Sunday, October 02, 2011
By Shelly Anderson, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Evgeni Malkin(notes) #71 of the Pittsburgh Penguins warms up prior to the NHL preseason game against the Los Angeles Kings on September 27, 2011 at the Sprint Center in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
Early in Penguins training camp, when it became obvious that the razzle was back in Evgeni Malkin's dazzle, he was asked about his slick stickhandling.
"I work every day with my hands," he said. "I don't know how good [they are], but if you say 'good,' I'll believe it."
There was honesty in his answer, but also a subtle brand of humor that Malkin is learning to deliver in English.
The Russian center's confidence and comfort level have skyrocketed going into the 2011-12 season. He's healthy after February surgery to repair his right anterior cruciate knee ligament. He's strong after offseason workouts that exceeded what he had done before. He's happy after what seems to be a breakthrough in his communication skills.
That's why Malkin, 25, is widely projected to regain the dominance with which he played in 2008-09, when he won the NHL scoring title, the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP and helped the Penguins win the Stanley Cup.
"I think he's coming out of his shell maybe a little bit," said Chris Kunitz, one of Malkin's wingers this preseason and his locker room neighbor at Consol Energy Center. "When you're injured, you're not part of the group. You're down a little bit. I think he's done a great job of coming back, being around the guys, interacting a little more than he was last year."
Malkin's teammates have been saying for years that he's fun to be around, and he no longer limits that interaction to familiar people and places.
It used to be that when he was asked to deliver Penguins season tickets -- an annual promotion-- Malkin would approach fans' doors timidly and offer, "Your teek-its." While delivering them this year, he practically invited himself into homes, initiated conversation, even enthusiastically greeted someone's cat.
At a question-and-answer session at a town hall meeting with season ticket holders Sunday at the arena, a panel of the team's star players was asked to name the funniest guy on the team. It was posed that, perhaps, it was Malkin.
"My humor is Russian humor," Malkin said into his microphone. "They don't understand, but they laugh."
That got a chuckle from the several thousand fans.
"See?" Malkin said.
Later, he shrugged at the memory of being too unsure to be that playful in public.
"It's my sixth year," he said. "I know everyone a little bit better. I talk to people. I talk to fans. It's easy for me.
"My Russian friends know that I'm a pretty funny guy, but sometimes I'm a little bit shy because my English isn't good. But now I understand more and I talk to people."
Malkin has started tweeting (@malkin71_) in both languages. In English, he has bantered with former teammate Ryan Whitney, posted pictures of Pitt cheerleaders, guffawed at the idea of tomatoes being fruit.
He suggested things might have gone more smoothly if he had sought more formal instruction in English rather than mostly picking it up from being around his teammates.
"It might be my fault, but now I try more to watch TV shows and learn," he said.
Fitting in isn't always simple for foreign-born athletes. Just ask veteran Pavel Datsyuk, a Russian who is on pace to eclipse 700 NHL games and 700 points this season.
"I'm still not comfortable," said Datsyuk, who plays on a Detroit team that has had a lot of Europeans and has been one of the elite clubs for years.
Evgeni Malkin(notes) #71 of the Pittsburgh Penguins skates against the Detroit Red Wings during a preseason game at Consol Energy Center on September 21, 2011 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
Malkin enters the team's final preseason game today at Detroit with three goals, six points and two "first star" appointments in four games. In the Penguins' 3-2 win against Detroit in their exhibition opener Sept. 21, Malkin and Datsyuk were noticeably the best players on the ice.
"He's really hungry," Datsyuk said. "He'll just get better every game."
Penguins defenseman Joe Morrow, an 18-year-old rookie, was thrilled to watch Malkin and Datsyuk up close.
"It's like you would pay $500 for a ticket to sit on the bench, but I got it for free and I got to be on the ice with them," he said. "It doesn't get much better than that."
At the other end of the spectrum is veteran winger Steve Sullivan, who signed with the Penguins in the offseason and has had a chance to play on Malkin's wing.
Sullivan called Malkin "extremely creative" and said: "It's a thrill to watch. I just make sure I don't get mesmerized out there by what's going on."
Datsyuk is such a wizard with the puck that "Datsyukian" has gained some traction as an adjective in the NHL community. Given the Russian connection, he might be the player most like an older version of Malkin in terms of pure skill. At 6 feet 3, 195 pounds, however, Malkin could become a more physically dominant version of Datsyuk, 33.
Malkin has pulled off some deft moves this preseason -- pilfering the puck from opponents, dishing blind passes and drop passes, performing a spin move or two -- but he also has held off defenders and driven to the net effectively.
That's the kind of repertoire that could force his inclusion in conversations about the top players on the planet.
After all, Malkin hasn't had just one good season among his five in the NHL. He has topped 30 goals three times, including 2006-07 when he had 85 points and won the Calder Trophy as the league's rookie of the year. Twice, he has had more than 100 points.
He fell out of that conversation when he finished with 28 goals, 77 points in 67 games in 2009-10, possibly hindered by shoulder problems. Then came last season, when his knee was smashed Feb. 4 in an awkward collision with hulking Buffalo defenseman Tyler Myers, ending his season at 43 games, with 15 goals, 37 points.
Malkin, who should be entering the prime of his career in terms of age, is right there with everyone who expects his return from surgery to be accompanied by a flourish.
"I had a great summer," he said. "I'm trying to step up my game and play 100 percent. My game is control the puck and control the game."
That has been on display in the preseason.
"He wants the puck," Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said. "He's all over the ice. He's aggressive. Every shift he's making something happen. Either he's creating something or getting a chance himself.
"That's when he's at his best, and it's fun to watch."
With Crosby's playing status unclear as he continues his comeback from a concussion, Malkin could assume the team's lead role.
Although the two were a formidable pair in the 2009 playoffs, Malkin has a reputation for playing better without Crosby in the lineup, dating to the weeks Crosby missed in 2008-09 because of a high ankle sprain.
Malkin can't argue with that perception.
"I'm not changing my game, but, I don't know, when Sid's out I think I score more goals, have more points," Malkin said. "I don't know why. It's hard to say.
"Maybe I change my [mindset]. Maybe I have more time on the ice, more time on the power play, more scoring chances. And, if I score one, maybe I continue and score two, three."
It's not that Malkin simply likes having the stage without Crosby. Likely, it is quite the opposite.
In his first extensive one-on-one interview in English, in December 2008, Malkin was asked to pick hockey's best player -- the prime candidates being himself, Crosby and Washington's Alex Ovechkin. "My favorite is Sid," he said.
Now that Malkin is capable of elaborating, he offered a declaration of admiration.
"I look at how Sid works," Malkin said. "I'm lucky to play with him. I see how he plays, and I try to follow him. He helps me all the time. I try to play better every year, like Sid does.
"He's my ... I don't know how to say it."
Inspiration? Mentor? Idol?
With the murky mass of language barrier and uneasiness now melting away, perhaps Malkin will be able to complete that sentence before long.
For much more on the Penguins, read the Pens Plus blog with Dave Molinari and Shelly Anderson at www.post-gazette.com/plus. Shelly Anderson: email@example.com, 412-263-1721 and Twitter @pgshelly.
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