SUNRISE, Fla. - When the Florida Panthers selected diminutive Swiss center Denis Malgin with the 102nd pick in the 2015 NHL Draft, the team believed they had quietly walked away with a steal, acquiring a pint-sized version of a very special player they had picked up in the first round only two years prior.
"He's a smaller version of (Aleksander) Barkov, in regards to being a 200-foot player," Panthers President of Hockey Operations Dale Tallon said of Malgin. "He was very good without the puck and he was dynamic when he had the puck… I think only the size, and the lack of real exposure playing in Switzerland, kept him from going higher in the draft."
Like Barkov, Malgin was already competing professionally overseas before joining the Panthers, recording 17 points (5-12-17) in 38 games last season while competing for the Zurich Lions in Switzerland's top ice hockey league.
That experience, Malgin says, was invaluable.
"I think it helped me a lot to play against men," he said. "I think it's helped me a lot. It's nice. I think the hockey (in the NHL) is a little different. They have a smaller rink and everything's a little faster, but that was the hardest thing. It's fine now."
It's more than fine, actually.
Video: NJD@FLA: Malgin blasts a PPG past Schneider
In the early goings of the 2016-17 season, Malgin has been one of Florida's biggest surprises, recording five points (2-3-5) in 13 games while filling in for injured center Nick Bjugstad as the team's third-line pivot. After notching only two points in October, the 19-year-old rookie has caught fire in November, earning three points (2-1-3) in his last four games.
"Of course I feel more comfortable now than I did in the beginning of the season," Malgin said. "I make point, but we have to win. That's the first thing. Everybody's helped me a lot. I watch everybody in (the locker room). I've learned something from everybody."
While Malgin admits to picking the brain of anyone in the room willing to listen, it's been his fellow centers that have taken the greatest shine to the wide-eyed teenager, especially Barkov, who chuckles at the notion that he, at 21, is seen as a veteran in the eyes of his new teammate.
"He has been asking a lot of questions," Barkov said of Malgin. "He's a young player, so that's a pretty good thing. Of course, me and (Vincent Trocheck) are young players too, but it's his first year here so he wants to know a lot. That's a really good thing. He wants to keep getting better every day, especially on face-offs and stuff like that. He's been doing great.
"I had never seen him play before, but once I saw him in practice and in games, I saw he was pretty skilled. He's really smart and he knows what to do out there. I'm not surprised at all that he plays that well. He'll be better every day
Although Barkov (6-foot-3, 213 pounds) and Malgin (5-foot-9, 177 pounds) couldn't look more different when they're on the ice, the two centers are already becoming fast friends off of it. As the sons of former Russian hockey players, Barkov and Malgin, united by a common tongue, admit to spending a lot of time hanging out together, both at home and on the road.
Video: BOS@FLA: Malgin nets first NHL goal from the slot
"I noticed right away that he might be Russian, so it might be a good thing to have a couple Russians or Finns here on the team," a grinning Barkov said. "No, he's just playing great. He's not big sized, but just amazing how he plays and how he controls the game."
"It's nice to have a Russian buddy here, of course," Malgin added. "We can speak Russian and, of course, we hang out much together."
For the Panthers, the friendship of Barkov and Malgin is simply a perfect match, as head coach Gerard Gallant relishes the idea of his newest offensive weapon soaking up as much information as he can from the team's superstar center.
"Barky's 21 years old, but he's teaching the kid," Gallant said. "Barky's been excellent. He plays a two-way game for us and tries to help the kids out. That's really important to have from some of your veteran players. Even though they're still young players, they try to help the kids out."
As for Malgin, the up-and-coming forward has shown no signs of slowing down. He led all skaters with a tournament-high six goals during Florida's three-game rookie showcase at the Panthers IceDen over the summer and has only gotten more confident in the weeks and months since then.
He's already being described as skilled, dynamic, dangerous, but as of right now, Gallant is simply happy to confidently call Malgin one thing - a Panther.
"He's been real good," Gallant said. "He's a real dangerous looking player. He's a small kid that competes real hard, skates real well and he sees the ice real good. He's deserved everything he's got so far.