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Author: Dave Molinari (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)Date: 06/27/2004
Many skills make Penguins' top pick special at early age

RALEIGH, N.C. -- Mark Kelley, the Penguins' European scout, realized Evgeni Malkin might be a special prospect when he watched him at the under-18 world championships in 2003.

Head scout Greg Malone began to suspect it right around the same time.

But Vladimir and Natalia Malkin say they knew years ago. Long before anyone in the NHL had heard of Evgeni Malkin, whom the Penguins claimed with the No. 2 choice in the NHL entry draft at the RBC Center yesterday.

They were convinced he was a remarkable talent from the moment he stepped onto the ice in Russia at age 3.

"[I knew] when his dad brought him to the ice and put the skates on his feet for the first time," said Natalia, speaking through an interpreter. "At that moment, we both said to each other, 'He'll be a great player one day.' We saw it right away."

Precisely how great Malkin will be is impossible to predict; after all, he won't turn 18 until July 31.

His father acknowledged that Malkin already has taken his game to heights no one -- not even members of what appears to be an extremely close family -- could have envisioned.

"As time went by and he progressed, I knew he was getting better and better and better," said Vladimir, also speaking through an interpreter. "But, if I would tell you that I knew the level my son would be playing at now, I'd be lying.

"I never would have thought he would achieve such a high level, and I know that he has the potential to be even better. I can only be very, very happy for him, and for our family."

And, if the scouting reports hold up, for the Penguins, because they have secured the rights to a player with the potential to be a force at both ends of the ice for a lot of years.

Malkin does not have the dynamic goal-scoring touch -- or the outgoing personality -- of countryman Alexander Ovechkin, whom Washington chose with the No. 1 selection. Nonetheless, agent Dmitri Goryachkin said Magnitogorsk, Malkin's team in the Russian Super League, thinks enough of him that it wants to renegotiate the financial terms of his contract, which has four years remaining.

Goryachkin declined to divulge Malkin's current salary but said it is the highest of any player his age in the Super League. He also refused to speculate on how much Magnitogorsk might offer in its bid to keep Malkin in Russia for a few more years, but a salary of about $1 million seems realistic.

That's below the $1,295,000 ceiling for NHL prospects drafted this weekend -- and nowhere near the tax-free $5 million former NHL defenseman Oleg Tverdovsky reportedly is getting for two years in Russia -- but might be enough to tempt Malkin to remain in familiar surroundings a while longer.

Penguins general manager Craig Patrick said he does not know when contract talks with Malkin might begin and that "I don't know much about" Magnitogorsk's interest in bumping up his pay.

Although Malkin did not discuss the possibility of reworking his contract with Magnitogorsk, he reiterated that he expects to spend the coming winter in Russia because "I need to pick up some strength and some muscle mass." He added that he would like to attend training camp, which Patrick said could hinge on whether Magnitogorsk officials give him clearance.

Whether Malkin's delay in relocating to North America will cost him an opportunity to realize his goal of playing alongside Mario Lemieux remains to be seen. Especially when there's every reason to believe the 2004-05 season will be delayed and shortened, if not wiped out, by a labor dispute.

Malkin described the world under-18 championships this April in Belarus, where he captained Russia to the championship, as "the brightest moment in my sporting career because we won the gold medal and I got the award as the best forward."

That also is when Malkin cemented his place as the second-best prospect in this year's draft. And did a lot to narrow the gap between himself and Ovechkin.

"He moved his game up to the next level, which you wanted to see," Malone said. "He moved it up a couple of notches."

If he'd raised it much higher, Malkin might have put it out of sight for his parents. For while he stands 6 feet 3 and isn't finished growing, he already towers over his mother and father.

"As you can see, I don't have the physical strength and physical capability that my son has," said Vladimir Malkin, a one-time left winger for Magnitogorsk who looks to be about 5-9. "But, when I played, the coaches told me I had very good hockey sense and hockey vision. I could always give a pass.

"I really like to think Evgeni inherited that from me. Many coaches in Russia come up to me and tell me that it is more interesting to watch Evgeni give a pass than to watch him score."

While Kelley flatly predicts that Malkin "is going to be [an offensive] go-to guy," his versatility is among his most impressive qualities.

"When I watch him like a coach would, I see there are no weak points in his game," Vladimir Malkin said. "He's very determined. He has good skating. He's very good defensively. He's a team player. And he creates very good offensive chances.

"I would dream of having such a player on my team if I was a coach. In this player, many qualities came together. I'm very happy that he's such a great player, who has it all together."

And who is more committed to his craft than he was when his father introduced him to hockey at age 5 and watched it become the consuming passion in his life.

"We couldn't move him from the ice," Natalia Malkin said. "Several times, we caught him sleeping with his stick, and with his skates on."

While Malkin eventually got over that, he still is young enough to be a bit intimidated by the idea of moving thousands of miles to pursue a career in North America.

Malkin's parents share that concern, but they understand how much playing in the NHL means to their son. And has, almost since that first day he went onto the ice.

"Like every parent, it will not be easy to let my little boy go that far," Natalia Malkin said. "But I will be very happy for him, because I know he will be going to where his dream is."

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