Player Spotlight – #71 Evgeni Malkin

After an amazing first year in the NHL, Pittsburgh Penguins forward #71 Evgeni Malkin was selected as the NHL’s 2007 Calder Memorial Trophy Rookie of the Year.  But as exciting as his historic first season was, his journey to Pittsburgh and the NHL was even more intriguing.

Russian born Evgeni Vladimirovich Malkin was drafted 2nd overall by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft (behind Washington Capitals star Alexander Ovechkin).  The 6’3″, 195 pound centerman was born on July 31, 1986, to Vladimir Malkin, a defenseman for the Russian hockey team, Metallurg Magnitogorsk.   Evgeni’s brother, Denis, was also in Metallurg’s hockey system.   According to his father, Evgeni used to sleep with a hockey stick in his bed. 

Malkin played hockey for the Metallurg Magnitogorsk of the Russian League for three seasons from 2003-2006.  He made his international debut during the 2003 U18 World Junior Championships, where he skated on the top line with Alexander Ovechkin.  He made his Russian Superleague debut during the 2003-04 season, working his way up from the fourth line.  A product of the Metallurg Magnitogorsk hockey school, Malkin was captain and MVP of the 2006 World Junior Hockey Tournament for the silver medal winning Russian team.   Less than two months later, Malkin was given one of the final spots on the senior Russian hockey team for the 2006 Winter Olympics, where he helped the team to a fourth-place finish with 6 points in 7 games and was named the team’s best player, despite playing on the third line behind the likes of Kovalchuk, Datsyuk, Kovalev, Ovechkin and Yashin.  He also played at the IIHF World Hockey Championships in May 2006, where he led Team Russia with 9 points.  He is one of very few hockey players to play in all three major tournaments in the same year.

Despite being drafted by Pittsburgh in 2004, he remained in Russia for the 2005-06 hockey season after the Russian Hockey Federation refused to ratify a transfer agreement between the NHL and the International Ice Hockey Federation.  The refusal forced Malkin to honor his existing contract with Magnitogorsk.

On August 7, 2006, it was reported that the 20-year-old Russian player had signed a deal with Metallurg Magnitogorsk that would have kept him in Russia until May 2007.  However, Malkin subsequently indicated that he signed the one-year contract because of the immense “psychological pressure” his former club exerted on him.  In a somewhat dramatic Cold War-like defection, Malkin fled from Russia during his training camp in Helsinki, Finaland, on August 12th, 2006.  While the Magnitogorsk had originally taken Malkin’s passport away, it was given back to him to facilitate passage through Finnish customs.  At the Airport in Helsinki, Malkin and his agent quickly snuck out of the building and traveled to a local apartment to await Malkin’s visa clearance from the US Embassy.  He resurfaced five days later on August 17th in Los Angeles, CA. 

On August 15th, Malkin faxed a two week notice to the Magnitogorsk notifying them that he was cancelling his contract in accordance with Russian law.  This paved the way for him to sign a contract with the Penguins on September 5, 2006, reportedly an identical contract to the one signed by Alexander Ovechkin. 

On October 19, 2006, Malkin’s former Russian hockey club filed an antitrust lawsuit against the NHL and the Penguins in the United States District Court in New York.  A motion for injunction was denied on November 15, 2006, enabling Malkin to continue playing in the NHL for the 2006-07 season.  The lawsuit claimed that Malkin was still under contract in Russia and should not be permitted to play in the NHL, and sought unspecified monetary damages.  The lawsuit was ultimately dismissed by the court on February 1, 2007.

On September 20, 2006, in his first preseason game as a Pittsburgh Penguin, Malkin collided with teammate John LeClair and dislocated his shoulder, forcing him to miss the start of the season.  He subsequently made his NHL debut on October 18 against the New Jersey Devils, scoring his first NHL goal against world class goaltender Martin Brodeur.

Malkin quickly established himself as something very special by scoring at least one goal in each of his first six games.  In so doing, he set a modern day record as this feat had not been achieved since the league’s inaugural season in 1917-18.  Unable to speak any English, he depended upon a teammate Sergei Gonchar to help communicate with his teammates and coach.  Despite the challenges, he continued his outstanding play throughout the remainder of the NHL 2006-07 season and amassed 33 Goals and 52 Assists for 85 points in 72 games.  Outplaying all other rookies, he was awarded the Calder Tropy as the league’s Rookie of the Year.   

The following is a video of one of Malkin’s most amazing goals from last season.  Watch as he completely undresses two New Jersey defensemen and then beats one of the best goalies of all time, Martin Brodeur.  It is moves like this that have resulted in frequent comparisons of Evgeni Malkin to Mario Lemieux.   

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