That Evgeni Malkin
is pumping some of his salary into real estate in the Pittsburgh area suggests just how much progress this Russian superstar has made since playing his first NHL game 26 months ago.
"Yeah, I bought a house," Malkin, who leads the NHL with 39 points in 24 games, told NHL.com. "Now, sure it's my home. I like Pittsburgh. There are good people and good fans."
Yes, that was Malkin confirming, in English mind you, that he is indeed doing his part to boost the economy in Western Pennsylvania. If you don't care that he bought a house, that's fine. What matters is Malkin used English to talk about it.
Known best in North America for being the NHL's silent sniper because he is uncomfortable with English, Malkin is turning heads both on and off the ice now because he has somehow found a way to be both a better player and a better interview this season.
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If you thought it would be impossible for Malkin to do both, well you wouldn't be alone.
"There were times we thought he would never learn English," Penguins center Jordan Staal
told NHL.com, "but he's putting in a little bit of effort now and he's starting to enjoy the benefits of it by having more fun with the guys and his hockey is getting better with that. That's a big thing for him, but it's taking time."
Malkin's sudden use of the English language should not be overblown. He still doesn't enjoy doing interviews in English because he's not completely confident he's saying the right things. He doesn't fully understand all the questions either.
"I don't know what to say," is a phrase Malkin used with us on multiple occasions.
Forget about our questions, though. Malkin is more willing to talk to his teammates and coaches in English now than ever before.
That fact can't be blown up enough.
Instead of having to go through defenseman Sergei Gonchar
, who was Malkin's translator and landlord for his first two seasons, the Penguins' players and coaches can go right to Malkin, which makes life easier on everybody, especially Gonchar, who is still on injured reserve with a bum shoulder.
"He can do that now (express what he is thinking). He's capable," Sidney Crosby
said. "We can talk and he can talk with everyone else. That's good. That's something he wasn't able to do his first year plus. That helps a lot."
Defenseman Rob Scuderi
told NHL.com that it was always a headache to have to go through Gonchar to talk to Malkin.
"You're having a three-way conversation," he said. "Now if you have something to say to (Malkin) or if he asks you something he wants you to do it's much easier that there is a give and take conversation.
"I've been with him for three years now so it's kind of been a gradual process," Scuderi also said. "Last year was a little bit better than his first year, but this year I would say has been exponentially better than last year. He's more comfortable speaking now that he knows what he is saying and he can make his point be heard."
According to Staal, Malkin speaks "in broken English with maybe a few swear words in Russian, but that's about it" when some of the players' get together to play cards.
At least the English is new.
"He's really starting to come out of his shell," Staal said. "He's playing cards with the guys, throwing chirps out and jabbing the other guys. You can tell he's having more fun. I haven't seen him out to dinner yet, but he is coming into his own.
"It seems that he knows when he's right and everybody is wrong."
That's confidence, and because of it Malkin said he "feels a little bit better" now, and "my teammates have helped me." He said it's easier now that he understands "the game and locker room and coach and understand my partners."
He believes he's become a team leader.
"I think so," said Malkin, who was awarded an "A" on his sweater for the month of October. Crosby is the captain, but the Penguins are rotating alternate captains by month.
"I don't think there is any doubt now that (Malkin) is one of the leaders on this team," Petr Sykora
"Now that he's been around here and he knows the language a little better he knows what he's saying," Scuderi said. "He's become more of a leader for us."
Added Crosby: "He's probably still shy now even to speak, but he's gaining some confidence and that does help as far as leadership wise. He's come a long way."
As a player, too, according to coach Michel Therrien
. He's not surprised that Malkin currently leads the NHL in scoring, but is thoroughly impressed that he's doing so while also responsibly "playing the game the right way," which means being strong on both ends of the red line.
"He can do that now (express what he is thinking). He's capable. We can talk and he can talk with everyone else. That's good. That's something he wasn't able to do his first year plus. That helps a lot." -- Sidney Crosby on Evgeni Malkin
Malkin has 10 goals and 29 assists along with a plus-12 rating.
"This is what I am pleased about," Therrien said. "Yes he's capable of putting up some numbers and he can make plays that special players are able to make, but he doesn't cheat out there and he takes a lot of pride out of playing the right way."
And saying all the right things.
"I feel strong and I feel great," Malkin said. "It's my third year and I'm really comfortable."
Contact Dan Rosen at email@example.com