it’s the NHL).

And then it fell apart. Last year he scored 77 points in 67 games (adjusted for 82 games: 94) which would still be good for top 6 or 7 in the league, but a clear dropoff from before, to go along with shockingly bad +/- stats. This year it’s gotten much worse – with 30 points in 29 games, he’s on pace for about 84 over an 82 game schedule which would make him barely top 20. He’s also posting a negative +/- score on a team sporting the best point differential in the league. This is nowhere near his previous pace. What looked like the an all-time great player is now a merely pretty good one who might have a bad contract. The first off year there were rumors of fatigue and soreness, but it appears this has gone on too long for it to be body related alone. It appears this is a matter of effort on and off the ice.

But even in his dominant seasons you could see signs. He never seemed the natural fit leader of Crosby and Ovechkin, never had the aura of full effort, never seemed as possessed by the game. At the time it seemed like Malkin simply had more in common with the rest of the league and it was the other two who were the outliers.  But perhaps this is why the fame and respect always seemed to follow them and not Malkin. He played like a superstar, but didn’t carry himself like a franchise leader. Put it this way: If you went back two years ago and asked which of the three was likely to fall off and seemingly lose his heart for the game, everyone would’ve chosen Malkin.

Perhaps this is a blip in his career and he’ll go back to the superstar he was only a year and a half ago. But with this going on for a season and a half, there’s a realistic chance he won’t. And if so, it’s one of the biggest non injury related shames in a while. The equivalent would be Dwyane Wade losing his body and falling off a cliff 4 or 5 years into his career for the NBA.

Ultimately this ties into the importance of drive in sports. The truly great players are the one who want it more than everyone else. The ones who give it all. Crosby and Ovechkin are possessed with being the best players of their generation both on and off the ice. In other sports we’ve seen players like Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant live for nothing else. Malkin is not built this way, and it may be the difference between an all-time great career and a borderline HOF one stained by “what ifs?” The truly great players in sports are the ones who push themselves to grab it. And this is part of what makes the comparison of sports careers so fascinating.

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  1. Interesting post Julien. I’ve got a ton of respect for hockey, but I’ll admit out of touch on it the current league situations.

    The issue of falling drive after a big contract is something that gets brought up pretty reliably from time to time. My general feeling is that players rarely lose motivation massively simply because they have a guaranteed contract. If things are going well, with the player’s play, with the team’s performance, and with management’s attitude, it’s very rare to see someone really fall off the map.

    On the other hand, if a player hits any bump in the road, having that guaranteed contract clearly takes away one major reason for working hard in the first place.

    Your thoughts on this in general, and as they relate to Malkin?

    Matt Johnson

    December 25, 2010 at 10:05 pm


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