According to head scout Greg Malone, this year’s World Junior Championship tournament was a success – especially for the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Malone was in Vancouver to watch the tournament in late December and early January. Penguins scouts Chuck Grillo and Mark Kelley joined him to evaluate Penguins prospects Evgeni Malkin (Russia), Kristopher Letang (Canada), Johannes Salmonsson (Sweden) and Tommi Leinonen (Finland), and scout potential draft picks.
“It was very encouraging for the four guys who were there,” said Malone, who is in his 16th season as the Penguins’ head scout. “They all played well and they all took steps to make themselves better, not only as hockey players, but the experience of going through something like this will help them mature even more. The more things you experience, the better you are at reacting. All of these kids were involved in some big games. Their level of growth will definitely help them down the road.”
Malkin, the 2004 second-overall pick, was named the tournament’s top forward and the media selected him as the MVP. The 6-foot-3 centerman finished second in WJC scoring with 10 points (4+6) and helped guide Russia to a silver medal for the second consecutive year.
“Malkin speaks for himself – the nice thing is that he’s gotten better,” Malone said. “He’s quicker off the mark than he was last year. It shows he’s working at his game. He’s being smart and moving the puck and shooting it. He takes charge out there and wants the puck and makes things happen. We’re very encouraged with his progress.”
Malkin, who is only 19, plays for Metallurg Magnitogorsk in the Russian Super League. He has 46 points (20+26) in 37 games and ranks first in the league in goals and points and second in assists despite missing some of his team’s games to play in the World Junior Championships. In the four games since the WJC tournament, Malkin has 10 points (5+5).
“He has continued to work on his overall game. The Evgeni Malkin
first thing I noticed was that he was a lot quicker,”
Malone said. “We know he is a heady hockey player and great with the puck, but you can really see his skating is getting better. He has that little extra step of speed and when you see him, you’re like ‘Wow!’ Even if he didn’t pick up that step, he would have been a good hockey player. Now, he’s creating that little extra room to make a pass and that little extra room to shoot the puck.”
According to Malone, Malkin is a talented goal scorer and playmaker.
“I think this is what makes him special – he is equal on both fronts,” he said. “He shoots the puck really well. His passing – he makes a lot of passes to set up goals.
“When I first looked at him as a prospect, I thought he was going to be different from other players and I still do,” he continued. “Once he develops, I think he’s molded like a [Vincent] Lecavalier or [Joe] Thornton type of player. I think that’s the type of centerman he is capable of developing into.”
Malkin will get a chance to measure his skills against NHL players as a member of Team Russia at the Winter Olympics in Torino, Italy, in late February.
“The whole world will be looking at that tournament. He started showing the rest of the world he is a hell of a hockey player at last year’s World Junior Championships,” Malone said. “He is going to be of the youngest players at [the Olympic] tournament and I think that’s just an added bonus to build up his confidence. Confidence is a big thing in this game and I think that’s one thing he will take away from the Olympics.”
The lack of a transfer agreement between the Russian Hockey Federation and the NHL kept Malkin in his homeland this season. There is a probability, though, Malkin may be in Pittsburgh for the 2006-07 campaign.
“When we talked to him before the draft [in 2004] he indicated he wanted to play in the NHL because he thinks it’s the best league in the world,” Malone said. “Also, when he came to the NHL, he wanted to be a force. He didn’t want to come over and just be on the team. He wanted to come in and make a statement. That was pretty much his thinking. I think he’s on that mission right now.”
Letang, Pittsburgh’s 2005 third-round pick (62nd overall), helped guide Team Canada to a second-straight WJC gold medal. The 18-year-old defenseman finished the tournament with one goal and two assists.
“Letang played great for Canada. He got some time on the power play and penalty kill and he was very solid on both sides of the puck,” Malone said. “It’s encouraging because he went into this big tournament and did well. When you play for Team Canada, there is a certain element of pressure that goes with it. For all those kids, they did have the advantage with the crowd on their side, but there is still that element when you get into that situation to go out in front of 18,000 people and with the whole nation of Canada watching on TV. There is that expectation to come out and perform and also that fear factor, too. I was happy with the way he played and handled the pressure. He was consistent throughout the tournament. His game did not stray from one game to the other. It was good.”
Leinonen, a 2005 fourth-round choice (125th overall), helped guide Finland to the bronze medal. The 18-year-old defenseman had two assists in the tournament.
“I thought he got better as the tourney went on. At first to me, he wasn’t as comfortable on the ice – some of the things he does with his skating and moving the puck, he seemed to not be comfortable,” Malone said. “In the last game against Canada he was named the player of the game. He deserved it because he seemed to come around and seemed a lot more relaxed. That was encouraging.”
Salmonsson, a 2004 second-round pick (31st overall), had two goals and two assists as one of Sweden’s top forwards.
“He played very well. He was one of the leaders on that Swedish team and named an alternate captain. That shows his personality with his other teammates as well as his leadership,” Malone said. “He works very hard on the ice. He created a lot of opportunities. I am happy with the way he played. If he ever finds that finishing touch, he will be a really solid prospect. It’s encouraging that he’s getting the chances and that’s due to his work ethic, but he’s just not finishing right now.”
Overall, the tournament was a positive experience for the Penguins’ prospects.
“To participate in a tournament like that helps with their growth and development,” Malone said.
With Sidney Crosby and the Penguins’ current crop of talented rookies in the NHL and minor leagues as well as their other prospects in the system, the future looks bright for the franchise.
“I think it’s very exciting to have all these young guys,” Malone said. “But, once you get them [to the NHL], the bottom line still is getting the end results – how they come together and how they can build as a contender. I think it’s a huge step in the right direction. It’s just a matter of time now to bring things together.”