CRANBERRY — Evgeni Malkin will most likely complete his NHL career with the Pittsburgh Penguins, in what he dubbed his second hometown. Only hours before the start of free agency, Malkin signed a four-year deal with clauses that make it buyout proof, essentially guaranteeing his Penguins tenure.
On Day 1 of Penguins training camp, he was already in rare form.
During the practice session, he deked young defenseman Chris Ortiz with an outside, inside, then through Ortiz’s skates move. He also did similar to Mark Friedman. It was vintage Malkin.
In the locker room, Malkin was also in rare form. He told the gathering media contingent, “Sidney (Crosby) is over there.”
When PHN responded that we wanted him instead, he cracked back, “but I don’t want you!”
A big grin and laughter came over Malkin’s face. It was a tough summer, even if he didn’t admit it. A day before the NHL free agency began, with eagerly eagerly awaiting Malkin’s arrival on the open market, it seemed he was a goner. The band of brothers with him, Crosby and Kris Letang, would end their 15-year run. But the night before free agency, Malkin signed.
And everyone breathed a sigh of relief before looking ahead to what might feel like unfinished business. The Penguins’ core remained intact despite not winning a playoff series since 2018.
We’re not veterans. We’re still young,” Malkin deadpanned to more laughter. “I understand age is nothing. We have lots of experience. This is important. We have young guys, and we try to help them. Be leaders.
Evgeni Malkin, Forever
Indeed, Malkin, Letang, and Crosby who ducked out of the locker room without dealing with the crowded media throng, have more than a little something to prove. GM Ron Hextall gave a large vote of confidence as well as significant contracts to Malkin and letang to keep the group together. Should the team not win a playoff series in the following few years, the contracts will undoubtedly be seen as mistakes.
That conversation would not erase the legacies of three Stanley Cups and Hall of Fame career, but continued early playoff exits may leave a sour taste with the paying public.
A big piece of the 2022-23 Penguins puzzle will rest on Malkin. He’s still the other pillar of offensive production and a cornerstone of the team. Malkin missed half of last season and took another four to eight weeks to get up to full speed after off-season knee surgery.
“The most important thing (this summer) was my knee. I feel fine. I’m rested,” Malkin said. “I tried to rest a little bit more this summer. I went back to Russia for a little bit to see my friends. Went to Miami, and I worked out there — this year, I came back for training camp early to skate a little bit more here.”
Despite hobbling into shape and playing only a half season, he still scored 42 points (20-22-42) in just 41 games. On Day 1 of Penguins training camp, Malkin was paired with Bryan Rust and Drake Caggiula, who is unlikely to make the opening night roster but is a strong candidate to be a call-up because of 278 games of NHL experience.
The line scored the first goal in the Day 1 scrimmage when Caggiula finished a rebound chance past goalie Casey DeSmith, though such things matter only slightly less than straw polls years before an election.
“I signed here. I’ll be here forever,” said Malkin. “…The team wanted me to stay here. It’s like it’s my second hometown for sure. You know, I don’t want to move any team, any city.”
Day 1 of training camp is simply the first baby step on a long, arduous journey that teams hope last into June. While the Pittsburgh Penguins are no longer favorites to win Stanley Cups, nor are they everyone’s favorite pick, they still have one of the best trios in hockey history.
Evgeni Malkin and his presence isn’t lost on teammates.
“Yeah, he’s such a presence, especially for a second-line center. He’s such a dynamic player to have in this spot — the chemistry that he has with guys on this team and just his personality off the ice,” Brian Dumoulin said. “He’s a guy who always keeps it light and a guy that you want to be around. He’s just very honest. He’s very funny, always has a joke…And you can see him as he older, kind of opening up with younger guys. I love having been his teammate.”