With skilled players like Sidney Crosby and Marc Andre Fleury on their roster and a host of young talent in their system, the Pittsburgh Penguins has been dubbed the team of the future. But after starting the season 7-3-0 through their first 10 games and with their last six first round draft picks having made their NHL roster, the Penguins have captured the attention of the entire hockey world and have proven that the future may be closer than anyone could have anticipated.
“They’re a good skating team,” said Ducks captain Scott Niedermayer a player who has been a member of many winning hockey teams from juniors to the Stanley Cup. “That’s what the league is about now and there is a lot of opportunity to skate and move with the puck and they do that. They’re aggressive. Obviously, the young guys they have are pretty darn good hockey players.”
The young guys and the rest of the Penguins roster became even richer this past offseason when 2004 first round draft pick Evgeni Malkin made the decision to leave Russia to play in the NHL. After enduring a cloak and dagger type saga in order to make those NHL dreams a reality, Malkin has finally arrived in Pittsburgh.
“For the past two seasons, he’s been regarded probably as the most talented player outside of the NHL,” said Pittsburgh’s first year Assistant General Manager Chuck Fletcher. “And there has sort of been a long wait for his arrival at least in Pittsburgh. He’s 20 years old. He’s played three years of professional hockey in Russia already so he’s really coming over a very mature 20-year-old in terms of his game and in terms of his professional experience.”
Malkin’s game is indeed mature. At just 20, he led his former club, Metallurg Magnitogorsk, in scoring and was ranked third in the Russian Super League for points scored (47). The Russian center has not disappointed since his arrival, becoming the first rookie of the modern era to score a goal in each of the first six games of his NHL career. The feat hadn’t been done since the league’s inception back in 1917 and was enough to earn Malkin the league’s Rookie of the Month award for October.
According to Fletcher, who helped draft and develop the young guns who have helped make the Anaheim Ducks a Stanley Cup favorite, Malkin’s quick adjustment has been surprising.
“I think we have been a little bit surprised,” Fletcher admitted. “I don’t think anybody anticipated that he would score seven goals in his first six games — particularly for a player who’s coming over to a new culture, who doesn’t speak any English and at this point he is really still adjusting to our system and style of play never mind the culture and the lifestyle.”
And while the Penguins have been pleasantly surprised by Malkin’s early success, former Calder Trophy winner Teemu Selanne hasn’t been surprised.
“I haven’t seen him play much but obviously you can see he’s a great player and who’s got all the tools. He’s one of the brightest stars in the league right now and I think that’s great. I am always excited to see young players coming up in the league and just play like a 10-year pro. ..I don’t see Malkin, in my mind, as a rookie anymore because he has played World Championships, Olympics and that high level for so long a time back in Russia.”
Malkin’s NHL career got off to a late start after he injured his shoulder in a collision with teammate John LeClair in the team’s first preseason game. Malkin missed the first four games of the regular season.
Since his NHL debut on Oct. 18, Malkin has managed to score 8 goals and 14 points while averaging 19:42 minutes of ice time a game. The 6’3, 192-pound forward ranks second among all rookies (behind 19-year-old Anze Kopitar) in points scored and leads all rookies in power play goals. Malkin’s success has helped the Penguins get off to their best record in October (6-3-0) since their 2002-03 season.
“He’s helped us a lot,” said fellow phenom Crosby. “I think especially when he was starting off the first couple of games he was great scoring some big goals and he made a huge impact as he is now but I think for him to come in the way he did his first year in the NHL coming off an injury. I mean it really boosted us and I think he’s dangerous every time he’s out there. He’s a guy who can score so he’s nice to have.”
Malkin’s presence has provided additional scoring to the Penguins line-up and has eased some of the scoring pressure off of Crosby. The two phenoms have been paired at times on the same line throughout the young season and have displayed amazing chemistry. Their chemistry has allowed them to lead the Penguins in scoring and is even more amazing considering that the two do not speak the same language. But according to Fletcher, the two linemates do share a common tongue that has managed to bridge the communication barrier.
“They both speak hockey,” laughed Fletcher, “And they read off each other so well. They both have tremendous innate hockey sense and tremendous God-given talent. They go on the ice and they seem to be able to read off each other, know where each other will be. Again, they’re just two elite world-class talents and they’ve been able to make some tremendous plays already.”
Crosby attributes the chemistry between himself and Malkin to be due to their similar playing styles.
“I think we play similar styles and that’s why we have chemistry. Like you said it’s pretty tough to communicate — we can’t really tell each other where to go or anything like that. Just basically on instinct and the way we play. We like to use our speed, we like to move the puck so as a result that’s what gives us good chemistry.”
There is no doubt that Malkin has quickly adjusted to NHL life on the ice and the Penguins staff has been pleased with his adjustment off the ice thus far.
“It’s been going well for him,” said Fletcher, “He’s been able to live with Sergei Gonchar who is the only other Russian-speaking player we have on our team. He’s living with Sergei and his wife and he’s been able to get a home cooked meal and be in an environment where he can communicate freely.”
But according to 32-year-old veteran Gonchar, Malkin’s transition off the ice has been difficult for him.
“He told me that the hardest part has been not to be able to communicate,” said Gonchar. “He really wants to be with the guys and talk, but his English has been the biggest problem. But he’s doing better and every day he’s trying to speak a little bit, but it is hard for him.”
Despite the language barrier, Malkin has made efforts to learn the language and spend time with his teammates away from the ice as he learns to adjust to life in North America. This transition has been made easier with the presence of so much youth in the Penguins roster. (They boast 10 players under the age of 25 on their roster.)
“It’s probably a little bit easier for him to gel with [the team] because they’re the same age,” said Gonchar, “They’re making the same jokes and they are always together so it’s probably much easier for him since we have such a young team.”
The language barrier hasn’t stopped Malkin from enjoying his new life in the NHL with the Penguins.
“He’s a great kid,” said Fletcher, “An upbeat kid, a great personality and even though he doesn’t speak English his teammates seem to really like him and he seems to really like them. He comes with a smile on his face every day and he seems to love being in Pittsburgh.”
And as he continues to adjust to North America and learn the language, the Penguins believe that Malkin’s development on the ice will continue to improve as well.
“His on ice skills, his hockey sense and his talent transcends any limitations put on him in terms of the adjustment he’s having and the scary thing is once he learns the language, gets comfortable in our system and gets comfortable with his teammates — presumably he’ll be that much better.”
Copyright 2006 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.