Malkin wants 'many more' years with Pens
Evgeni Malkin went home to get it.
He spent 119-day NHL lockout playing hockey with his hometown Metallurg Magnitogorsk of the Kontinental Hockey League. Childhood friends attended every Metallurg home game, after which Malkin always devoured borscht at his parents' house.
“My mom came to every (home) game,” Malkin said Tuesday after the Penguins' final full practice of an abbreviated training camp.
The Russian road was rougher.
Some of Metallurg's closest opponents played in cities five hours away by plane. Often, Malkin was greeted at the team hotel by a horde of fans wanting autographs — and they also showed up at restaurants.
Games provided solace, especially because his two great NHL friends, Sergei Gonchar (Ottawa) and Nikolai Kulemin, were Metallurg teammates. However, his standing as the world's finest hockey player made Malkin a constant postgame target of traveling Magnitogorsk reporters and the local media in every city that welcomed Metallurg.
“I understand now how hard it is for Sid,” Malkin said, referring to Penguins teammate Sidney Crosby. “He does such a great job. It is hard. I get it.”
Malkin was the face of Metallurg and the KHL, as Crosby is the Penguins and the NHL.
Admittedly, Malkin “started slow” with Metallurg, but he was second in KHL scoring when the NHL lockout tentatively ended Jan. 6. He finished that season with 23 goals and 65 points in 37 games.
Over the last 12 months, playing in the NHL and KHL — widely regarded as the planet's two finest leagues — Malkin has scored 55 goals and recorded 133 points in 75 games.
During the lockout, Crosby described the level at which Malkin has played as “awesome.”
“Geno, really, can do whatever he wants when he's playing his game,” Crosby said. “What he did last season was pretty incredible when you think about it.”
For the uninitiated, or anybody who may have simply put Malkin out of mind when he was out of sight and out of the country, a recap of his last NHL season:
He missed seven of the Penguins' first 11 games, his surgically repaired right knee having flared up in the second game at Calgary. By the date of Crosby's heralded return from concussion symptoms Nov. 21, Malkin had produced five goals and 14 points in 13 games.
He finished with 50 goals, a career best, and 109 points in 75 games — or 45 goals and 95 points over his final 62 contests, a 1.53 per-game average during that span.
“And he did that after tearing two ligaments (anterior and medial collateral),” Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik said about Malkin's injury in February 2011.
“People act like what (Minnesota Vikings running back) Adrian Peterson did after his knee injury was amazing. They don't realize Geno did the same thing, and basically wasn't right for the first two months last season.”
Malkin no longer wears protective gear on the right knee. He again welcomed Penguins strength and conditioning coach Mike Kadar to Moscow over the summer to oversee offseason training.
Malkin lives in Moscow because he can easily get lost in Russia's capital, which is home to about 11.5 million. Magnitogorsk, where his parents and brother, Denis, still live, is a city of about 407,000.
“He never wants to be the biggest man in town,” said Gonchar, who shares a floor of an apartment complex with Malkin in Moscow.
Malkin felt like the biggest man in every KHL town Metallurg visited, save for Moscow.
He was not just a two-time NHL scoring champion, the reigning MVP, or a winner of the Stanley Cup. He is a fiercely proud Russian who led the national team to a 2012 World Championships win, leading the tournament in scoring.
“He's like a hero there,” Kulemin said of Malkin in Russia.
Malkin has nearly reached that status in Pittsburgh, the only city other than Magnitogorsk he has called home. Both cities are known for being the steel capitals of their respective countries. The people of each are proudly provincial, and they treat their brightest hockey stars as civic institutions.
That is not an honor made for Malkin, who Gonchar described as “smart, funny, big-hearted, but also very private.”
“Evgeni would like to play hockey, and he can be the best hockey player,” Gonchar said. “But maybe he would like best to do it out of the spotlight.”
Malkin, though, can no longer stand in the shadows — and not because he is 11th all-time in NHL history with 1.23 points per game, the high for any Russian.
Malkin will turn 27 on July 31.
By then, he likely will have either signed one of the richest contracts in Pittsburgh sports history or be uncomfortably heading down a path toward becoming the most coveted free agent in hockey.
The Penguins, because of the new NHL labor contract, can offer Malkin a maximum eight-year extension that could total about $102.9 million. General manager Ray Shero has been directed by ownership to keep Malkin with the Penguins through the duration of his career.
The thought of that possibility — playing alongside Crosby and annually chasing the Stanley Cup — drew a wide smile from Malkin on Tuesday.
A pause quickly followed.
“We'll see,” he said. “(I) can't say what will happen. I want to play in (the) NHL. Two years left on (my) contract, but I want to play in (the) NHL.”
Malkin stressed that by in the NHL, he specifically meant “with Pittsburgh.”
Still, there is the dangling carrot of a tax-free, whopping-cash contract in the KHL.
“(I will) not talk about it,” Malkin said of his future. “I play for Pittsburgh for two more years. Of course, I hope more. Many more.”