For the past several days, defenseman Sergei Gonchar has been one of the most popular players in the Penguins' locker room.
Mostly, it has had little to do with his performance in games or his outlook on upcoming contests, including the one tonight against Columbus at Mellon Arena.
Instead, Gonchar has acted as interpreter and unofficial spokesman for rookie teammate Evgeni Malkin, who doesn't speak enough English to express himself. Gonchar is the only other Russian player on the team.
"I can tell you one thing: If I'm only a translator, they're paying me way too much," Gonchar said, with a laugh, after practice yesterday. "I guess I'm the most well-paid translator in the world."
At $4.5 million this season, the second on a five-year, $25 million contract, that would be pretty good work if you could get it.
But Gonchar has a few other items on his resume, such as being a four-time NHL All-Star, having six seasons of 50-plus points, and entering the season with the most goals (86) and second-most points (299) among NHL defensemen since 2000-01.
And, after a week in which Malkin made his NHL debut and picked up two goals and an assist in his first two games, Gonchar, 32, sent a reminder that his place on the team is solid beyond helping Malkin.
In those two games, Gonchar had a goal and an assist, skated well and was plus-1. The goal came on a well-placed one-timer in overtime Thursday night to give the Penguins a 4-3 win against the New York Islanders.
His four points overall are tied for fourth on the team.
"He's our leader with that defensive group," Penguins coach Michel Therrien said. "I really like the way that he's played the last two games. It's a good sign."
Gonchar has a reputation for getting off to a slow start, but last season that was exaggerated even by his standards, earning him dissatisfaction and boos from fans in light of his large free-agent contract.
Beginning Jan. 16, though, he amassed six goals, 31 assists for 37 points in 23 games to finish with 58 points, eighth among NHL defensemen.
Gonchar also was jeered for untimely turnovers. This season, after having two giveaways in the opener, he has had just two over the past five games.
"Obviously, I wanted to come back and start up where I finished," Gonchar said.
He said he was ill the first couple of games this season, but now is healthy and benefiting from a new offseason training regimen that he has declined to disclose.
"I'm getting back into form and I'm starting to feel better now," he said. "Hopefully, I'm going to start skating good now and bring some offense to the team."
Gonchar needs four goals to become the top-scoring Russian-born defenseman in the NHL. He has 161.
Columbus might be a good opponent to keep him on the upswing. Gonchar has 10 points in six career games against the Blue Jackets.
And if there are games where Gonchar isn't a star, he can still count on getting some attention when people ask him what Malkin is saying or thinking or whether he is on his way to winning the Calder Trophy as the NHL's top rookie.
Gonchar -- who also is serving as Malkin's landlord after the younger player went through a trying odyssey last summer to leave his Russian team -- is happy to oblige.
"I've been in the situation where Evgeni is," Gonchar said. "I know how hard it is to come to a new country, new team, new language, everything is new to you -- especially the way he was leaving the country. He had a tough time.
"That's why I'm helping him, not just because I am the only one who speaks Russian. Believe me, it's not as hard as you think. It takes a little bit of time, but, at the same time, I'm happy to help him. He's a nice guy."
And if Gonchar runs out of time or patience in his auxiliary role as mentor/translator/tutor, he has someone who can pitch in. It's his daughter, Natalie, 41/2, who is in preschool.
"When she comes home from school, when she has learned a new word, she asks [Malkin], 'Do you know what that word is?' Then she tells him," Gonchar said. "It's kind of funny."
Sort of like the concept of a $4.5 million interpreter.
Matchup: Penguins vs. Columbus Blue Jackets, 7:38 p.m. today, Mellon Arena.
TV, radio: WPCW, WXDX-FM (105.9).
Probable goaltenders: Marc-Andre Fleury for Penguins. Pascal Leclaire for Blue Jackets.
Penguins: Only meeting this season with Blue Jackets, who won, 6-1, last season in Columbus. ... Last meeting in Pittsburgh was 5-3 win Dec. 13, 2003. ... Evgeni Malkin has 2 goals and an assist in two games. ... Sidney Crosby has a goal and six assists in past four games.
Blue Jackets: Had played just one game in 10 days -- a 5-0 loss to Minnesota -- before home game against Toronto last night. ... RW David Vyborny had a point in three of first four games. ... D Adam Foote was four assists shy of 200 for his career before last night.
Hidden stat: Blue Jackets had the No. 2 power play in the NHL (28.6 percent) before last night, compared with 9.8 percent for last October.
Shelly Anderson can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1721.