Who Is the NHL's Best Player?

Steve Silverman@@profootballboyFeatured ColumnistJanuary 25, 2013

PITTSBURGH, PA - JANUARY 23:  Evgeni Malkin #71 of the Pittsburgh Penguins skates against the Toronto Maple Leafs during the game at Consol Energy Center on January 23, 2013 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

It's not who was the NHL's best player. It's not who might be the best player or who could eventually earn that title.

We are talking about the best player right now.

Since that's the issue, we have to go with Evgeni Malkin of the Pittsburgh Penguins.

By the end of the season, his teammate Sidney Crosby could regain the title, but as of right now, it's Malkin.

Steven Stamkos is not far behind, but he is not the lead dog, even though he scored 60 goals last year.

Peter Laviolette may think Claude Giroux is the best (per Yahoo.com), but we're talking about the NHL as a whole and not just the Philadelphia Flyers. It's time for Laviolette to hold his tongue .

Malkin is almost certainly the most skilled player. When it comes to skating speed, athleticism, shooting the puck, passing it and making the big play at the big moment, Malkin answered the bell as never before in the 2011-12 season. He was both the NHL's scoring leader (Ross Trophy) and the MVP (Hart Trophy).

He came through when the Penguins needed him to because Sidney Crosby was still addled by concussion issues throughout the majority of the year. Crosby didn't truly gain full health until late in the season, so the Penguins needed a leader as well as a great player to step forward.

Malkin fit the bill.

There was nothing shocking about Malkin's performance. He had been the second-best player on the Penguins prior to Crosby's concussion, and he won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the Most Valuable Player in the playoffs when the Penguins won the 2009 Stanley Cup in seven games over the Detroit Red Wings.

Malkin's signature goal in that postseason came in the Eastern Conference Finals against the Carolina Hurricanes. In the second game of that series, Malkin came wheeling around the back of the Carolina net. He was on Cam Ward's left side and it appeared he would either continue to circle to the front of the net or pass to a teammate.

Instead, Malkin stopped and threw a backhand shot into the top corner (5:30 mark) of the net over Ward's shoulder. That amazing goal gave Malkin a hat trick in Pittsburgh's 7-4 victory.

Malkin has scored 100 points or more in three of his last five seasons.

But when Malkin tore ligaments in his right knee in a 2011 game against the Buffalo Sabres, his season came to an end.

Malkin rehabbed the knee and prepared for the 2011-12 season as he had never done before. He was motivated to get in the best shape of his life, and he admitted that he had never thrown himself into conditioning as much as he should have previously.

"I've changed my workouts because maybe I was lazy before," Malkin told TribLive.com's Rob Rossi. "Maybe I just played hockey, and that (was) good enough, but (there) is more for me to do."

That's called maturity. Malkin recognized his weakness and did something about it and the results were astounding.

He scored 50 goals and 59 assists for the Penguins and was simply a player who contributed big play after big play for his team.

Opponents certainly knew he was the focus of the Penguins' attack—especially with Crosby out of the lineup—but there was nothing that could be done to slow him down.

There's no reason to think that Malkin is about to slow down this season or in the future. Malkin played in the KHL during the lockout and has scored five points in the Penguins' first three games.

Crosby's presence should keep pushing Malkin to the top. The Penguins were always Crosby's team when he was healthy; Malkin is not simply going to give the reins back to Sid the Kid.

If Crosby wants to become the team's leader and best player once again, he is going to have to pass Malkin. There will be no abdication.

Crosby may very well turn out to be good enough to recapture the crown, but he's going to have to prove it during the 48-game season.

The crown rests on Malkin's head, and he's not about to give it up without a fight.

He is the NHL's best player right now.