All indications are Evgeni Malkin can’t wait to play in the NHL.
Pittsburgh Penguins fans are hoping it happens next season.
Malkin, selected second overall in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft, remained in Russia this season due to the lack of a transfer agreement between the NHL and Russian Ice Hockey Federation.
However, there is a possibility he will put on a Penguins uniform in the fall.
“I think if it was totally up to Evgeni, I think it’d be 100 percent,” said J.P. Barry, managing director of IMG Hockey and one of Malkin’s agents.
Another good sign: Alexander Steblin resigned as president of the Russian Ice Hockey Federation on March 24. Former goaltending star Vladislav Tretiak was selected to fill the role and reportedly wants to get a transfer agreement signed soon.
“From what I read, he is committed to working out an IIHF deal with the league, so that’s good news,” Penguins CEO Ken Sawyer said. “Let’s see what happens.”
Malkin expressed a strong desire to play in Pittsburgh in an interview with Russia’s Sport-Express Daily.
“I would like to start playing in the NHL. I was planning to play in the NHL last season, but after I talked to my agent and my parents, I decided to stay here one more season,” he said. “Now I believe I can play not just like a regular player, but I can be one of the leaders.”
In addition, Malkin seems excited to meet Penguins owner Mario Lemieux. The young Russian has been compared to the hockey legend not only in stature, but in skills as well.
“MARIO LEMIEUX!!! I would like to play in the NHL and if the club wants me to play for them I will try to bring a Stanley Cup,” he said.
Penguins defenseman Sergei Gonchar played with Malkin last year in the Russian Super League for Metallurg Magnitogorsk. The two reunited this year when both played for Team Russia at the Winter Olympics in Torino, Italy. Gonchar believes the 19-year-old star is ready to come to the NHL.
“I talked to him at the Olympics and he seems like he is willing to come and is really looking forward to it,” Gonchar said. “He was a roommate with Alex Ovechkin, so Alex was telling him how good it is here playing in the NHL and how well it’s organized and all that. So, he’s excited about it. He wants to come here and play.”
Gonchar stayed with Viktor Kozlov during the Olympics. Their dormitory-style room in the Olympic Village was joined by a bathroom to the room shared by Ovechkin and Malkin. Gonchar and Malkin spent some free time together talking about the NHL.
“[Evgeni] came in my room and asked all the questions about Pittsburgh and how everything was here and what kind of team we have and how is this guy and how is that guy,” Gonchar said. “So, we had a good conversation about it and he really wants to come here.”
As the youngest player in the tournament playing against the world’s best players, Malkin shined. He finished tied for second on Team Russia in scoring with former Penguin Alexei Kovalev. Malkin finished with two goals and four assists in six games.
“I am sure everyone in this organization will be excited to see him play with his capabilities,” Gonchar said. “He’s a great player and has the skill and size. He is going to get bigger and stronger. You can see he has all the skills. He is so smart. The guy creates more breakaway chances on the penalty kill than most guys create five-on-five.”
Malkin continued his strong play in the Russian Super League as he led Magnitogorsk to the regular-season title. He finished third in scoring with 47 points (21+26) in 46 games. He missed five contests to play for Russia at the World Junior Championships, where he was named the top forward. In the RSL playoffs, Malkin had 15 points (5+10) in 11 games, but Metallurg was upset in the semifinals.
Listed at 6-foot-3, 186 pounds, Malkin appears much larger on the ice and dwarfs most of his opponents.
“He has had a great season over there, no question. He was probably the top player in Russia,” Barry said. “I think he is physically ready to make an impact. I think a lot of people saw that in his play this year. The league that he plays in is the second-best league [in the world]. He was the dominant player in that league. A lot of NHL pros have not done as well has he’s done in that league. So, I think he’d be a very successful player in this league.”
In an interview with Russian Hockey Digest posted online, Malkin seems excited to come to Pittsburgh and play with Sidney Crosby, the 2005 first-overall pick.
“The fact that the first pick of the NHL draft is Sidney Crosby didn’t surprise me. [It’s no accident] people call this Canadian ‘The second Gretzky’; his talent’s not raising any doubts,” he said.
Crosby and Malkin played against each other in the 2005 World Junior Championships and will face each other at the upcoming World Championships.
“I saw him playing at several junior tournaments in Canada. What can I say? I assume the specialists and scouts didn’t exaggerate in this case: Crosby has a brilliant mind and great hockey potential,” Malkin said. “The more great masters would play in Pittsburgh, the better. Absolutely, I don’t consider this young Canadian as a competitor. Even backwards, I consider him as my potential helper.”
Likewise, Crosby can’t wait for Malkin to come to Pittsburgh.
“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.”
Malkin is making strides at learning English. It helps that his coach at Magnitogorsk is Dave King, who is a Canadian and a former Team Canada and NHL coach.
“He is consistently getting better. To go from a completely Russian environment to English, you need to have some pretty intensive classes,” Barry said. “We’ve done that in the past with some of our clients and it’s worked well.”
“I understand the beginning will be a lot of problems with the language, but I have a little bit of time and I was studying English,” Malkin told Russia’s Sport-Express Daily. “But I don’t have any other choice and it’s 100 percent I am going there.”
Even though the young Penguins finished near the bottom of the NHL standings, Malkin is optimistic about the Penguins’ future and their wealth of young talent.
“It is not a big deal. How about Ovechkin in Washington, he didn’t win the Stanley Cup either and his team didn’t make playoffs either,” Malkin said. “It is just the NHL is the best league and to play in this league is a dream of every hockey player. It doesn’t mater in what place my team is right now, my goal is to play here and be the best. And then we’ll see.”
Malkin is a front-runner to win the Calder Trophy as the league’s top rookie whenever he arrives. He hopes to duplicate the efforts of Crosby and Ovechkin, who both surpassed 100 points in their rookie campaigns. Malkin scored a goal off an Ovechkin assist in Russia’s 2-1 win over Sweden in the European Hockey Tour championship – a precursor to the World Championships.
“There is always going to be competition in the NHL. Getting 100 points is great,” he said. “It will be very hard, but I think I can do it.”
Malkin won’t be alone when he comes to Pittsburgh. Gonchar has offered to take him under his wing, similar to how Lemieux helped Crosby acclimate to Pittsburgh this season.
“It’s always tough. I remember myself when I got to Washington, [Petr] Bondra was there and he spoke Russian and that helped me a lot,” he said. “I know how tough it is in the first year. Not only is it a different language, but it’s a different style of game, different workouts and a different approach to the game. It’s a lot of new things coming at you and you don’t have your family beside you.
“It’s really tough. To have a guy to help him, which I will try to do, is always a plus. I will offer him to stay at my house, at least in the beginning until he gets comfortable and can find a place. Obviously, it will be his decision, but I will be there to help.”