"I think he's one of the most exciting players I've seen in a long time. I love his skill level. I love the amount of ice he covers. I love the way he forechecks. I just think he's a tremendous hockey player."
-- Mark Messier on Evgeni Malkin
The comment came a year ago. Same time, same place, Stanley Cup on the line. Pittsburgh Penguins
GM Ray Shero
was admiring the development of Evgeni Malkin
as a player and person, and he wondered what his big, strong, talented young center might look like in two or three years.
"A lack of English sometimes holds him back," Shero noted. "But Geno has a great personality -- and it comes out more and more all the time."
A second later, Shero came up with the ultimate sound bite, "When you look at his play, you don't need audio. You just need video."
Fast-forward from the day Malkin was selected No. 2 overall to Alex Ovechkin
in the 2004 Entry Draft. He was awkward that day, kind of dizzy -- looking at adapting to life in a different world, different culture, with a new language. Even though there's a universal language in hockey, life around the sport can indeed be foreign.
Malkin will turn 23 on July 31. His spoken English is still a little iffy, but his body English is impeccably North American now after three seasons with the Pens and totals of 85, 106 and a League-leading 113 points this season.
"If you really wanted to do a book on him, you could do hundreds of pages long with all the things he does well," former Phoenix Coyotes
GM Michael Barnett said after the 2004 Draft. "If you were looking for negatives, it wouldn't even fill up a page."
But the vagaries of youth and trying to get accustomed to a new world can be difficult, even for the best athletes. However, after struggling as many of his teammates did in the Stanley Cup Final against the Detroit Red Wings
a year ago, when he had just 1 goal and 2 assists in the six games, Malkin has had a monster playoff performance this year.
After the Pens stumbled to an 0-2 hole in the Final, it was Malkin's three assists in Game 3 that gave the powerful Pittsburgh center a League-leading 33 points in the playoffs -- making him the first NHL player to surpass 30 points in the playoffs since Colorado's Joe Sakic
accomplished the feat in 1996. That total included 11 multiple-point games.
His deft interception of Brad Stuart
's pass and subsequent sweep pass set up Maxime Talbot
's goal 1:13 into the second period gave the Penguins a lead they never relinquished Friday night en route to a 2-1 Game 7 victory and Stanley Cup triumph. It was Malkin's 36th point of the playoffs -- the most of any player since Wayne Gretzky
in 1993. That was enough to earn him the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP.
He also joined Wayne Gretzky
, Guy Lafleur
, Phil Esposito
and Mario Lemieux
as the only players to lead the NHL in scoring in the regular season and the playoffs.
Ready to concede that Malkin is something very, very special?
"All young players struggle with consistency -- and, if anything, that's all he seemed to be missing in last year's Final series," Red Wings center Henrik Zetterberg
observed before Game 7. "This year, he seems to be more comfortable, more confident, more powerful. He's definitely physically stronger and harder to handle."
, who feeds off Malkin's strength as much as Malkin feeds off Crosby's leadership, singled out a more electric game from Malkin this season.
"If anything, it's energy," Crosby said. "He looks like he's full of it out there."
"He's a more experienced guy who has been through it once before and you can see he is more comfortable," Detroit coach Mike Babcock said. "He's a big guy that can hang onto the puck. He comes from the neutral zone with speed. And because of his reach and his size he can be hard to handle. But I don't think anybody's really surprised. He's one of the best players in the world."
There's skill, grace, size and speed -- and he's still a kid.
"I started to get used to the faster pace," he said the other day. "Playing in a strong league definitely sped up my development."
Penguins center Jordan Staal
has an interesting thought: He believes Crosby and Ovechkin have steered Malkin to the front row of talent.
"Geno's taken it to another level," Staal said. "I think he's figured out for himself that those two will keep improving, and if he wants to
be the best he's got to pick up his game.
"But, honestly, Geno's become pretty unreal the way he plays."
Though Malkin may still be shy in front of big crowds, he gives teammate (and fellow Russian) Sergei Gonchar
plenty of credit for helping him bridge the gap from Magnitogorsk to Pittsburgh.
Gonchar took in Malkin as a house guest for his first two seasons in the NHL, allowing him to ease into the new culture. Gonchar talks about how Natalie, his 7-year-old daughter, used to help Malkin with English -- a few new words she had learned at school each day, and they would practice them together. That, plus watching American TV and listening to locker-room banter, has been his classroom.
"The great players usually find a way to make a difference," Shero said, with a big smile the other day.
Clearly, Evgeni Malkin
is a natural on the ice. As he learns more about himself, his upside will be unlimited.
Reporters recently caught him at Mellon Arena, looking at photos of former Penguins stars Mario Lemieux
and Jaromir Jagr
smiling as they gripped the Stanley Cup. The picture was on June 1, 1992, in a champagne-soaked visitors dressing room at Chicago Stadium.
It was one of those one-picture-is-worth-a-thousand-words moments.
"It's my dream," Malkin said. "Me and Sid, just like that."
The snap shot of Malkin and Crosby is real now -- and there's clearly more to come.