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Penguins' Malkin excited to have Kessel on board

by Wes Crosby

PITTSBURGH – Pittsburgh Penguins forward Evgeni Malkin struggled through the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs because of a sprained ankle, a time he didn't deposit in his memory bank.

"I don't remember," Malkin said Saturday. "That was last year. I'm looking to a new season."

Malkin is focused on the upcoming season, when he and Penguins captain Sidney Crosby, headline an offense expected to reemerge as one of the NHL's most potent after a disappointing output through last season's final month. Pittsburgh attempted to rectify its offensive issues by adding five-time 30-goal scorer Phil Kessel to its top-six forwards. They also added forwards Eric Fehr and Nick Bonino for depth.

"[Kessel is] a power for us. I think everyone is excited here," Malkin said. "He's a good player. I'm excited to play with him. It doesn't matter which line he plays on. We're still one team. It's great for the team and I hope he's a help to us."

Kessel has participated in Crosby's group during the first two days of Penguins training camp, and joined Crosby, Chris Kunitz, Patric Hornqvist and Kris Letang on a power-play unit Saturday. He will make his preseason debut on Crosby's right against the Carolina Hurricanes at Consol Energy Center on Tuesday.

Malkin is expected to spend time centering Kessel as camp progresses, but is fine with waiting his turn.

"It's the coach's [decision]. I think he knows what he does," Malkin said of Penguins coach Mike Johnston. "I think he's trying different lines. [Crosby] starts with him, but if I play with him, I'll like it. It doesn't matter. Maybe we'll play together on the power play. Maybe I change, or [Crosby] will change a little bit quicker and I'll play with him. But it doesn't matter for me.

"We have [Hornqvist], [Pascal Dupuis] and Kunitz. They're great forwards and it doesn't matter who I play with."

Pittsburgh's forward depth also increased with the signing of Sergei Plotnikov, who has played on Malkin's group so far during camp.

Plotnikov's signing, as well as defenseman Sergei Gonchar's signing of a professional tryout contract, pleased Malkin. He welcomes adding more fellow Russians to the Penguins locker room.

"It's easy for me," Malkin said. "Sometimes when you talk to Russians, we have a couple stories about Russia. I always like to have a couple of Russians on my team."

Gonchar isn't just Malkin's fellow countrymen, however. He is Malkin's "best friend."

Malkin spent his first few seasons as Gonchar's tenant before the latter left Pittsburgh for the Ottawa Senators during the 2010 offseason. Gonchar played a significant role in helping Malkin adjust to an unfamiliar culture and its language, which frightened the young forward early in his career.

In his rookie season, Malkin scored 33 goals and 85 points to win the Calder Trophy. Without Gonchar, Malkin thinks that wouldn't have been possible.

"I've always said if Gonchar hadn't helped me, if he didn't play in Pittsburgh, maybe I don't win rookie of the year," Malkin said. "Maybe I don't win a couple of trophies, because he helped me a lot. Off ice, I lived with him. He would translate sometimes to me to make it easy.

"If he didn't play here, maybe I'm a little bit scared because it would just be myself … 50-50, myself and Gonchar, I mean, if he didn't help, I don't score like I scored."

Malkin is returning the favor. Gonchar has, at least temporarily, moved in with Malkin while the 41-year-old defenseman attempts to earn a second stint with the Penguins. Gonchar complimented Malkin's growth, saying he is more mature, on and off the ice, than the player he once housed.

The compliment was returned.

"He's my best friend here. He lives with me, so it's good," Malkin said. "I hope he stays. It's a good life. Eight years ago, I lived with him, now he's come back to Pittsburgh and lives with me, but it's so exciting. He stays with my family. We're friends and I hope we play together here."

Entering his 10th NHL season, Malkin is using what he learned from Gonchar to become a positive influence for Plotnikov. The 25-year-old Plotnikov has impressed with his 6-foot-2, 202-pound frame despite a language barrier that causes difficulty understanding Pittsburgh's coaches, which Malkin thinks has had Plotnikov afraid, as he once was.

"I think it's very, very important [I help] because he doesn't really speak English," Malkin said. "It's a big problem. He understands, but sometimes he doesn't understand what coach says. I try to help. The first couple of weeks, he's been scared, maybe. But now he know the players … Everyone is friendly.

"Now, I think everything is pretty easy."

Malkin spoke with Plotnikov about his decision to join the NHL before he chose to sign with Pittsburgh July 1, enticing the forward to join his fellow Russian. Plotnikov, who has a chance to join Malkin in the Penguins' top-six this season, can "do everything," Malkin said.

"We talked a little bit. We talked a little bit after I talked to Sergei [Gonchar]," Malkin said. "He said he was excited to come to the NHL, but had to think about what team. I said just 'If you come to Pittsburgh, I will always help you.'

"And after a couple of days, he signed."

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