If it weren’t for Sergei Gonchar, Pens center Evgeni Malkin wouldn’t be half the player he’s become.
That’s according to No. 71.
“I always say if Gonchar didn’t help me and wasn’t in Pittsburgh then I wouldn’t have won Rookie of the Year or other trophies,” Malkin said. “It’s 50-50, myself and Gonchar helping me.”
Gonchar mentored Malkin when he made the transition to North America in 2006 as a 19-year-old. Malkin lived with Gonchar and his family during his first two NHL seasons. With Gonchar’s guidance, Malkin adjusted to a new world, new language, new league and a new life.
“He helped me a lot,” Malkin said in his locker stall following Saturday’s training camp practice. “Off the ice I lived with him. He translated for me. If ‘Gonch’ didn’t play (for the Pens) I would have been scared. It was just myself at 19 years old in a different life.”
Now the tables have turned. Malkin, now 29, is playing landlord to Gonchar as the 41-year-old defenseman is attending training camp on a professional tryout contract.
“He’s my best friend. I hope he signs,” Malkin said. “Eight years ago I lived with him. He came back to Pittsburgh and lives with me. We’re good friends. We hope we can play together this year.”
The torch has certainly been passed from Gonchar to Malkin as he tries to help newly signed Russian winger Sergei Plotnikov, who is going through the same transition to the NHL and North America that Malkin did nine years ago.
“He doesn’t really speak English. He understands, but sometimes he doesn’t know what coach is saying,” Malkin said. “I try to help. The first couple of weeks he was scared, but now he knows players and everyone is friendly to him. Now it’s easier for him.”
Plotnikov, 25, played his entire career in the Kontinental Hockey League in Russia. He talked to Malkin before deciding to make the jump to the NHL.
“He said he was excited to come to the NHL, but didn’t know which team,” Malkin recalled. “I said if you come to Pittsburgh I will help you. After a couple days he signed.”
Plotnikov is a candidate to play on Malkin’s wing during the season.
Another candidate to be centered by Malkin is All-Star winger Phil Kessel. The American-born sniper will open training camp with Sidney Crosby, but head coach Mike Johnston said that they will try different lines and groupings.
“(Kessel will) start with ‘Sid’ and see how it goes,” Malkin said. “Maybe we’ll play together on the power play or Sid will change quickly and I’ll play with him. It doesn’t matter to me. We have (Patric Hornqvist), (Pascal Dupuis), Kunitz, a lot of great forwards. It doesn’t matter to me whom I play with.”
Malkin’s attitude is that as long as Kessel helps the team, who cares how the lines shake out.
“He’s a big player for us,” Malkin said of Kessel. “I think everyone is excited here. He’s a good player. I’m excited to play with him. It doesn’t matter which line he plays. We’re still one team. It’s great for the team. I hope he helps us.”