Evgeni Malkin (Gregory Shamus/NHLI via Getty Images)
He's one of the best players on the planet, a proud Russian but also a staunch supporter of the NHL dream. We talk to the Penguins center about KHL bans, playing against Sidney Crosby at the World Cup and a possible KHL-NHL championship showdown
It hasn't even been a decade yet, but Evgeni Malkin has assembled a very impressive career. He's won the Calder, Art Ross, Ted Lindsay, Hart and Conn Smythe trophies, been a multiple first-team all star and won a Stanley Cup. He doesn't have an Olympic gold medal, but a World Cup of Hockey win with Russia would work in the short-term.
“It’s a good challenge for us," Malkin said. "Of course we’re not happy that we lost the last two times in Vancouver and Sochi, but we have a new coach, good young guys – it’s going to be interesting. If we’re more together and focused, with luck we’ll win.”
In Toronto to promote the tournament – which takes place in the city approximately one year from now – Malkin sat proudly next to Soviet legend Vladislav Tretiak as he fielded questions. The Pittsburgh Penguins superstar has always taken up the flag for his nation and said he would love to see the Stanley Cup champions play the winner of the KHL's Gagarin Cup in the future. But he bristled at the idea recently floated by another icon, Slava Fetisov, that Russian players be banned from leaving for North America until they are 28 years old.
“I hope it’s not true," Malkin said. "I know young guys whose dream is to play in the NHL and 28 is too old. I hope in the future that the KHL and NHL will be a good rivalry. It should be the player’s choice.”
One such player is Sergei Plotnikov, a big left winger who will be coming over the first time at the advanced age of 25. Plotnikov signed with the Penguins as a free agent this summer and though Malkin didn't know him before, the two skated together last week.
Malkin, one of the last players who had to actually escape Russia in order to play in the NHL, came to Pittsburgh in 2006 with tons of hockey gifts but not much in the way of language skills. Luckily, the Penguins also deployed veteran Russian Sergei Gochar on the blueline at the time, so 'Geno' had himself a translator. Now Malkin plans on paying it forward with Plotnikov.
“Everything is new for him," Malkin said. "I will do my best on-ice and off-ice to help him."
Of course, Plotnikov isn't the only new weapon in the Penguins' arsenal. GM Jim Rutherford also procured sniper Phil Kessel from the Toronto Maple Leafs in a big-time summer trade that Pittsburgh fans hope will end the disturbing trend of their Birds dive-bombing into the ice once the playoffs begin.
“We always try to get higher, we always have a good team," Malkin said. "We signed a couple new guys and got Kessel, who is a superstar. I like it. There are new faces on the team and it’s a challenge for everyone.”
Heading back to the World Cup, one very fun challenge would be for Russia to meet Canada in the knockout round. The two hockey powers will be in different pools at the Toronto showdown, but also look to be favorites to advance to the playoff round. That means there's a decent chance that Malkin would face off against Penguins teammate and fellow superstar Sidney Crosby, an opportunity the Russian relishes.
“I love playing against him," Malkin said. "We’ve played a long time together and he’s an amazing player. It will be very interesting. I hope we play each other.”