I've always felt a propriety interest in the Pittsburgh Penguins' Evgeni Malkin - and it all stems back to a book project I did during the 2006-07 season with Dave King, a Phoenix Coyotes' assistant coach, who was behind the bench of three Canadian men's Olympic hockey teams. That year, King took his vast international resume to Russia, where he became the first Canadian to coach in what was then known as the Super League.
Malkin's peer, Alex Ovechkin, had left for the NHL already, but he stayed behind to play one more season, which permitted King's Magnitogorsk team to fashion an extraordinary regular season, much of thanks to the play of his teenage star.
King and I spoke almost every week and almost every week he had another anecdote relating to Malkin's rapid-fire development. In fact, about the only criticism that King ever levelled towards him was that when things went sour - in the way they inevitably do, even for the most talented and precocious players - Malkin would revert to individual play and go all lone wolf, trying to do everything by himself. Sometimes, it even worked. Mostly it did not.
Anyone who watched the final of the 2007 world junior tournament saw that first hand. Malkin played for Russia in Vancouver. This was a year after the seminal North Dakota tournament and virtually all the stars of that event - from Ovechkin to Sidney Crosby, Ryan Getzlaf, Jeff Carter, Corey Perry and the rest - had graduated to the NHL. Malkin didn't - and his presence made the Russians the favourites in Vancouver against a Brent Sutter-coached team that featured Steve Downie and the shutdown defence pair of Marc Staal and Ryan Parent. Malkin had a great tournament, but a terrible final game - Canada negated him at every turn and as soon as Malkin started to go solo, well, it was over for the Russians.
Malkin was on my mind again this week, as the Penguins passed through Calgary, for two reasons. One, he is mired in the same sort of slump that King once talked about - and according to coach Dan Bylsma, he is trying to play himself out of it the way he always did, by doing too much himself. Secondly, Malkin was on his way to Vancouver - the Penguins play the Canucks Saturday night - on an 11-game goalless drought, even after Pittsburgh swept a pair of games in Alberta Wednesday and Thursday. Tomorrow's visit will be a world junior homecoming of sorts for him and also a chance to visit the venue, GM Place, where he'll try to win gold for Russia at the 2010 Winter Olympics.
Malkin is different than Ovechkin or Ilya Kovalchuk of the Atlanta Thrashers in that he doesn't grant interviews on game days. His English is broken at the best of times anyway, so getting his take on things proved unsuccessful as he ventured through Calgary.
But I did put a question about Malkin to Bylsma because communication was an issue for King in his days coaching him. Knowing that Malkin needed to make better use of his teammates to get his own game back on track, how did Bylsma get that message across?
"I can unequivocally say there is no language barrier when talking to Evgeni Malkin," answered Bylsma. "He's really smart. It may not be perfect English in front of the cameras. It may not be perfect English in private either, but … he gets it. He definitely understands everything. He's a guy who wants more from himself and expects more from himself; looks at certain aspects of our team and says, 'I need to provide more.' And he wears it on his sleeve.
"I know he has the intention within him (of trying to do more). That's part of the battle with Evgeni - to make sure he plays within the structure and not try to do it all himself and get it all back himself in one power play or one touch of the puck. That's a growing process for him and he's certainly dealing with it - the spotlight and the expectations. He's fighting through it, desperately trying to get back on his game."
The Penguins shifted Malkin to the half boards on the power play just before the game against Calgary, a position where he is more comfortable, but that forces Crosby to go down in front of the net. The new lineup resulted in the decisive power-play goal, which bumped the Penguins all the way up to No. 29 in the league with the man advantage. Hard to believe that a team with all that firepower can be so bad on the power play, but there you go. And the issue is more about the percentage (14.3) than the actual number of goals (29). Pittsburgh was the first team in the league to get 200 power-play chances; maybe there is something to the conspiracy theories about the referees favouring the marquee teams. Or maybe it's just that the Penguins are so skilled up front that they draw, on average, more power-play opportunities than the average bear.
Whatever it is, if the shift to the side gets Malkin any closer to the net (he didn't seem to be moving any closer to the hard areas in the game against Calgary) and the goals start to come, the Penguins should be a far more dangerous opponent than they are now, relying as heavily as they do on Crosby for their scoring.
FROM THE MASH UNITS: As if the Chicago Blackhawks needed any more help, centre Dave Bolland - sidelined since a Nov. 10 surgical procedure to repair a herniated back disc - skated for the first time this past week and is on schedule to return to the lineup prior to the Olympic break. Bolland figures to practice full-time with the team during a season-high eight-game road trip that begins Saturday night in Columbus. Upon Bolland's return, the versatile Patrick Sharp figures to shift back to the wing … The news is not nearly as promising for the Detroit Red Wings' Niklas Kronwall, out since a Nov. 21 knee-on-knee collision with the Montreal Canadiens' Georges Laraque that earned the latter a five-game suspension. Kronwall was originally expected to miss about six weeks with a medial collateral ligament sprain, but is still feeling pain and thus had to stop skating. Kronwall is one of two top-four defencemen (Jonathan Ericsson is the other) still missing from the Red Wings' line-up … The Anaheim Ducks were just about to bump Teemu Selanne up the depth chart, after he recovered from a fractured left hand and was just getting back in game shape when there was more bad news for the Finnish Flash. Selanne fractured his jaw in Wednesday's 4-3 win over the Boston Bruins, the Ducks' fifth consecutive victory, a streak that came to an end Thursday night against the Los Angeles Kings. Selanne underwent surgery that afternoon and, according to the team, could miss anywhere from two to six weeks. If it's closer to the latter than the former, it might put his Olympic participation in jeopardy …
WAIT TIL NEXT YEAR: The Oilers can comfortably turn the page on this season, now that goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin has undergone surgery to repair a herniated disc in his back and will miss the rest of the season. Without its No. 1 goaltender - general manager Steve Tambellini called Khabibulin "our MVP" - as well as perennial scoring leader Ales Hemsky, Edmonton has zero chance of making up the necessary ground in the Western Conference standings. Accordingly, the goal in the second half will be for Pat Quinn and staff to get a read on which players they believe they can win with down the road, and which are expendable at the trading deadline. If the Oilers land a top-three pick, it'll be the highest they've ever selected in the NHL entry draft … Ottawa seemed to get a lift out of that dodge ball game, on the ice, in Manhattan's Central Park Wednesday, given that they went out the next night and shut out the Rangers 2-0, behind the goaltending of Mike Brodeur. It marked the second time in 48 hours that a goaltender named Brodeur threw a shutout at them. New Jersey's Martin managed the trick on Tuesday, the 107th of his career. For the Rangers, they have now gone 144 minutes and 23 seconds without a goal. Marian Gaborik has cooled off of late, with just three points in January, and no one else is picking up the scoring slack. The Rangers are competitive because of goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, who also earned a shutout in a shootout loss versus Jersey and came within less than two minutes of another versus the Senators. In effect, they surrendered just one goal in regulation over two games and earned only one of a possible four points in the standings. No wonder coach John Tortorella is sounding even more frustrated than usual ... Neil Smith, the Rangers' general manager in 1994 when they won their last Stanley Cup, has gone behind the bench for the first time in his 30-plus years in the industry. A two-time NHL executive of the year, Smith installed himself as coach of the ECHL's Johnstown Chiefs earlier this week, becoming the first owner/governor/coach in recent memory, a latter day Eddie Shore. Smith replaced Jeff Flanagan, who was let go this past Monday after a 9-19-7 start.
THIS AND THAT: Here's the latest on the Ilya Kovalchuk front: The Atlanta Thrashers captain is still unsigned; still poised to become an unrestricted free agent; still unsure if $9-million per season on a lifetime contract is enough to stay in the NHL; and still the object of the Continental Hockey League's burning desire. In short, nothing's changed … The New York Islanders' surge to respectability has been largely framed as a John Tavares/Dwayne Roloson production, but the play of second-year forward Josh Bailey has been integral as well. Bailey has 15 points in his last 11 games, and in the month of January, had 10 points through Thursday, or one more than Sidney Crosby.
AND FINALLY: A few words of wisdom from Colorado Avalanche defenceman Scott Hannan, whose team is - against all odds - jockeying with Calgary and Vancouver for top spot in the Northwest Division. With the Avalanche at the start of a stretch in which they play 11 of 13 at home, Hannan was asked if his was team was being taken more seriously now than at the start of the season. His answer: "Taking teams seriously, or not taking teams seriously, I don't know if anybody can do that. You see teams at the bottom go out and beat teams at the top all year long. We've got to be ready for every team in the league, just as every other team in the league has to be ready for us. You have those mental lapses because you're tired, or make a bad play defensively, those things cost you. That's the biggest thing I've noticed in the game right now. You give up a bad goal early, somehow the game ends up 1-0. Every shift has to matter."