Evgeni Malkin doesn't have to worry about how he is getting to America anymore, but hard checks from the likes of the Islanders' Alexei Zhitnik still will be a concern.
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The only foreign intrigue that enveloped Penguins forward Evgeni Malkin this summer was the Internet rumor that he got married during a European vacation.
"No," Malkin said yesterday, reporting day for training camp.
That's a lot shorter answer than he was asked to give a year ago, after he re-signed with his hometown Russian pro team, Metallurg Magnitogorsk, under what he described as coercion, then got a hold of his passport and sneaked away from that team during a training trip to Helsinki, Finland, only to show up later with his agent in Los Angeles before signing with the Penguins.
"It was a lot different summer than last summer. I went to my hometown to see my parents, my friends and had a great time," Malkin said through interpreter and team employee George Birman, after the players spent the morning at the UPMC Sports Medicine Complex on the South Side undergoing physicals and medical testing.
The team will have its first on-ice practices today at Southpointe.
Although Malkin's English didn't improve to the point where he's ready to have a conversation -- he's relying heavily on television, not a tutor -- he's immensely more comfortable going into this season, and relieved that that's the case.
"It is very important," he said. "I feel great this year. I know pretty much everybody in the locker room. I know a little bit better English."
He's also aware of the grind of an NHL season after playing in 78 regular-season games, five playoff games, plus nine more games for the bronze-medal Russian squad at the world championships in May -- far more games than he had been used to.
That perhaps begs the question of what a more relaxed and confident Malkin can do for an encore in 2007-08 after collecting 33 goals and 85 points to win the Calder Trophy as the NHL's rookie of the year last season.
"I feel much stronger this season compared to last year. I think I'm in good shape," said Malkin, 21, who was the second overall pick in the 2004 draft.
When he wasn't touring Paris with his girlfriend and another couple during the offseason, he went through a workout program in Russia with Penguins veteran defenseman and Pittsburgh landlord Sergei Gonchar.
Malkin did not make the long trip to Toronto in June for the NHL awards show, something that didn't exactly thrill his coach, Michel Therrien, who accepted the Calder on Malkin's behalf.
"I was disappointed, too, but I had previous plans," Malkin said.
So what kind of speech would he have given?
"It was great competition," he said. "It was between me and other great players like [teammate] Jordan Staal. It's great I won that trophy. We have a great team. We want to continue to be successful."
Malkin believes that will happen for the Penguins, who made a 47-point improvement in 2006-07 over the previous season and made the playoffs for the first time since 2001.
"We still have a strong and very good team," he said. "We added two great players with good experience in [defenseman Darryl] Sydor and [winger Petr] Sykora. We should have a great season. We should have a great run in the playoffs."
NOTES -- Angelo Esposito, the team's first-round pick, said he did not complete all of the testing exercises because of a groin injury that forced him to miss playing for Team Canada in the junior Super Series against Russia and the Penguins' recent rookie tournament. Still, he expects to skate today. "I've been doing treatment [in Pittsburgh], and it's gotten better." ... Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, who has one year remaining on his contract and is due to be a restricted free agent next summer, said he's not disappointed a new deal wasn't reached this summer. "I'm sure we'll have time to have discussions about it," he said, adding that he wouldn't rule out movement on a new contract before the start of the regular season. ... Individual game tickets go on sale at 10 a.m. tomorrow at Ticketmaster outlets, by calling 412-323-1919. or online at www.pittsburghpenguins.com.
First Published September 14, 2007 12:00 am