In fact, the veteran coach has to go back all the way to the early 1980s to find a similar phenom – a young French-Canadian named Mario Lemieux.
Malkin, Pittsburgh’s second-overall pick in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft, is dominating the Russian Super League for his hometown team Metallurg Magnitogorsk under King’s direction.
Listed at 6-foot-3, 186 pounds, the 19-year-old Malkin draws some comparisons to a young Lemieux – both in stature as well as the ability to take over games single-handedly. King coached Lemieux at the 1983 World Junior Championships as Canada finished third to the Soviet Union.
“When Mario was young, and throughout his career, he was always able to cover a lot of ice with his reach,” King said. “Evgeni is the same way – their incredible reach allows them to find pucks. Mario can bluff you one way and steal a pass and go the other. Malkin has the same ability to bluff the puck carrier and just disappear with the puck. Both Malkin and Lemieux, when he was young, had the ability to steal the puck at any time and be one.It’s something you don’t teach.”
The young Russian star possesses an abundance of skill and toughness.
“Mally is a great player. He has skill and energy. He is not a peripheral player. He will dish out as much contact as he takes. He has great enthusiasm for the game,” said King, a native Canadian in his first year at Magnitogorsk. “I am lucky. I get to see him when reporters or scouts don’t and in situations people normally don’t see him; I get to watch him practice and dryland train off the ice. He’s a real throwback. He’s like a country boy who eats, sleeps and dreams hockey. That makes him special and easy to work with.
King sees nothing but greatness ahead for Malkin when he comes to the NHL. King should know: He coached in the NHL for eight years – six of them as a head coach.
“I think he will be a real good NHL player. Like Sidney Crosby, he has great vision – the ability to see the ice more clearly and analyze more quickly than anyone else can,” he said. “He has to learn to dish the puck off more. He tends to hold onto it a little long. He will have to learn to dish the puck off to his wingers instead of challenging defenders one-on-one all the time. He can challenge defenders one-on-one a little more here, but against NHL defensemen, if you hold onto the puck too long, they will tag you with a pretty good hit.”
While Malkin has exceptional talent, King believes the Russian youngster has an outstanding personality as well.
“He is a terrifically hard-working guy – a really, really hard worker. And he’s upbeat. The one thing really special for Pittsburgh is his personality,” King said. “A lot of Russian guys go over [to the NHL] and are stoic because that’s how it has always been over here. Malkin is a very outgoing guy. He likes to smile and joke around. He is a very popular guy with the team. He is one of our alternate captains as voted by players because of his charisma. He has that outgoing personality that a lot of older Russians probably wish they had.”
Malkin’s love for the game, determination, competitiveness and athleticism also put him in an elite class.
“He will play keep-away with anyone after practice for as long as they want. He will have a shooting contest with you forever,” King said. “He is a good tennis player and soccer player. We have a gym in our arena and he will go there and shoot baskets for hours. He is a real good athlete. We have six or seven real good young players along with him. So, it’s a great situation because I think they’ve really helped our veterans with their enthusiasm.”
King believes Malkin will develop into a dominant, physical centerman in the Joe Thornton mold.
“I don’t like to compare players, but I see him being a little bit more like a Thornton than a [Vincent] Lecavalier. He has the offensive skill of both those guys, but he is a little bit along the lines of a Thornton in terms of being physical. He is lucky to be in that category,” King said. “I think he is going to be a good two-way player. His wingers are going to generate points because he will move puck. In games where it’s physical, I think Malkin will compete with the best of them.
“He still has a lot to learn. Once he gets there [to Pittsburgh], there’s an adjustment to make,” he continued. “But, to have a guy like Sidney Crosby there and then to have Mario Lemieux, who is a great player, there, too, and the other talented players is very good. He is going to have great players around him who will help him a lot.”
Malkin is opening eyes around the hockey world with his play in the Russian Super League as well as with Russia in the international circuit. Malkin racked up 10 points in six games and was named the top forward and MVP at the 2006 World Junior Championship tournament. Before that, he was named MVP of the Rosno Cup as he helped Russia capture the event in mid-December.
The schedule only gets busier as Malkin is scheduled to play for Team Russia at the Winter Olympics in Torino, Italy, in late February. After that, he will re-join Magnitogorsk for the Russian Super League playoffs in mid-March.
“The only concern is that he has to play a lot of hockey this year,” King said. “The World Juniors and the Olympics – then, he has to come back and hopefully we have something left for the playoffs. He has this amazing enthusiasm, though. He loves hockey. Those are huge attributes. A lot of players like hockey; he loves hockey. When he loves it as much as he does, I think that will always keep him very focused.”
Malkin’s season could get even longer if he plays for Russia in the IIHF World Championships in May.
“They will ask him and he will never say no. That’s the way he is,” King said with a laugh. “He loves the game. He would play in that for sure. If there was a World Cup after that, he’d play in that, too.”
A lack of a transfer agreement between the Russian Hockey Federation and the NHL kept Malkin in his homeland this season. Regardless, Malkin is refining his game against a very high level of competition – the Russian Super League is considered the world’s second-best hockey circuit.
“Yes, it is definitely second-best league in the world. The NHL is better, but we have a lot of skill here. That’s not a problem in terms of competing with the NHL,” King said. “NHL teams are much more physically involved. NHL teams are just so good and strong one versus one.”
There is a probability Malkin will be in Pittsburgh next season, though, and he is starting to learn English.
“He is trying to learn some, probably not as much as he should. We have a couple players who will be NHL players and they are learning, but he is dabbling at it,” King said. “His plans are now in the last half of the season to try to spend more time at it.
“He wants to go over with a basic understanding of it. With me being here, he’s dealing with English every day and the North American philosophy of a coach every day. That’s going to be an advantage for him. We do a lot of things NHL teams do. I think it will put him a little bit ahead when he comes to the NHL.”
King doesn’t believe Malkin will have trouble adjusting to a smaller ice surface and new surroundings in North America. Actually, he believes the young star will flourish in the new offense-friendly NHL.
“For Malkin next year, it’s more physical over there [in the NHL], but there is less hooking and holding. The play is less physical here, but there is more hooking and holding,” King said. “You can impede a player quite a bit in the neutral zone. In the NHL, that is almost gone. You can’t use your stick now to hook guys. He will have to adjust to a more physical game, but the fact that there is less interference, I think he will enjoy that very much.”
And what a great thing it would be for Penguins fans to see Malkin in a Penguins uniform alongside Sidney Crosby and the team’s abundance of young talent.
“Boy, is that going to be exciting. Hockey fans in Pittsburgh are in luck,” King said. “That’s going to be a very exciting team to watch. There’s a real future there. It’s going to be a very good team in time. They have good leadership with Mario and others. With Sidney and Evgeni – that’s a good way to start a rise to the top.”
King has another tie to the Pittsburgh Penguins’ organization beside Lemieux and Malkin – head coach Michel Therrien. They worked together while King was an assistant with the Montreal Canadiens (1997-1999) and served as their Director of European Scouting (1999-2000). Therrien was in the Canadiens’ organization from 1997 until 2003.
In addition, their teams battled each other from 2000-03 as King was the head coach in Columbus and Therrien was the head coach in Montreal. King believes the Penguins have the right head coach to help their talent young players develop.
“I know him very well from working with him in Montreal. I think he’s done a good job in the AHL deserves a chance in the NHL,” King said. “When you have that many young players, you need a coach who likes to work with young players and will play them in games. I think it’s a good match with his experience working with those young players for the past couple of years.”
Even though he’s halfway across the world, King is very aware of the Penguins’ exciting future.
“I have been in Pittsburgh many times; it’s a great hockey city with great hockey fans,” King said “I think these young, talented players will help rekindle the exciting times [of the Stanley Cup years in the early 1990s]. It will come back.”