Twenty-nine NHL teams have to be pleased that Russian hockey officials appear to moving -- albeit at a glacial pace -- toward eventually signing off on a deal that would reopen the talent pipeline from that country to North America.
And one -- the Penguins -- should be downright ecstatic about it.
Mostly because Pat Brisson, managing director of IMG Hockey, which represents highly regarded prospect Evgeni Malkin, believes that's the team's only realistic hope of having him play here next season.
"It's very clear that the [International Ice Hockey Federation] and Russian federation will have to have a deal in place in order to have Evgeni come to Pittsburgh," he said.
Brisson said his opinion is rooted in information he has received recently from Dmitri Goryachkin, who heads IMG's operation in Russia and was working with Malkin long before the Penguins claimed him with the No. 2 choice in the 2004 entry draft.
Russia is the only major hockey-playing nation in Europe that is not a signatory to the transfer agreement negotiated by the NHL and the IIHF last year. That deal establishes the $200,000 fee NHL clubs pay for each player they bring across the Atlantic.
The Russians balked at participating in the transfer agreement because they believe the fee is too low.
There had been reason to believe that would not be an issue with Malkin, because word began to circulate last summer that he had a handshake deal with the owner of his Russian Super League team, Metallurg Magnitogorsk, that would allow him to join the Penguins this fall, even though he has two years remaining on his contract there.
Brisson, however, said he has no evidence of any such deal.
"As far as getting out of there without a transfer agreement, I wouldn't know how to express it at this point," he said.
Brisson added that there are "15 or 20 players stuck in the same situation" as Malkin.
Under the collective bargaining agreement negotiated between the league and the NHL Players Association last summer, the Penguins can retain Malkin's rights until June 1, 2008. At that point, the CBA says he would become an unrestricted free agent, although his status could change because of Russia's refusal to accept the transfer agreement.
Repeated attempts to get the NHL perspective on transfer agreement talks with the Russians were unsuccessful -- "They're keeping those negotiations close to the vest," Brisson said -- but others with a stake in the issue are upbeat about something being worked out.
One is Anatoly Bardin, head of the union that represents players in Russia. In an interview with a Russian publication, Sport-Express, that was translated and posted on the Russian Hockey Digest Web site, Bardin offered an optimistic take on finalizing a transfer agreement when discussing a recent meeting with NHL Players' Association head Ted Saskin.
"The main question is an agreement between Russia and NHL, which, I'm sure, will be signed by fall and will be favorable for both parties," Bardin said.
While questions remain about when -- if not whether -- the Penguins will be able to graft Malkin onto their lineup, there are few about how valuable he will be to them once he arrives.
Although he is only 19, Malkin (6 feet 3, 186 pounds) was the No. 3 scorer in the Super League during the regular season, with 21 goals and 26 assists in 46 games. He followed that by putting up 15 points in 11 playoff games after an impressive performance at the Turin Olympics.
"He has to adjust to the NHL and fit into the style, but he has so much talent I believe he'll fit right in," said Penguins defenseman Sergei Gonchar, who played with Malkin in Magnitogorsk last season and was his teammate at the Olympics.
"If you look at Sid [Crosby] and [Washington's Alexander] Ovechkin, they did a good job this year, and [Malkin] is that kind of player. He's right up there, talent-wise. I'm sure he's going to be fine."
Malkin has a limited command of English, so having Russian-speaking players such as Gonchar around will be critical to getting him acclimated, on and off the ice.
"I'll try to help him, explain as much as I can the way the game is played [in the NHL]," Gonchar said. "He's a very talented guy, so I'm sure the on-the-ice adjustment isn't going to be as big for him.
"But off the ice, it's not easy. I might offer him to stay in my house, if he'd like to. I'll be there for him."
And the Penguins, to be sure, can't wait until Malkin is there for them.Jeff Bassett, Associated Press
Russia's Evgeni Malkin might play for the Penguins next season if the Russian Federation and the IIHF strike a deal.
Click photo for larger image.
Matchup: New York Islanders at Penguins, 7:38 p.m. today, Mellon Arena.
TV, radio: FSN, WWSW-FM (94.5).
Probable goaltenders: Marc-Andre Fleury for Penguins. Garth Snow for Islanders.
Penguins: Have won just two of past 12 home games against New York. ... D Sergei Gonchar has five goals, 11 assists in past 11 games. ... Power play has converted 12 of 42 chances against Islanders.
Islanders: Have earned four of their nine shootout victories against Penguins. ... Are being outscored, 93-72, in third period. ... RW Miroslav Satan has five goals in seven games against Penguins this season.
Hidden stat: Penguins are guaranteed of not winning three games in row for first time since 1983-84.
Dave Molinari can be reached at 412-263-1144.