Penguins' Malkin continues cultural adjustment
In any other city, for any other fans, Evgeni Malkin, coming off a first season for which he was voted the NHL's top rookie, would be The Man. In Pittsburgh, though, for Penguins fans, anyway, he receives second billing behind The Kid.
Malkin was merely the league's best rookie last season. Sidney Crosby was its most valuable player and leading scorer.
Clearly, Crosby casts a large shadow. At 20, he is the youngest captain in league history and the face not only of a resurgent franchise, but the sport that franchise expects to dominate over coming years.
Malkin, 21, remains an enigma -- to the point that some fans consider his rookie season more disappointing than remarkable, especially given his lack of production down the stretch and in the playoffs.
Sergei Gonchar shook his head in disbelief at that suggestion.
"I do not understand that, especially with the way he was leaving the country, all the stories about that and the (shoulder) injury (before last season)," Gonchar said. "All those things, if you put them together, he did really well. Remember, he won Rookie of the Year, and that is something not many guys do."
Only 16 rookies have posted a higher point total than Malkin's 85 last season. Many of them, though, spoke English -- if not as a first language, at least in passing.
Malkin, a Russian, did not.
Malkin, who spent his summer in Europe with family and friends, said through an interpreter Thursday that he has not hired a tutor. He will continue to learn English from "watching TV and reading books."
"But he is learning. He is forcing himself to learn," Gonchar said. "Every time and again now he is reading the dictionary and trying to memorize some words. I mean, it is progress. It is a step forward."
Malkin's teammates, including last-season linemate Jordan Staal, insist that his language barrier presented no problem on the ice. However, a consensus among people within the organization is that Malkin's willingness to room with an English-speaking player on the road this season should go a long way toward accelerating his cultural assimilation.
General manager Ray Shero called that decision by Malkin "a big thing." Gonchar agreed, adding he hopes Malkin derives enough confidence from the experiment to seek a place of his own in Pittsburgh by season's end.
Shero said the Penguins will not force Malkin to move from Gonchar's house. However, Shero has encouraged such a move and said he has a feeling Malkin wants to expand his horizons.
"He is ready for it, anyway," Shero said. "He wants to be on his own, have his own place, to drive and do what he wants."
Staal said Malkin wants desperately to adjust to the North American lifestyle and speak freely in most of his teammate's native tongue.
"He worked on it a little bit this summer, and I'm really proud of him," Staal said. "You should have seen him the other night."
Staal referred to the eve of training camp, when Malkin was charged with interviewing prospect Tyler Kennedy, then, in front of teammates, coaches and team officials, presenting Kennedy while speaking only English.
"You know what• He did a really good job," winger Mark Recchi said. "That was the longest I ever heard him speak English."
Shero said he could not help but get caught up in the crowd's reaction to Malkin's presentation, which was thunderous applause.
"He got a big ovation," Shero said. "He is making progress. It is more of a shyness thing for him. I see him coming out of his shell."
Evidence of Malkin coming out of his shell was on display at the UPMC South Side facility on Thursday. After completing a battery of tests, Malkin met the media and answered the majority of questions through his interpreter, team ticket sales executive George Birman.
One question, though, started Malkin shaking his head and repeatedly uttering one word: "No!" (he was not married over the summer).
So, even if he does not always speak it, Malkin better understands English?
"Yes," Malkin said, with no help. "I do."