Matt Freed, Post-Gazette
Evgeni Malkin will play in the International Ice Hockey Federation World Championships in Moscow, which start later this week.
Penguins forward Evgeni Malkin flew to Russia this week. It was not an insignificant event in his life.
Malkin had not been to his home country since August. His trip to play in the International Ice Hockey Federation World Championships in Moscow and then to catch up with family and friends comes after an eventful rookie season in the NHL that gave the 20-year-old insight on hockey and life.
In interviews with Penguins defenseman and fellow Russian Sergei Gonchar and with Malkin through Gonchar as interpreter, Malkin said he was looking forward to the world championships, but also to having a strong sophomore season with the Penguins.
"I'm very happy that I came over," said Malkin, the front-runner to collect the Calder Trophy as the NHL's rookie of the year. "I really enjoyed my year here. Now I know what to expect next year.
"I really think I did the right thing when I came over here. At the same time, I know what to concentrate on this summer and how to prepare myself."
There was not much that could have prepared him for the route he took to North America.
The Penguins selected him second overall in the 2004 NHL entry draft, and both parties expressed a desire for him to join the club for the 2006-07 season.
Early last August, Malkin was pressured into signing a new contract with his hometown team, Metallurg Magnitogorsk of the Russian Super League. After sneaking away from the team days later when it flew to Finland to train, he surfaced in Los Angeles. He faxed his resignation to Magnitogorsk and, after the two-week waiting period consistent with Russian labor law, came to Pittsburgh and signed a three-year entry contract.
Metallurg officials argued his contract with them was valid and that they were due large compensation. Malkin entered his first NHL training camp with the threat of a lawsuit hanging over him.
Things got rougher when, in a collision with teammate John LeClair during Malkin's preseason debut, Malkin got a dislocated left shoulder that kept him out of the first four regular-season games.
He began his NHL career with a six-game goals streak, totaling seven goals, 11 points in those games. He finished with 33 goals, 85 points to lead all rookies in scoring and rank 18th overall.
Eventually, Malkin's goal pace slowed to a crawl, with two in his final 14 regular-season games, none in the team's first-round playoff loss to Ottawa. He attributed that to fatigue. Beginning in fall 2005, he played in the Russian Super League, the World Junior Championships and the Olympics, had his odyssey to join the Penguins, started his NHL career and played in 78 regular-season games, five playoff games and the YoungStars game during All-Star week.
Along the way, Magnitogorsk's lawsuits got bounced. The team couldn't even get an injunction.
Malkin didn't expect that there would be hard feelings when he returned to Russia. After all, Magnitogorsk won the Super League title without him this season.
"I never thought they would have a problem," said Malkin, who was received warmly when he called the team to offer congratulations.
The timing for the worlds to be in Russia couldn't be better for Malkin.
"It's always nice to play in front of your own fans and your own crowd," he said. "That's why I agreed on it right away, and I'm happy to be going there."
Penguins general manager Ray Shero doesn't begrudge Malkin that, but he's eager for the young player to take a break.
"It's important for him to get back in his comfort zone a little bit," Shero said. "I wish he took three weeks off and went to Malibu and surfed or something.
"This guy's played so much hockey. But he wants to represent his country. He wants to get back home and go on vacation with his buddies. He's got to be a normal 20-year-old kid."
The Russians open play Friday against Denmark. Gonchar also will play for Russia.
Gonchar has been a rock for Malkin, acting as interpreter, landlord and something of an older brother.
English has been perhaps Malkin's biggest hurdle in making the transition to the NHL.
When Shero and coach Michel Therrien held exit interviews with the players Saturday, Shero summoned Malkin from the players' lounge when it was his turn.
"Geno," he said, using Malkin's English nickname and motioning the player to follow. "We're going to do this in English, so it won't take long."
Malkin, with a big grin, followed the general manager.
He understands a fair amount of English, but is reluctant to speak it, even with teammates. Asked about that through Gonchar, Malkin broke into laughter without having to hear the translation.
"I'll try to catch up," he said.
That might not be so easy while spending the offseason in his home country, where he said he is looking forward to relaxing following the worlds.
After Malkin spends time with family and friends in Russia -- and at the prison-themed restaurant he owns in Magnitogorsk -- he and Gonchar will start training for next season in July.
Shero expects Malkin, who played center as well as left winger, sometimes on the top line with center Sidney Crosby, to improve in several ways.
"He knows the expectation when he comes back next year for him to be a better player," Shero said, adding that he expects Malkin, 193 pounds, to further fill out his 6-foot-3 frame. "He wants to be a stronger player. He's going to grow into himself.
"Here's a guy who had over 30 goals as a 20-year-old and played wing for the first time in his life. So with the adjustment and what he went through to get over here, I think he had a tremendous year."
Shelly Anderson can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1721.