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Malkin 'A' leader for Penguins

You can't spell Malkin without an "A."

Calling him "one of our leaders," coach Michel Therrien said Saturday center Evgeni Malkin "definitely" is under consideration to serve as an alternate captain this season -- a move that would have the endorsement of captain Sidney Crosby.

"He's a great candidate, and we're going to help him," Therrien said before the Penguins played Tampa Bay in their exhibition home opener -- the first contest at Mellon Arena since Game 6 of the Stanley Cup final.

"We know (Malkin's) potential ... not only as a player, but as a leader, too."

When Therrien replaced Eddie Olczyk as coach Dec. 15, 2005, he immediately named Crosby an alternate captain. That move drew criticism. But Crosby prospered from the increased responsibility and believes a similar circumstance for Malkin would be the right move.

"I think so," Crosby said. "He's a guy that we're going to depend on a lot. If he's the guy that gets a responsibility like that, it's well-deserved."

Therrien said he will take the remainder of training camp to reach a decision on what player -- or possibly players -- will replace departed left wing Ryan Malone as an alternate captain. But Malkin, 22, who signed a five-year extension worth $43.5 million over the summer, is on the short list of contenders.

Malkin, second in MVP voting and the scoring race last season, said yesterday the time is not right to become an alternate captain.

"There are more people, older ... not me, no way," Malkin said. "Maybe a couple years more. I need to speak English."

Malkin, whose first language is Russian, is still not comfortable speaking English. But teammates such as defensemen Brooks Orpik and fellow Russian and alternate captain Sergei Gonchar insist Malkin is fluent enough to handle primary responsibilities of an alternate -- officially to speak with on-ice officials, unofficially to deal with the media.

"Maybe the language would be a little bit of a problem in the beginning," Gonchar said. "But I do believe he's getting better. He's more comfortable. He's going to speak more and more (this season). It's kind of (a) natural (progression)."

Gonchar added that making Malkin an alternate captain is "worth considering ... if you look at the picture long-term."

"At this point, he may not feel it's the right decision yet," Gonchar said. "If you look at the situation, for the team's well-being, it's going to help him to develop into a better player and be more responsible."

Crosby, 18 when he donned an "A" as a rookie, said receiving the letter "probably added a little bit of responsibility."

"I think it made me better," Crosby said.

Forward Max Talbot, who roomed with Malkin for road trips last season, described him as "definitely a leader on this team."

"It's not by talking, but by acting," Talbot said. "He's always there in the big moments."

Malkin morphed from a willing sidekick to Crosby into a dominant offensive centerpiece after Crosby was injured with a right high-ankle sprain Jan. 18. Over the final 36 games of the regular season, Malkin scored 24 goals and recorded 54 points to finish with 47 goals and 106 points.

He scored seven goals and recorded 17 points in the Penguins' opening 10 playoff games, but registered just two goals and five points over their final 10 postseason contests -- including only a goal and two assists in the Stanley Cup final.

Orpik, a close Malkin confidant, said the Penguins would never have reached the final without Malkin's mature performance during a mostly Crosby-less final two months of the regular season.

"Guys, especially when Sid was down last year, definitely looked at him to, I wouldn't say carry us, but he definitely was a leader up front," Orpik said.

"It's something I think he takes upon himself. He might not be vocal, but I think he kind of likes it, to be honest -- being a leader of the team and taking that starring role."

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