Talked with the Pittsburgh Penguins' Evgeni Malkin the other day and was impressed by how much his English has improved since the last time he was front and centre, which was the 2009 Stanley Cup final, where he won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP. Malkin didn't have a great year last year - his scoring totals were off by almost a third, from the 106 he managed in the Stanley Cup year to the 77 he produced last year. Mostly that had to do with a shoulder injury that forced him to miss 15 games in total, but lingered all year and affected his ability to shoot and take contact.
I've always had a proprietary interest in Malkin because, in his last year in Russia, he played for the first Canadian ever to coach in what was then called the Russian Superleague, Dave King, now a Phoenix Coyotes assistant. I co-wrote King's book on that experience; we'd talk weekly and all he ever did was rave about this kid Malkin coming up. In fact, the only thing that puzzled King was how little Malkin tried to learn English that year; while so many of his other young Russian contemporaries worked so hard at it.
I saw Malkin for the first time that year at the world juniors in Russia and confirmed King's observations: His hockey ability was special; his English practically non-existent. But that has changed now and it's probably a good thing because Malkin's de facto baby sitter for the first three years of his career, fellow Russian Sergei Gonchar, moved on as a free agent this summer and signed with the Ottawa Senators.
So Malkin is on his own and by the sounds of it, he is going to manage OK. His English isn't perfect but he spoke without an interpreter for the first time that I can ever remember, and was processing the questions pretty well.
After two consecutive trips to the Stanley Cup final, Malkin said the time off this summer helped him recover.
"I have injury on my shoulder last year, now it feels stronger. I miss hockey. I'm ready."
Then Malkin went on to say: "I'm not 100 per cent last year. After we lost in the Olympics, I feel so bad after. It was a tough season."
Ok, it's not going to win the Jeremy Roenick prize for public speaking, but it's not Nuke Laloosh either - and it gets the message across, which is the point of fishing for information in the first place. I also wanted to know if Malkin thought he could win the scoring title after finishing second to Ovechkin in the 2008-09 race. His answer was cautious but confident: "I'm not saying now I will win scoring title, but I hope and I try. Why not?"
As for the talk that he may play some at right wing this season, because of the Penguins' depth down the middle (Sidney Crosby, Jordan Staal), that plan is likely on hold until such time as Staal is ready to play again. Staal is currently out of the Penguins' line-up, recovering from a foot infection that followed off-season surgery to repair a lacerated tendon. Staal will not be ready to start the season; the hope is that he will be back playing sometime in October.
Shifting to wing, however, is something that Malkin is prepared to do, having played there at different times in his career, including last year's world championships. In fact, given that in the Penguins' system, the centre has a greater defensive role, he thought it might even enhance his scoring:
"That's OK because I played before. It's not a big change, but maybe I score a bit more because I play up more in the offensive zone and have more scoring chances. But we'll see."
Finally, discussing the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia, Malkin says he is all set to play, even if the NHL doesn't release its players to go. Friends of his made a tour through the city and say it is teeming with life, with construction going on everywhere; and that Olympic excitement is running high, even though the Games are still three-and-a-half years away. And when asked specifically whether he would break his contract to play in Sochi, there was no hesitation and no language barrier. He answered: "Yes."
Pretty clear message there - for commissioner Gary Bettman, for the league and for the players association. Gentlemen, at some point, get this done.