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by Staff Writer / Pittsburgh Penguins

Many consider Evgeni Malkin the best hockey player not in the NHL.

After watching him on a global stage at the 2006 Winter Olympics, the Pittsburgh Penguins are convinced.

Malkin, Pittsburgh’s second-overall pick in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft, shined against the world’s best players. The 19-year-old center finished tied for second on Team Russia in scoring with former Penguin Alexei Kovalev.

Malkin wound up with two goals and four assists for six points in seven games, while Kovalev had four goals and two assists in eight games. Detroit’s Pavel Datsyuk led Russia with one goal and seven assists in eight games as Russia finished fourth overall.

Penguins defenseman Sergei Gonchar played alongside Malkin last year for Metallurg Magnitogorsk in the Russian Super League. The two were reunited on the Russian squad in Torino. Gonchar believes Malkin is blossoming into a dominant force.

“He is a great player. He has all the skills and size,” Gonchar said. “What impressed me the most was his penalty-killing performance. He is playing so well, not only on the power play, but the penalty kill, too. It seems like, at such a young age, he’s a complete player. It might take him a year to adjust in the NHL, but he has all the skills and potential.”

Penguins winger Tomas Surovy went head-to-head with Malkin in the preliminary round. Surovy, who played for Slovakia, was impressed as well.

“I didn’t look at him too much when we played him because you have to be focused on your team, but he is a good player,” Surovy said. “I saw him on TV in the other games. Those times, I was watching him a little bit more. He is a great player obviously.”

Penguins rookie Sidney Crosby played against Malkin at the 2005 World Junior Championships. Crosby’s Team Canada beat Malkin’s Russia squad, but Crosby was impressed with the young Russian. Little did Crosby know he’d be drafted by the same NHL team later that summer.

“He is a great player. He had a great Olympics,” Crosby said. “Hopefully, we can get him here as soon as possible – hopefully, next season.”

Crosby believes Malkin continues to improve as well. He noticed a difference between Malkin’s performances in last year’s World Junior Championships and the Olympics this year.

“I think the same about him now – and even more so. I think he is probably even better now after playing another year of pro hockey against older guys,” Crosby said. “I think that he’s a guy who is a complete player. He has speed, size and sees the play well. I think he can really help our team.”

Malkin’s stellar performances aren’t limited to the international scene. He’s one of the best players in the Russian Super League. He guided Metallurg Magnitogorsk to a first-place finish in the regular season. The team scored the most goals in the league (175) and gave up the least (75). The squad is in the semifinals of the Russian Super League playoffs.

Malkin finished the regular season with 21 goals and 26 assists in 46 games. His 47 points ranked third in the league behind Sergei Mozyakin (52) and former Penguin Aleksey Morozov (49). However, Malkin played in five fewer games than those two due to his participation in the World Junior Championships.

“We have a lot of young guys here who want to build something. With him, he’s a great player and he’d really help us,” Crosby said. “We want him to be a part of that, too. Hopefully, next season he comes over. He’s a guy who is really going to make a difference.”

A lack of a transfer agreement between the Russian Hockey Federation and the NHL kept Malkin in Russia this season. However, there is a probability he will be in a Penguins uniform in the fall. And, like Crosby, Malkin is projected to step in and make an immediate impact when he comes to the NHL.

“Yeah, that’s what everyone hopes. I think with him playing pro and with the older guys over there, that really helps the transition to come over here,” Crosby said. “Anytime you’ve already played at a pretty high level, it makes it a little easier to get comfortable and to adjust. I don’t see that as a problem with the way he played in the Olympics. He fit right in there and I don’t think it’d be any different here.”

Washington’s Alexander Ovechkin, who skated alongside Malkin in Torino, predicts great things for this countryman.

“I spoke to him when he was in Vancouver [for the World Junior Championships] and I said, ‘Evgeni you must come here next year. It’s a different world and you will see; you will feel it when you come here,’” Ovechkin said. “I think he will come here. He is a great player and really knows the game.

“When he comes to the league, I think he will be the best rookie.”

Crosby and Malkin share the same agent, Pat Brisson, however Crosby has not had a chance to speak to the talented Russian.

“I haven’t ever had a chance to talk to him. I don’t know how well he speaks English, but I think he’s learning right now,” Crosby said. “I just talked to my agent and told him to try to get Malkin over here as soon as possible. Hopefully, we get him over here soon. He’s a great player and we could use his help.”



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