It's official: Penguins sign Russian star Malkin
PITTSBURGH -- Finally, Evgeni Malkin wasn't worried about hiding his emotions or himself. He signed the contract he wanted to sign, with the team he wants to play for.
Evgeni Malkin's arrival alone will make it a very successful summer for Pittsburgh. The 6-foot-3, 186-pound Malkin, 20, was the second overall pick in the 2004 draft, chosen behind fellow Russian wonder boy Alexander Ovechkin. Malkin isn't as electrifying a performer as Ovechkin, but he's a better two-way player and he's just as competitive.
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Malkin, under so much pressure to keep playing in Russia that he hid out for five days in Finland to escape his Russian team, signed his first NHL contract Tuesday with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
No arm-twisting or middle-of-the-night negotiations were needed to make him sign a deal worth at least $3 million and probably much more. The 20-year-old Malkin was so determined to play in North America this year, one of Russia's best-known sports figures was willing to risk his image back home to do so.
"His dream was to come to Pittsburgh and start his career in the NHL, and he had to go through a lot in the last couple of weeks to achieve that," Penguins owner Mario Lemieux said. "It's always difficult when you've got a different country and a different language, and it will be tough for him for the next few months."
It has already been a tough time for arguably the best player in the world not previously in the NHL. Malkin, a gifted but not one-dimensional scorer and playmaker, is expected to team with 19-year-old Sidney Crosby to give Pittsburgh a dynamic 1-2 center combination.
After signing a one-year deal last month to remain with his hometown Metallurg Magnitogorsk, reportedly at 3 a.m. following hours of persuasion, he immediately regretted the decision and phoned agent J.P. Barry for help.
Barry arranged to meet Malkin at the Helsinki airport when Metallurg arrived for training camp on Aug. 12, and the two secretly left together. They stayed hidden in a hotel there for five days until Malkin was granted a U.S. visa.
The agent wasn't as concerned as much for Malkin's safety as he was that the Russian team, which was still in town, would try to get him back.
"We were worried that whenever there's a mystery and someone can't be found, they would try to look for him and if they could find him, they would try to continue the psychological pressure," Barry said. "We didn't want that to happen. It was really necessary for us to keep him away from that possibility."
According to Barry, Malkin was followed to his home -- the agent isn't certain by whom -- whenever the team felt he had been in contact with his North American-based agents.
Once Malkin was gone, Metallurg general director Gennady Velichkin rebuked his star and threatened to sue the Penguins. Barry expects Metallurg to file for an injunction that would prevent Malkin from playing in the NHL, though no Russian team has ever successfully done so with a player once he has left.
Malkin said he has patched up his relationship with Velichkin the last few weeks, after he was initially worried about how the team and its fans would react.
"I definitely was a little concerned," he said, speaking through interpreter Olga McQueen. "But, knowing him for so many years, I had to believe that he wouldn't go for any harsh measures toward me. After I had my visa obtained, I called my parents and informed them that everything was fine and I was doing great. They contacted Mr. Velichkin and actually now they are doing well and Mr. Velichkin doesn't have any hard feelings against me."
Among those supporting Malkin's decision was Russian national team coach Slava Bykov, who said the star forward should be allowed to play wherever he wants. Three weeks ago, Malkin faxed a letter of resignation to Metallurg which, according to his agents, allows him under Russian law to quit his job there.
"We knew it wasn't going to be easy to get him out of there," Lemieux said. "We have to listen to the player and where he wants to play. He really wants to be here in Pittsburgh, and we'll do everything we can to help him out."
Malkin spent three weeks training in Los Angeles area before arriving in Pittsburgh on Monday night. He had a whirlwind first 24 hours there in which he dined at Lemieux's house, spent his first night in his new city and took part in an informal early morning skate with players such as Crosby before attending a news conference.
Malkin will live initially with Penguins defenseman Sergei Gonchar, a Russian Olympic teammate who will help acclimate Malkin to his new team, league and surroundings. The Penguins open rookie training camp on Friday.
Malkin's base salary in the three-year deal will be $984,2000, plus incentives worth $2.85 million per season. Ovechkin's contract included $850,000 in relatively easy-to-reach incentives and another $2 million in additional bonuses such as winning a major league award.
"We have two great ones with Sid and Evgeni," Lemieux said. "It's going to be exciting here for the next 10-to-15 years."
Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press
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