Malkin: I'm learning I'm trying to be better every game
ATLANTA -- The NHL's best player through the first quarter of the regular season descended reluctantly from his hotel room.
You know the look a child gets when he sits down to the table and finds himself confronted by a plate of Brussels sprouts -- part disgust, part resignation? That was the look Evgeni Malkin brought to the lobby of the Pittsburgh Penguins' hotel in Atlanta for this interview.
It is a familiar look.
Even as Malkin was tearing up the playoffs last season, he would often disappear from the Penguins' locker room almost unnoticed. While teammates Sidney Crosby, Jordan Staal and the rest dutifully answered questions from the media, Malkin would pass through the room almost unnoticed, his rudimentary English and shy demeanor creating a strange dynamic of the specter-like superstar.
By the end, though, as the Detroit Red Wings pushed the Penguins closer and closer to the brink in the Stanley Cup finals, Malkin's play began to resemble his persona off the ice -- shadowy and mysterious. In many quarters, Malkin was hammered for failing to answer the bell.
While it was true Malkin did not play well in the finals, the denigration seemed to be overenthusiastic, perhaps in part because Malkin lacked the verbal skills to discuss and explain what he was going through.
"It was my first final. I was a little bit nervous," Malkin explained. "Maybe I'm a little bit tired and not playing good."
And the lingering question as the start of the current campaign approached was whether the disappointing finish, and subsequent criticism, might somehow scar one of the game's emerging superstars.
No. Malkin is simply the NHL's best player through the first quarter of the regular season. Heading into Thursday's games, he leads all NHL scorers with 30 points and 14 power-play points. The Penguins' shootout loss to Minnesota on Tuesday marked the first time in 14 games he did not register a point. In eight of those 13 games, Malkin recorded two or more points.
"Malkin is a force of nature. Size, speed, hands, vision, strength -- he has it all, and he's still just scratching the surface," said former Tampa Bay Lightning general manager and ESPN.com contributor Jay Feaster. "He is impossible to knock off the puck, and he is able to make plays at top speed. When he goes to the net, he is either going to get a 10-bell scoring chance or draw a penalty, because it's impossible to stop him in today's NHL."Penguins coach Michel Therrien said he knew right away there would be no hangover from last season's playoff disappointment for Malkin.
"He came to training camp in terrific shape. He played very well in the exhibition games," Therrien told ESPN.com.
"That's part of a process for him," Therrien said of what happened in the finals and whether it may affect Malkin's confidence. "It's hard to maintain that quality of play."
If anything, Therrien said he thought Malkin was trying to do too much at the end and that it was a good lesson about how success comes from teamwork, not individual play.
And not only has Malkin seamlessly resumed the torrid scoring pace of last season; his overall game has also blossomed.
"He's playing a more mature game," Therrien said. "He is working on the defensive side of the puck, finishing checks, hurrying back into the defensive zone."
In the past when Malkin made a mistake in coverage or positioning, he might not have fully understood why that was the case. Now, Therrien said, Malkin understands instantly when he has made an error, and moves to correct it.
The coach has full confidence in his two top stars, Malkin and Crosby, in all situations.
"I have no fears to play them against the top players in the league," Therrien said.
Last season, Malkin broke through when Crosby went down with a high-ankle sprain in January. Therrien told Malkin the team was counting on him, but he needed to simply play his own game. It was a message taken to heart, as Malkin finished the season with 106 points to follow up his rookie of the year campaign in 2006-07.
After tryouts with a number of linemates, Malkin ended up playing mostly with Petr Sykora and Ryan Malone. Both wingers had exceptional campaigns. This season, Sykora is back, while newcomer Ruslan Fedotenko is slowly fitting in with Malkin.
"He's a great player," Pittsburgh GM Ray Shero said of Malkin. "He makes other players better -- doesn't matter who you put him with.
"I didn't second-guess him for a second coming back that he'd have another great season," Shero said. "This is part of the process when you're a 21-year-old player. They're going to have some ups and downs. That's part of life, and that's part of playing sports."
It doesn't take a rocket scientist to note Malkin appears not to be carrying any psychological burden from June.
"People who knew that he was injured and sick weren't critical of him," national analyst Pierre McGuire told ESPN.com this week. "Obviously, the expectation level for him was huge."
The former NHL coach pointed out that some of the top players in last season's playoffs, including playoff MVP Henrik Zetterberg and Russian star Pavel Datsyuk of Detroit, took even longer to produce at an elite level in the postseason.
Both Zetterberg and Datsyuk "are probably not nearly as advanced as Malkin" is at this point in his career, McGuire said. "I think Malkin is still continuing to grow as a player. My gosh, he's a star player. He's a dominant, world-class player."
What does Malkin think?
He credits teammate and landlord Sergei Gonchar with helping him prepare for the season with a rigorous offseason workout regimen.
"I'm learning. I'm trying to be better every game," Malkin said. "My teammates help me. My coach helps me."
Malkin has bought a new house and will soon move out on his own, although the house is close to Gonchar's residence, and Malkin's parents will be spending long chunks of time visiting from Russia. "My parents will come and stay most of the time," he said.
Malkin said he thinks his English is better, and we're prepared to give him that. He insists he's not uncomfortable talking to reporters, as long as there aren't too many of them. "I'm not nervous with one reporter. Ten or 12, I'm a little bit more nervous," he said.
He is not taking any formal English lessons per se, but is learning piecemeal from television, popular songs and teammates. All of which should make for a pretty colorful vocabulary whenever Malkin decides he is ready to unleash it on an unsuspecting North American public.
Malkin's rate of assimilation into North American life is in direct contrast to the way in which countryman and longtime rival Alexander Ovechkin has embraced all things American.
Ovechkin still struggles with the nuances of the English language, but plunges headlong regardless, and that's one of the reasons he has managed to transcend the sport in terms of marketability and presence. Ovechkin is the defending most valuable player and NHL scoring leader. After a slow start, he has caught fire of late and should soon be chasing Malkin and fellow countryman and Washington teammate Alexander Semin.
What does Malkin think of the possibility of the three competing for the scoring title?
"I like it, it's a race," Malkin said, glancing hopefully at Penguins PR staffer Jennifer Bullano, who monitored the interview from a polite distance.
As for the Penguins, if Malkin never learned another word of English or never did another interview, it probably wouldn't bother them all that much, as long as he holds up his end of the bargain -- playing like a superstar.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
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