Evgeni Malkin isn't skating a like a guy who wants to his ease way back from injury.
The Pittsburgh Penguins star says it's "50/50" he'll play in Thursday night's season opener against Anaheim but the odds appear to be getting more favourable by the minute. Malkin practised with his teammates for the first time on Tuesday after missing almost all of training camp with an undisclosed issue.
Whatever the problem is, it's fading. The 2012 MVP looked like his typically powerful self while getting his first hands-on look at new coach Mike Johnston's system.
"It feels great," Malkin said. "I need to get in better shape, but I'm glad to be back."
Malkin made it through the entire hour-long session working through a series of high intensity drills, including skating alongside Sidney Crosby as they worked two-on-two against a pair of defencemen. While he's not quite 100 per cent, Malkin impressed Johnston with his conditioning.
"He stayed the whole practice, that was really encouraging," Johnston said. "I thought he looked pretty good for a guy who hasn't been on the ice for a month."
Johnston cautioned he wants to see how Malkin responds on Wednesday before getting too optimistic about whether No. 71 will be available when the Penguins begin the long six-month slog through the regular season. There's no need to rush him back out there, though the sooner Malkin returns, the sooner Johnston can begin the process of figuring out how to best use one of the league's most dynamic players.
Malkin lost longtime running mate James Neal when the Penguins traded the productive, if volatile, forward to Nashville in a trade on the opening night of the NHL Draft in June. Malkin, who had 23 goals and 49 assists while being limited to 60 regular games last year, called the decision to ship Neal a "surprise" but said he didn't spend too much time worrying about it.
"It's hockey," Malkin said. "The last four years is not good enough. We just change a little bit."
Or perhaps a lot. Neal's departure was part of a sizable off-season overhaul by one of the NHL's marquee franchises after the Penguins failed to reach the Stanley Cup Finals for the fifth straight season. Johnston replaced Dan Bylsma on the bench and is in the process of implementing a new system that places more emphasis on puck possession and support than the slightly more wide-open style favoured by Bylsma.
Malkin has spent the early portions of the transition in the video room but is impressed by Johnston, who travelled to Russia over the summer shortly after getting hired.
"We talk a little bit," Malkin said. "Good time with him. ... I'm glad to see him, meet him and just move forward."
That move could include the Penguins getting creative with how they use Malkin, at least early in the season. Johnston said the team will experiment with moving Malkin, a centre, to right wing and pairing him with Brandon Sutter and Pascal Dupuis. Johnston stressed the idea isn't something the Penguins are considering on a permanent basis but something he's considering while forward Beau Bennett recovers from a leg injury.
"I like the way Sutter is playing and it takes away some defensive responsibilities (for Malkin)," Johnston said. "Geno has played the wing. He's a great centre. We can use him at centre, we know that. But to get him playing with the best people right now, we're taking a look at wing."