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Author: Dave Molinari (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)Date: 06/20/2004
Evgeni Malkin: The boy, the rep ...

Some say he might be the equal of Alexander Ovechkin. More say the 18-year-old Russian will be a Penguin by this time next week.

Scouts like to talk about Evgeni Malkin's playmaking, how he could slip a 60-foot pass between the tines of a fork and onto the tape of a teammate's stick.

They marvel at his instincts, his almost-psychic sense of how plays will unfold.

They rave about Malkin's versatility. The way he not only accepts all roles, but also excels in them.

Those qualities, among others, are what make Malkin the overwhelming favorite to be selected by the Penguins with the No. 2 choice in the NHL entry draft Saturday in Raleigh, N.C.

Mark Kelley, the Penguins' European scout, has watched Malkin play at least 30 times and seen him do some remarkable things. Still, Kelley seems struck most by something Malkin did not while competing in a game, but after being ejected from one.

It happened during a semifinal against Canada at this spring's under-18 championships in Belarus. Malkin, a center for Russia, received a game misconduct for a hit from behind and was banished to the locker room. Briefly.

"It was amazing how quickly he was back, shirt off, skates off, standing right beside the bench, with the rest of his uniform still on," Kelley said. "He didn't go in and throw his stick and sulk that he wasn't [in the game].

"He was the captain of the team. All the kids on that team point to him as the leader."

Malkin guided Russia to the under-18 title, reinforcing his reputation as an elite prospect and consummate team player.

"When you watch him, he's just as excited if the team scores when he's on the bench as he is if he's on the ice," Kelley said. "The most impressive thing is probably his whole concept of the team. He will do what it takes for the team to win.

"When they won that gold-medal game against the U.S. (at the under-18s), he was brilliant, offensively and defensively. He was a stalwart. He knew his job was to win the game, and that's what he was focused on doing. He wasn't focused on making himself look good. He was focused on winning."

Ready for the NHL?

Few, if any, people inside the hockey world believe Malkin will be drafted ahead of countryman Alexander Ovechkin, the most celebrated prospect since Mario Lemieux in 1984.

The only opinion that truly matters belongs to Washington general manager George McPhee, whose team owns the No. 1 choice. But if he'd ask his peers whether to spend it on Ovechkin or Malkin, some of the responses might surprise him.

"What's clear is that they're 1-2 in many people's minds, if not all," Phoenix general manager Mike Barnett said. "And it's not an absolute certainty, in some people's minds, who is 1 and who is 2."

That Malkin is good -- very good -- is universally accepted, but whether he'll be able to step directly into the NHL is conjecture. That is, at least in part, because he will not turn 18 until July 31 and is 10 1/2 months younger than Ovechkin.

Although Ovechkin feels Malkin is NHL-ready -- "I think, yes," he said at the NHL scouting combine in Toronto last month. "He can play in the NHL" -- some who make a living evaluating young talent disagree.

Coyotes scout Ilkka Sinisalo, who played in the league for 11 years, said Malkin is "probably a couple of years away" from being able to contribute in the NHL.

That's a conservative estimate, but reflects the widely held belief that Malkin should not be rushed into the league.

"Another year with Magnitogorsk in the Russian [Super] League will be good for him," said Goran Stubb, who covers Europe for NHL Central Scouting. "There's no use to take an 18-year-old to sit on the bench or play in the minors in North America."

Kelley, however, believes Malkin could benefit from playing here at 18. Providing he's used correctly.

"If you put him in a position to succeed, he'll succeed," Kelley said. "Can you bring him over here and tell him he's your No. 1 center? No, it's too soon to do that.

"Could you bring him over here and bring him along slowly? Absolutely."

Unlike Ovechkin, who converses easily in English, Malkin does not speak the language. Not enough to get by, certainly, so that's another obstacle he'll have to clear.

"Not knowing the language won't hinder his development," Kelley said. "But as soon as he gets a better grasp of English, it will help his [adjustment] to North America."

Should Malkin remain in Russia this fall, he won't have to worry about finding work. One of his agents, Dmitri Goryachkin, said Malkin has four years remaining on a contract with Metallurg Magnitogorsk. Magnitogorsk is a city several hundred miles southeast of Moscow.

Still, even though the transfer agreement between the NHL and the International Ice Hockey Federation -- a deal that allows NHL clubs to secure the services of players under contract in Europe -- has expired, the Penguins could have Malkin here in a matter of days if they're willing to spend enough money. Assuming they'd determine such an investment, including payments to his Russian club and a salary of the rookie maximum ($1,295,000), is prudent.

"Generally, I'd say [draftees] are not ready," said Jarmo Kekalainen, director of amateur scouting for St. Louis. "But there's always a few exceptions, and he could be one."

Separating from the pack

Ovechkin has a dazzling athletic pedigree: His father played pro soccer and his mother won two Olympic gold medals in basketball.

Malkin's sporting bloodlines aren't as impressive, but his father, Vladimir, was a forward with Magnitogorsk during the 1970s and his older brother, Denis, has played defense in the Magnitogorsk organization.

Although his brother doesn't share Evgeni's gifts for the game, there's little question they come from the same gene pool. That was evident when Denis went to watch Evgeni play in Belarus.

"Some people say the brothers look like twins," Goryachkin said. "Many players from other teams and even some scouts confused them."

A key difference: Evgeni Malkin was born in 1986. That's one year after Denis. And five years before his dad, a winger-turned-small-business-owner in Magnitogorsk, enrolled him in his first hockey school.

For much of the 2003-04 season, there were conflicting opinions on which prospect deserved to be ranked directly behind Ovechkin.

Some scouts were partial to Czech forward Rostislav Olesz. Others liked Medicine Hat defenseman Cam Barker. Guys like Finnish center Lauri Tukonen and Russian winger Alexander Radulov had backers, too.

But Malkin gradually separated himself from the pack, despite missing part of the season with a concussion. And he planted an exclamation point on his claim to the No. 2 spot with a fabulous showing at the under-18 championships, where he put up 4 goals, 4 assists and 31 penalty minutes in 6 games.

"Malkin served himself very well in Belarus," Barnett said.

Picked up a little jewelry in the process, too.

Alexander Lukashenko, president of Belarus and a hockey enthusiast, was so taken with Malkin's performance that he gave him a gold watch emblazoned with the presidential seal.

It's easy to understand why Lukashenko was impressed. Malkin does so much, so well, at both ends of the ice that overlooking him usually isn't an option.

"I'm not so sure you have to focus on him," Toronto GM John Ferguson Jr. said. "It's hard to miss him."

Malkin often has played alongside Ovechkin when they've been together on national teams, because his playmaking skills complement Ovechkin's gift for scoring goals.

"He has great hands," Ovechkin said. "He has nice hands. He can take the puck. Nice shot, nice pass."

Nice work ethic, too. And instincts. And size. And skill. And pretty much every other item on any scout's checklist.

"Every 17-year-old player has some weaknesses," Stubb said. "In Malkin's case, they are surprisingly few."

Fact is, he's a capable goal-scorer -- "He's shown an ability to score those off-angle goals we saw Mario get for years," Kelley said -- and an accomplished penalty-killer. Add it all up, and you get a scouting report that sags under the weight of its superlatives.

"If you really wanted to do a book on him, you could do hundreds of pages long with all the things he does well," Barnett said. "Conversely, it could be one page [reading], 'He'll play.' "

Still growing

Malkin was named the top rookie in the Super League for 2003-04, even though he played sparingly.

"At first, it was difficult, but, as time went on, I started to get used to the faster pace," he told Russianprospects.com. "Playing in a strong league definitely sped up my development."

Malkin got his concussion while playing for Magnitogorsk's minor-league team in February, when he collided with a player from Avangard Omsk. He described it as "light" and said he "fully recovered within three weeks."

Malkin is listed at 6 feet 3, 186 pounds and figures to add an inch and perhaps 35 pounds before he is done growing. That explains why many scouts project him as a power forward.

"He's going to fill out," Kelley said. "He's going to be a big guy. Right now, he's a powerful guy. When he puts on a few more pounds and his body matures, he will be physically dominating."

It's worth noting that while discussing the under-18 championships with Russianprospects.com, Malkin didn't seem enamored of the physical style of play in North America.

"I don't really like that type of hockey, but if that's how an opponent plays against us, then you have to be prepared," Malkin said. "You can't be afraid of them, and you have to answer their hits with your own."

He apparently does that, because Malkin played his finest hockey at the under-18s against Canada and the United States. But while Malkin, whose favorite NHL teams are Colorado and Detroit, has learned about North American hockey, Pittsburgh remains a mystery to him.

"I don't really know too much about the club," he told Russianprospects.com. "I do know of several players who play there. I know that last year they drafted [Marc-Andre] Fleury first overall. I also know that Mario Lemieux plays there."

So, presumably, will Malkin. Someday. But first he must make it through the vagaries of the NHL draft.

"I have heard a bit from the older players, but still have very little idea of what the draft is like," he said. "I am not worried, though.

"Why should I be? I already did everything within my power and can't change anything now."

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