Evgeni Malkin: 'My motivation now is very good'
Mike Kadar was curious how the 20 days he spent in Moscow this summer working over Evgeni Malkin would translate to Penguins training camp.
He received his answer Monday morning. He walked into the Consol Energy Center workout room and saw Malkin, shirt soaked in sweat, waiting for him.
"First guy in the gym," said Kadar, the Penguins' strength and conditioning coach. "I'd never seen that before."
In the two years since he won the NHL scoring title, led the playoffs in points and lifted the Stanley Cup, Malkin has missed 54 games, scored only 43 goals, had his right knee surgically repaired and been dropped from the conversation about the planet's finest hockey player.
He can recite those numbers. He can see his scars. He can read English well enough now to know "superstar" looked better than "star" before his name.
He senses that Penguins teammates and fans are calling for this, his sixth season, to be a "comeback year."
This is no comeback, though.
"I hope people understand this is (a) new me," Malkin said. "I've changed my workouts because maybe I was lazy before. Maybe I just played hockey, and that (was) good enough, but (there) is more for me to do.
"My motivation now is very good."
The sight of Malkin -- the only Penguin besides Mario Lemieux whose name is on the Calder Trophy, Conn Smythe Trophy and the Stanley Cup -- beating Kadar and teammates to the club's weight room validates a prediction from former Penguins defenseman Sergei Gonchar, Malkin's close friend and one-time mentor.
"I've worked out with him for years, and it seemed to me this summer he was more motivated, more focused, so it doesn't surprise me that has carried over," Gonchar said.
"His conditioning before didn't let him perform at the level people expected of him. That won't be the case this year. He'll be able to do whatever he wants on the ice."
Gonchar, who now plays for Ottawa, and Kadar know what Malkin wants. They heard him say it repeatedly this summer.
"I've always said to him before, 'Geno, you can be great if you just put in the work,' and he wouldn't say anything in response," Kadar said. "He hired me to train him this summer, and the first thing I asked before saying yes was, 'Geno, do you want to be great?'
"Geno started talking about the Cup."
He hasn't completed a hockey game since Jan. 18. He missed five games because of a sprained left knee, then returned for a home date against Buffalo on Feb. 4. It was his last of the season.
That was the Penguins' 12th straight game without concussed captain Sidney Crosby, who had teamed with Malkin to form a 1-2 center tandem that had become known as "The MegaPowers." The Penguins were banking on Malkin to carry them in Crosby's extended absence, as he famously had in the past, starting with that game against the Sabres.
Second period, first shift, Malkin collided with Buffalo defenseman Tyler Myers and ...
"Sounded like (a) pop," Malkin said of tearing of his right-knee ligaments.
The Penguins finished the regular season admirably, racking up points with stout defense, sturdy goaltending and shootout victories. Malkin watched games on a TV in the dressing room, frustrated he could not contribute when his teammates needed him most.
"It was the first time I haven't played hockey in a long time," he said, "and of course it made me appreciate it because it was a tough moment in my life.
"I know I could (have) helped."
He pushed to play in Game 7 of a first-round playoff series against Tampa Bay -- despite being told he couldn't -- and said he hoped to dress in Round 2. The Penguins didn't make it that far, but they scored a victory for down the road.
Daily rehab sessions that maxed out at three hours with team physical therapist Mark Mortland convinced Malkin his hard work couldn't end after his knee healed.
"I never worked with a personal (strength) coach before," he said. "Sid, (Jordan Staal and Kris Letang), they work with personal coaches, and I wanted the same idea. I wanted to take a coach and work with him, for him to show me how to do it right because sometimes I'd do it wrong.
"Now I understand a little more how to do the work."
Best Geno yet
Malkin finished last season with 15 goals and 37 points in 43 games. The prior season, during which he battled shoulder and foot injuries, he totaled 28 goals and 77 points in 67 games. Two seasons, 110 games, 43 goals, 71 assists.
Absent from his game was the effortlessness, fearlessness and confidence. His shots looked flat. He measured passes. His once-mesmerizing moves appeared stale.
He wasn't himself in form or production, Malkin said. He wondered what happened to the player who tallied 82 goals and 219 points while not missing a game from 2007-09.
As the Penguins open the regular season opens Thursday in Vancouver, they don't care what happened to that Malkin. They believe this Malkin, whom Kadar said has "bulked up without losing his agility or gaining a pound," might be the best version.
"If not completely, he's at least right there," said defenseman Paul Martin, who witnessed Malkin's zenith when Martin played for New Jersey prior to joining the Penguins last season.
"From playing against him and now watching him, it's pretty easy to see how good he really is when he's out there trying. In one (exhibition) game, I saw him beat a guy off the wall, take a loop across the zone and bring another guy to him and find someone else open. He was just taking complete control by himself.
"That's the guy who is scary good."
The Cup is the only thing teammates hear Malkin talk seriously about, and he is talking more than ever -- and not just to them.
He opened a Twitter account this summer, gaining 10,000 followers in one day. He posts tweets in English and Russian. This past week alone he congratulated Steelers safety Troy Polamalu on a touchdown and joked about bumping Crosby, who still isn't cleared for contact, during a faceoff drill.
Malkin said it is no accident he is often photographed wearing Steelers, Pirates or Pitt gear. He wants Pittsburghers to know he thinks of the city as a second home.
He also wants the Penguins to know he appreciates that his duties go beyond dominating on the ice. This is the reason he approached the media relations staff recently and asked to handle more media interviews and promotional requests.
Malkin said since he is paid as much as Crosby, the Penguins' face, he should do as much, too.
The development of this new Malkin -- better conditioned, more comfortable -- does not surprise his idol and legendary Russian superstar Igor Larionov.
"He is genuine to want to win for the team in Pittsburgh," Larionov said. "That is what I like most about him.
"He cares -- about his team, his fans in Pittsburgh -- and he wants to be great again for them. If he shows that more, that side of him, you will see the real Geno more than ever before."
A typical day in Malkin's training regimen
Penguins center Evgeni Malkin hired the club's strength and conditioning coach, Mike Kadar, as his personal trainer during the summer. Here's an example of one of their 20 days together in Russia:
• 7:30 a.m. (breakfast)
Light meal (fruit, grains, protein)
• 9:30 a.m. (gym work)
Warm up (quick run)
Dynamic warm up (plyometrics, jumps and stretches)
Activation (strength bands)
Weight training (upper and lower body, on alternating days)
• 11:30 a.m.
Cool down (stationary bike)
Stretch and massage
• 12 to 2:30 p.m. (recovery)
Drink supplement shake
Lunch (sushi, sandwich and soup)
Sleep (approximately 60 minutes)
• 3 to 5 p.m. (conditioning work)
Ice drills (starts and stops, rushes, weighted pucks)
Swimming (laps, sprints)
• 6:30 p.m. (dinner)
Normal meal (borscht, pasta, fish)
• 10 p.m. (bed)