Where does Pittsburgh Penguins star Evgeni Malkin fit in the greatest Russian NHL’ers ever? Since Russia adopted hockey as one of their national sports, the motherland has produced more than its share of spectacular players. Soviet Russia changed the game with cooperative play, fluid skating techniques, and even studied ballet in their quest. The Russian hockey boom also changed how goalies played as Vladimir Tretiak became not only one of the greatest goalies of all-time, but one of the transformative goalie coaches, too.
However, I can’t lie. I revel in goals by Henderson and Eruzione. But that’s a story for another self-quarantined day.
In the late 1980s, as Glasnost took hold. In 1989, Russia allowed Sergei Pryahkin to leave Russia for the NHL, but Pryahkin wasn’t a great player. Great goal scorer Alexander Mogilny defected in cloak-and-dagger fashion, shortly after. The Mogilny story is very much like Malkin’s Penguins-aided escape from Russia in an airport broom closet, too.
Mogilny was part of a Russian line with two other great players who you know: Sergei Federov and Pavel Bure.
You can read how the Buffalo Sabres executives recused Mogilny in Sweden. Russian players began defecting, and more than one showed up with no equipment or a dollar in their pocket. Whack yourself in the head if you believe communism is a good form of government, but it just hasn’t been done right. But I digress.
Then the damn broke, and Russian players began defecting to play in the greatest hockey league in the world. One wonders if the concussed Henderson didn’t score that goal, and Herb Brooks didn’t mold a group of college kids into the greatest underdog champion ever, would those great players have wanted to escape to the NHL?
Wait, yes. As great as those Russian forebearers were, they were still in an iron-fisted Communist gulag.
Mogilny had three good seasons in Buffalo before he exploded in 1992-93. The Russian scored 77 goals in 76 games. While Mogilny faded, former linemates Bure and Federov had extraordinary careers.
Don’t worry. I’ll get to Evgeni Malkin.
Bure and his choppy skating strides, which appeared like he was running past defenders on the right wing, rather than gliding, compiled 779 points, including 437 goals in just 702 games. He was one of the most exciting players of the decade, and he was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2012.
Federov was part of the Russian Five, who brought the Stanley Cup back to Detroit. They pack of Russian’s had to escape from the iron-fisted Russian “society.” Federov won three Stanley Cups beginning in 1997. He played 18 seasons in the NHL and scored 1179 points in 1249 games. His 483 goals put him only 17 goals shy of being the first Russian born player to score 500.
Federov was widely regarded as the best Russian player in the NHL.
Pavel Datsyuk arrived in Detroit in 2001 after three years of Russian hockey. He had a tepid start to his career with only 35 points in 70 games, but Datsyuk quickly blossomed into a two-way force every bit Patrice Bergeron’s equal.
But then came the Great 8. Drafted first overall in 2004, Alex Ovechkin has shattered every Russian record and become the flag bearer for Vlad Putin’s Russian dictatorship. Ovechkin recently scored his 700th goal and is easily the best Russian player in NHL history, even if his game had massive holes for more than a decade. You may remember a younger Ovechkin treating the defensive blue line like it was an electric fence, and he had a shock collar.
You may also remember Washington Capitals head coach Dale Hunter nailing Ovechkin to the pine in the third period for most of a season to send the message that wasn’t how hockey was played in North America.
So, Malkin. I thought you’d never ask.
Malkin, 33, struggled last season. He wasn’t happy, nor was his team. Yet Malkin is already the third leading Russian born scorer of all-time, and he scored a paltry 72 points (21g, 51a) in 68 games. History will forget Malkin’s struggles with Phil Kessel. His frustration at his own game.
History will remember Evgeni Malkin as the winner of three Stanley Cups, one Hart Trophy, two Art Ross trophies, and the second greatest second-line center in NHL history, behind only Mark Messier. And a strong case could be made for Malkin to be No. 1 in that discussion, too.
So, where does Malkin rank in Russian NHL history? Sadly, Malkin is firmly in second place. But what could have been?
Malkin has been at his actual best when the Pittsburgh Penguins were his team. As fellow star Sidney Crosby missed months due to concussion symptoms (which turned out to be a neck injury) in 2011-12, Malkin was nothing short of dominant. Malkin was awarded the Hart, the Art Ross, and even the Pearson award, which is given by the NHL players to the best in the league.
That script has been written several times throughout Malkin’s career. When Malkin feels challenged or is needed, he is extraordinary. His 2008-09 season after the Pittsburgh Penguins lost the Stanley Cup Final to Datsyuk and the Detroit Red Wings in 2008 was another jaw-dropping season. Malkin blitzed the NHL for a league-leading 113 points (but lost a close Hart Trophy race to Ovechkin).
That Malkin singular minded determination to greatness was present again this season as Crosby missed 10 weeks due to a sports hernia. Malkin carried the Penguins and was on the score sheet for more than 40% of the Penguins offense.
Yet Malkin hasn’t always performed to that level. Let’s be brutally honest. Malkin has also accepted being a No. 2. He’s the Robin to Crosby’s Batman.
Where does Malkin fit in NHL history? He’ll likely be remembered as the second-best Russian of all-time, with at least three Stanley Cup rings. He’ll be an easy first-ballot Hall-of-Famer, but…
But he could be the greatest Russian ever to play. He’s that good. When the 6-foot-3 and rock-solid 200-pound Malkin charges ahead, there are shades of 1990’s Mario Lemieux.
I have often wondered what Malkin’s career arc would have been if the Penguins had not won the 2005 draft lottery for Sidney Crosby. Would Malkin have been the dominant force with a C on his chest, or would he have been the same player we’ve marveled at for 14 seasons?
I’ve always leaned towards the former. If Malkin doesn’t regret it, nor should we. Above all things, Malkin has always been comfortable in his spot, which is exactly his place in NHL history. That’s not too bad. And maybe someday the egregious snub of not including Evgeni Malkin in the top 100 players of all-time will be fixed, somehow.