Evgeni Malkin will soon turn 35-years old. He’s a long way from the moppy-haired kid who hid in a Finnish airport bathroom to sneak away from the KHL for his NHL destiny. Nearly 14 years later, Malkin has carved a historical career, three Stanley Cup rings, but while he acknowledged the past, there are a couple of things left to accomplish.
In some ways, Malkin is still that big kid. Tuesday in practice, he celebrated a small victory in drills by throwing his hands in the air and attacking Jake Guentzel with a full bear hug.
Malkin was in vintage form. The excitement of another season and another chance is palpable.
NHL trends have not been kind to victors. The Detroit Red Wings, Chicago Blackhawks, and LA Kings hit hockey’s version of skid row after multiple Cups (or Finals appearances) in the 12 years. Aging rosters became bad contracts and a hockey season without playoffs.
The three-time Stanley Cup champion Penguins core are fighting to avoid being next in line for the calamitous drop to the bottom of the standings.
“We want (the Stanley Cup) back. Of course, we want to be in the playoffs and play better in the playoffs,” Malkin said.
In full disclosure, we assume Malkin was referring to the Stanley Cup in the sentence above. He used the word “it” instead. He could mean the Penguins swagger or dominant play, too? Malkin’s brutal honesty, combined with his Russian-English, can sometimes be confusing.
Later, he expounded about his career and the future with his Justice League style companions Sidney Crosby and Kris Letang. The trio has played their storied careers together, in the same uniform for nearly one and a half decades.
“…We still talk a lot together. We’re still hungry. We still want one more Cup, for sure,” Malkin said. “We’re older and older every year. We don’t know how many (more) years we’ll play together. Two? Three?”
Unprompted, Malkin brought up not just the desire for one more Stanley Cup, but the historical nature of a fourth Stanley Cup in Russian hockey history.
You know the end is closer than the beginning when players can reference their early years with a laugh. That shaggy-haired Malkin kid who set the NHL ablaze and won the Calder Trophy one year before the Wales Conference Trophy and two years before lifting the 35-pound Stanley Cup.
Evgeni Malkin Russian History
“I remember my first year. I was so nervous, two days before the (first) game, I couldn’t sleep,” Malkin admitted. “But if we win one more Cup, I’ll be the first Russian who won four Cups.”
One more would vault Malkin ahead of Russian great Sergei Fedorov, who won three with Detroit. One can imagine how those lavish birthday dinners with lifetime Russian friend Alex Ovechkin, himself chasing Wayne Gretzky’s all-time goals scored record, would go when Malkin flashes the unprecedented jewelry.
Evgeni Malkin, 34, had a resurrection season in 2019-20. The dominant version made another appearance in the six-week absence of Sidney Crosby. In fact, dominant may not be an adequate description.
With Jake Guentzel on the LW, Malkin zoomed among the scoring leaders. His name garnered Hart Trophy buzz until a second-half injury claimed him, just as the early-season core muscle surgery shelved Crosby.
Malkin netted 74 points (25g, 49a) in just 55 games. He was every bit as good as he’s ever been.
It’s been a long and winding road for Malkin. He’s never quite received the full accolades despite eye-popping numbers and performances. There’s always been a shadow with No. 87 hanging over him, even in the best of times. But that shadow only hangs outside the organization.
On the inside, Malkin is every bit the leader and driver of the Penguins team.
“I see a ‘Geno’ that has matured over the years … I think he has a certain perspective on the game and his career. He has high expectations of himself, as he should because he’s such an elite player,” Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan said. “(Malkin) really cares about winning. He cares about the Penguins, and what I really admire about him is he takes responsibility for himself.”
Sullivan also referred to Malkin as a generation talent. That argument is buttressed by 1076 career points, including 416 goals in just 907 games. The Penguins have a steep mountain to climb this season, including Ovechkin’s Washington Capitals and a very tough East Division. The Penguins will have to play better in the playoffs. Much, much better than they have in the past two years when they crumbled in the opening rounds.
Evgeni Malkin is never one to disappoint in the several times per year he speaks to the media. Last season, “I am fire” became a running tagline as he torched opposing goalies. This year, his tacit admission the end is near should be a reminder to his teammates and fans alike. This roadshow will have an end. Perhaps we should appreciate it just a little bit more, regardless of this season’s end result.