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Gonchar: Malkin staying in Russia

| Saturday, Aug. 19, 2006

Penguins defenseman Sergei Gonchar expected to be Evgeni Malkin's teammate, landlord and unofficial guide to life in North America and the NHL this year.

But Gonchar doesn't believe that's going to happen anymore based on a phone call he received from Malkin a couple of days ago.

"He told me he's staying another year," Gonchar said by phone from his native Russia on Tuesday. "He said he has a reason to stay over. I don't know the reason, but he's staying now."

It's a big change from mid-July, when Gonchar said that, "One way or another (Malkin's) going to leave and play (in the NHL). That's what I understand." Gonchar had gone so far as to arrange for Malkin, 20, to fly from Russia to Pittsburgh with him and live with his family during the season.

But if Gonchar had any more details about Malkin's sudden reversal, he wasn't sharing.

"It's hard for me to make any comments," said Gonchar, who said their conversation was not in person but over the phone and that they "didn't talk much."

The Penguins said yesterday that they still had not received official word that Malkin was staying in Russia this year, despite reports on the Metallurg Magnitogorsk Web site on Monday that their MVP had re-worked his contract with the team to remain through the 2006-07 season. Agents J.P. Barry and Pat Brisson maintain that Malkin wants to play in the NHL this year.

Until there is official word, Penguins spokesman Tom McMillan said, the team won't be able to comment on the situation.

But at some point, general manager Ray Shero will have to start looking to fill Malkin's penciled-in slot at No. 2 center, if he hasn't already.

One possibility could come from within.

The Penguins drafted another highly regarded center this past June, No. 2 overall pick Jordan Staal.

But Staal, who won't turn 18 until Sept. 10, may not be ready for the NHL yet. Until he proves in training camp that he can make the leap, agent Paul Krepelka said they won't begin to discuss a contract.

"There's no intention of doing (a contract) beforehand," Krepelka said yesterday.

It's rare for an 18-year-old prospect to make an NHL team in his draft year, as Sidney Crosby did so successfully with the Penguins last season. But Jordan's brother, Eric, also a center and also drafted second overall, made the Carolina Hurricanes' roster the year he was drafted and played as an 18-year-old, getting 11 goals and 20 assists for 31 points in 81 games in 2003-04.

"Obviously (Jordan is) going to camp with the intention of making the team, but we'll let it play out," Krepelka said. "He's got the chance to do it. But the NHL is a difficult league to play in, never mind as an 18-year-old kid. If he proves he belongs with the big boys, we'll act accordingly."

The Penguins also have prospects Erik Christensen and Maxime Talbot, who each saw time at center in the NHL last year.

If Shero turns to the free-agent market, the pickings are slim with training camps set to open in about a month.

Yanic Perreault, 35, whom the Penguins were rumored to be talking to last month, is still available, as is Trevor Linden, 36, although he's expected to return to the Vancouver Canucks. Other centers still on the market include ex-Penguins Jan Hrdina, 30, and Greg Johnson, 35, as well as Jim Dowd, 37, Boyd Devereaux, 27, Erik Rasmussen, 29, Jason Allison, 31, and Clarke Wilm, 29.

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