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Campbell's Cuts: Malkin joins Crosby, Ovechkin in superstar club

Evgeni Malkin racked up 47 goals and 106 points in 82 games this season. (Photo by Len Redkoles/NHLI via Getty Images)

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Evgeni Malkin racked up 47 goals and 106 points in 82 games this season. (Photo by Len Redkoles/NHLI via Getty Images)

When the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins were drafting No. 1 and 2 overall in 2004, the Penguins had to settle for Evgeni Malkin after the Capitals took the prize of the draft in Alex Ovechkin.

You can see how the Penguins are all busted up over that unfortunate turn of events, eh?

While much of the focus has been on the race between Sidney Crosby and Ovechkin for the mantle of best player on the planet, Malkin has given every reason to give the hockey world pause for thought on that one.

But more on that later.

First, let’s focus on Ovechkin and Malkin, who may one day end up being remembered as the greatest 1-2 draft picks in NHL history.

Certainly the two of them are doing their best early in their careers to mount a serious challenge to the likes of Guy Lafleur and Marcel Dionne (1971) and Mario Lemieux and Kirk Muller (1984) and stand a good chance of usurping the accomplishments of Pierre Turgeon and Brendan Shanahan (1987), Ilya Kovalchuk and Jason Spezza (2001) and, perhaps the greatest 1-2 tandem of all-time, Greg Joly and Wilf Paiement (1974).

So far in their short careers, Malkin and Ovechkin have already combined for 243 goals and 501 career points in just 405 games, which gives them 1.24 points per game. Hall of Famers Lafleur and Dionne were just slightly better at 1.27 points per game and Lemieux and Muller managed 1.3 points per game.

Given that Ovechkin and Malkin will almost certainly get better in the next few years leading up to their primes, and their careers will inevitably tail off later, it’s not outlandish to expect them to be just as good, or better than the others.

Much of that will also be determined by how many Stanley Cups they win. Lafleur and Dionne combined for five, all by Lafleur, and Lemieux and Muller had three between them.

Which brings us to another interesting facet of the Ovechkin-Crosby-Malkin dynamic.

This season, there were only two teams in the NHL that used up less cap room than the Pittsburgh Penguins did on their top two paid players. The Penguins spent a total of $9 million on defensemen Sergei Gonchar and Ryan Whitney, which put them ahead of only the Carolina Hurricanes (Eric Staal and Erik Cole, $8.5 million) and Nashville Predators (Jason Arnott and Marek Zidlicky ($7.9 million).

That’s all about to change after next season, when there’s a pretty good chance there won’t be a single team in the league that will be paying its top two stars more than the Penguins will.

It all could create an interesting dilemma for the Penguins…or not. Certainly there are some built-in risks associated with devoting so much cap room to a small group of players (see Lightning, Tampa Bay), so what are the Penguins to do when Malkin’s entry-level contract runs out after the 2008-09 season?

By that time, Crosby will be in the second year of his five-year contract extension that will take up $8.7 million in cap room. Next year’s salary cap is anticipated to be $53.3 million, so that means even if it doesn’t go up in 2009-10, Malkin would be in line to make a maximum of $10.7 million that season.

It would probably be difficult for Malkin to command more than Crosby, so assuming he takes the same amount against the cap, the Penguins will be spending $17.4 million on their two top players. That’s significantly more than the Lightning, who started this season with the highest top-two cap number at $14.7 million, spent on Vincent Lecavalier and Brad Richards.

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And we all know how well that turned out. The Lightning was forced to trade Richards at the deadline and they’ll be the proud owners of Steven Stamkos soon because they finished dead last and won the draft lottery.

That’s not to say the Penguins won’t be able to keep both players long-term and they’re certainly not the only team that will be facing cap issues in the future.

Starting next season, the Calgary Flames will be devoting $23.3 million in cap space to four players, the Ottawa Senators will spend $22.5 million on four skaters and the Philadelphia Flyers a whopping $30 million on long-term, guaranteed-money contracts to just five.

But should the Penguins ever have to choose between Crosby and Malkin, wouldn’t that make for an interesting bit of discussion?

On the one hand, Malkin has proven in this year’s playoffs he is absolutely ready and able to count himself among the best players in the NHL. Crosby, coming off an injury-plagued season, has not had near the impact Malkin has had in the first two games of the first round. And one thing is clear – Malkin is and always will be a superior goalscorer compared to Crosby.

Crosby, on the other hand, is the face of the Penguins franchise and is the foundation upon which a new arena is being built. He’s charismatic and humble and even if he doesn’t turn out to be as good as Malkin, will undoubtedly generate much more for the Penguins in terms of revenues.

From a logistical standpoint, the Penguins have time on their side. The no-trade component of Crosby’s deal doesn’t kick in until after the 2011-12 season, when he will have played seven seasons in the league.

But when you look at the two of them right now, can you honestly say Crosby will ultimately be a clearly superior player to Malkin?

And what about the injury factor? The relentless way Crosby plays the game makes him a prime candidate for a shorter career with more chance of injuries. In fact, his high ankle sprain this season came after he was pulled down while driving to the net, something that happens with alarming regularity when it comes to Crosby.

Now, please, understand I’m not suggesting the Penguins should ditch Crosby to keep Malkin. All I’m saying is if the Penguins were ever forced to consider that possibility, the decision certainly wouldn’t be a slam-dunk in Crosby’s favor.

Ken Campbell is a senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Tuesdays and Fridays and his column, Campbell's Cuts, appears Mondays.

For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.

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