As he prepares to enter his fourth NHL season, Penguins center Evgeni Malkin
finally feels at home in Pittsburgh.
"I'm so comfortable now. I come back (for the season) and I think it's my second home," Malkin told NHL.com. "Pittsburgh is good -- good people, good team. I enjoy staying in Pittsburgh."
With a contract that runs through the end of the 2013-14 season, he'll be there a long time. By then, maybe his grasp of the English language can equal his impressive grasp on the NHL -- although looking at his numbers the last two seasons, it's hard for anything to approach his on-ice skills.
Malkin led the League in 2008-09 with 78 assists and 113 points, and was a Hart Trophy finalist for the second consecutive season. He then led all playoff scorers this past spring with 22 assists and 36 points -- his 14 goals were second only to teammate Sidney Crosby
. He helped the Penguins win their first Stanley Cup since 1992 and became the first Russian-born player to win the Conn Smythe Trophy.
Off the ice he also made improvements, headlined by moving into his own home. He had lived with teammate (and fellow Russian) Sergei Gonchar
since arriving in Pittsburgh, but last season Malkin moved into his own place. He wasn't completely alone, as his parents shared the house with him, but as with any other young person, buying his first home was a pretty momentous event -- he called it the best thing about Pittsburgh.
It's all part of the learning process for Malkin, on and off the ice.
"I think he's gotten a lot more comfortable," Crosby told NHL.com. "The more comfortable he's gotten off the ice, the more he's been able to feel comfortable on the ice, as well."
Malkin agreed, and his better grasp on the language is a big part of finding that comfort zone.
"I understand everyone," he said. "I speak. Speak on the ice, speak to my teammates. I enjoy it. It's easy for me now because I'm able to speak."
It's allowed Malkin to come out of his shell, as evidenced by his performance at the White House during the team's celebration with President Barack Obama. Malkin kept the audience cracking up by flashing a goofy grin and waving to the crowd from the risers behind the president. When Obama singled him out for winning the Conn Smythe Trophy, he waved, smiled and pulled out his cell phone to take a picture of Obama's back. The guests and media assembled in the East Room erupted in laughter, and the moment even stunned the president.
"I think that's par for the course with Geno," coach Dan Bylsma
said of Malkin. "I can't wait to see how that picture looks."
Malkin's teammates have noticed that he's considerably more comfortable now.
"I'm his roommate on the road so I see a good side of him," defenseman Brooks Orpik
said. "He speaks and understands the language a lot better than people think he does. It translates to the ice, too. He was a lot more comfortable this year, especially in the playoffs. It was a big adjustment for him (coming over from Russia). A lot of people overlooked that. What you see now is a lot more of what he's really like."
"I'm so comfortable now. I come back (for the season) and I think it's my second home. Pittsburgh is good -- good people, good team. I enjoy staying in Pittsburgh."
-- Evgeni Malkin
His better level of understanding also has allowed him to better understand the need to round out his game. Malkin entered the NHL as a scoring sensation, and as a rookie he dazzled with 33 goals and 85 points. But he was just a plus-2 and barely played on the penalty-kill unit -- averaging 27 seconds per game.
Last season, however, he rounded out his game. He was a career-best plus-17, he saw significant time killing penalties (1:04 per game), and he scored his first two short-handed goals. He credits the growth to the combination of maturity and his relationship with Bylsma.
"I was young, now I have more experience," Malkin said. "I play my best game. I come on the ice every game and I try to play hard, play 60 minutes.
"I play better now in defensive zone. Bylsma teach me how to play in the defensive zone. It's good for me. I've learned."
Contact Adam Kimelman at email@example.com