NHL99: Evgeni Malkin and the chip on his shoulder that led him to greatness

Welcome to NHL99, The Athletic’s countdown of the best 100 players in modern NHL history. We’re ranking 100 players but calling it 99 because we all know who’s No. 1 — it’s the 99 spots behind No. 99 we have to figure out. Every Monday through Saturday until February we’ll unveil new members of the list.

Evgeni Malkin learned some hard lessons well before he became an NHL superstar. He learned quite a few after becoming one, too.

Malkin, one of the greatest Russian-born players ever, was not a must-see prodigy from one of his country’s hotbeds for talent. Though he took to the sport at a young age, he went relatively unnoticed abroad until his 2004 draft-eligible year — and even then, despite ultimately becoming the second player selected in that draft, he was clearly behind longtime rival Alexander Ovechkin.

“We liked what we knew of him,” said Craig Patrick, the former Pittsburgh Penguins general manager who selected Malkin after the Washington Capitals took Ovechkin in 2004. “We’d done our homework on Malkin, and I even told someone that he might end up being the best player in that draft. I believed it, with his size and skill, and I always liked the idea of a centerman being somebody you built around.

“But even while we were scouting him, you had the idea that a lot of teams were unsure about Malkin,” Patrick said. “You looked at him and liked his size. You watched him play, and he dominated. But I remember thinking we thought we had a franchise player if he fell to us, and that wasn’t a consensus opinion.”

It didn’t matter what other NHL clubs thought of Malkin. With Ovechkin, a white-hot hyped prospect being a lock at No. 1, Patrick wasn’t about to let a 6-foot-3, 190-plus-pound center with a playmaker’s vision and a goal-scorer’s touch get past the Penguins.

“I’m lucky,” said Malkin, the No. 26 player on The Athletic’s list of the top 100 players in post-1967 expansion NHL history. “Pittsburgh is the perfect place for me.”

Pittsburgh and Malkin’s hometown of Magnitogorsk share an industrial heritage and blue-collar DNA. Even Pittsburgh’s usually gray skies and brown waterways reminded him of home. That the Penguins were owned by Mario Lemieux, a star whose brightness reached even Magnitogorsk, only endeared his future club more to Malkin.

If only he could get to Pittsburgh.

And that’s the first lesson of Malkin’s story: To get what you want, you’ve got to take control.

(Dave Sandford / NHLI via Getty Images)

Malkin doesn’t much care to talk about the details surrounding his clandestine escape from his Russian national team in the summer of 2006. That’s because in leaving that squad behind — literally sneaking away from teammates at night during training camp so he could board a plane to a country that would grant him a travel visa to Canada — Malkin also had to suddenly abandon his family and friends.

His family was small, consisting of his parents and brother. His friends were few, a byproduct of growing up in a small town. Still, Malkin was 20 when he left everything he knew behind to chase an NHL dream. He did know, on some level, that being forced to break free of Russia’s grip on his career and life would forever change his relationship with his home country.

But he had no choice.

After the Penguins drafted Malkin in 2004, front-office personnel from Metallurg, Magnitogorsk’s prized hockey club, made a surprise visit to Malkin’s house. Under the guise of congratulations and celebrations, they pressured him into signing an extension to stay with his hometown squad. His departure, they said, would ruin Metallurg.

Malkin was 18. He was torn between beginning his dream of playing in the NHL and, as it was explained to him, being the downfall of a civic treasure.

Metallurg personnel refused to leave Malkin’s house until he signed an extension. That extension delayed his NHL debut by two full years.

It’s no coincidence that when Malkin finally was granted the chance to play for the Penguins, he scored in his first game. Then, he scored in his next five games.

“Never seen anything like it,” Sidney Crosby said of his then-new teammate’s historic burst onto the NHL scene. “I think that was the first real sign we all had how special Geno would be.”

Malkin went through so much to reach the NHL. His agent, J.P. Barry, hatched the plan for him to sneak away from the Russian national team during a training camp outside of Russia, a voyage that took Malkin to Toronto, Los Angeles and, finally, Pittsburgh. The whirlwind adventure dragged his emotions between excitement, fear and regret.

“My dream was to play in the NHL,” Malkin said. “This was not how I wished to get there.”

But even after a Calder Trophy and a sophomore season in which he finished second — to Ovechkin — in the Hart and Art Ross Trophy races, Malkin still had to lean on something he learned as a child to help him get to a point no Russian-born NHL player had gone before.

And that’s the second lesson of Malkin’s story: Pain comes before pleasure.

One day during a practice for his youth team in Magnitogorsk, Malkin fell hard onto the ice. His wrist was fractured. This happened a couple of days before a big travel tournament, which Malkin had eagerly anticipated because he felt his team could win. He had never won a championship to that point, and he wanted that first title.

His coach wanted Malkin to play, even in a limited capacity. So did Malkin’s dad, who believed his son could still help the team despite his right forearm being in a cast.

Malkin’s mother said no. And because she ruled the roost, that was that.

Except it wasn’t.

Young Evgeni Malkin, with the help of his father, persuaded his mother to let him travel with the team for moral support. She obliged, never knowing that Malkin had stashed his gear in one of the vans transporting players to the tournament. Without media coverage of any kind, there was no way for Malkin’s mother to monitor the weekend tournament. She simply believed her son had gone to cheer on his mates.

To her surprise, he returned home a few days later in tears — and with a mutilated cast. Malkin had played, cutting the cast at his wrist so he could better handle the stick. But his tears weren’t from physical agony, but rather because none of it — the sketchy plan by him and his dad, the betrayal of his mother’s wishes, the struggle to play with one healthy arm — had been worth it.

“We didn’t win,” Malkin said. “I played my best, but I was not in my best condition. But I could play (and) I should play great if I can play. I was not my best and we lost. I can’t forget even now.”

(Aaron Doster / USA Today)

By his third NHL season, Malkin was in the conversation as one of the world’s best hockey players. Also in that group were the two men who would forever overshadow him: Ovechkin and Crosby. Even though Malkin won the Art Ross Trophy as the NHL’s leading scorer in the 2008-09 season, all eyes were on Ovechkin and Crosby for the first Penguins-Capitals showdown of the stars’ era in the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Malkin was seen as a supporting character, even though he scored an overtime goal in Game 5 in Washington that proved pivotal to winning the series. The Penguins won in Game 7, also in Washington, and returned to the Eastern Conference finals, which they’d won the previous season in a series where Malkin injured his ribs.

The pain of those injured ribs is not what haunted Malkin in the summer of 2008. It was how that injury limited him for the remainder of the 2008 Eastern finals and in the Stanley Cup Final, which the Penguins lost to the Red Wings. He used that memory — a nagging feeling that he somehow had let down not only his teammates and the city of Pittsburgh, but everybody who knew him — as motivation throughout the 2008-09 season.

Even his Penguins teammates didn’t know what was about to happen.

“I was ready,” Malkin said. “I had something to prove.”

Believe it or not, the Penguins were vulnerable to an upset by a Hurricanes team they would ultimately sweep in the 2009 Eastern finals. Pittsburgh had come off a couple of emotional series wins against the Flyers and Capitals — the franchise’s two fiercest rivals — and was looking ahead to a rematch with the Red Wings in the Cup Final.

“I thought we could get them,” said Jim Rutherford, who was the Hurricanes’ general manager at the time. “(The Penguins) might have been a more talented team than us, but I thought we could get at least one of those early games in Pittsburgh, and then make it a long series.

“I still think I was right. Malkin just wouldn’t allow it.”

In the first game, at Pittsburgh’s old Civic Arena, Malkin scored and set up a goal in the Penguins’ 3-2 victory. It was Game 2, though, that will forever be remembered as what Crosby called “The Geno Game.”

Or, as former Penguins winger Bill Guerin said: “You never think a series is over after Game 2, but it was over after Game 2. Nobody was stopping Malkin, and everybody knew it.”

The signature goal of the historic season is the stuff of legend in Pittsburgh.

Malkin blew open a tight game as part of a three-goal, one-assist performance that announced to the hockey world that he would be the one administering the pain this time.

The faceoff was in the left circle, the prime spot for Malkin to win a draw. When the puck went forward, it looked in real time as though Malkin had been beaten cleanly. He hadn’t.

“(Malkin) pushed it forward, got it behind the goal, swooped around and then he turns around and lifts a backhand,” said Max Talbot, Malkin’s right winger throughout that postseason. “The guys on both teams were stunned — all except Geno.”

“I had no clue he was going to try it,” said Talbot, who had the best view of anyone on the goal that is now affectionately known as “The Geno.”

“I remember thinking, ‘We lost the faceoff,’” said Ruslan Fedotenko, the left winger on Malkin’s line during the Penguins’ 2009 Cup run. “It was only after he scored that I realized what Geno had done.”

For coach Dan Bylsma, time seemed to stand still. He needed to watch a replay to realize what had just happened.

“The degree of difficulty of that entire play is off the charts,” Bylsma said. “To try it — forget doing it, but to try it — in an Eastern Conference final takes confidence that I would have never had, and I don’t think you’ll find many players that would even think about it.”

Added Crosby: “No, I don’t think I would. But that’s Geno. Man, he was awesome in that series; that whole playoffs, really.”

Malkin described the goal as “not too great.” Really.

“Everybody sees spin-o-rama and I score, but my job was to push the puck to Max and then I go to the net,” he said. “The puck went too deep and I have to get it — then, you know, it’s, like, ‘I do it myself.’

“After I spin around, the puck was on my stick good and it was time to shoot. That’s it! So people tell me about that goal, but I don’t know — I think I scored better ones. It’s not my best, but everybody loves it.”

“Not my best,” he says, but the goal in Game 2, which the Penguins won, is what Malkin considers “my most important.” The performance in that series — six goals, three assists in a four-game sweep — “was maybe my best hockey,” he said.

“But I play good against Detroit, too,” Malkin said. “I had to. I owed the team because we lost the year before.

“When you don’t win, it’s hell. When you get close and lose, everything you feel is empty, everything hurts. But pain, you know, can be good. It teaches you.”

With two goals and six assists in a seven-game classic against the Red Wings, Malkin helped steer the Penguins to the Stanley Cup. He was voted the Conn Smythe winner, becoming the first Russian-born player to win that award.

And he finally won a championship.

“I’m lucky, maybe, my first championship is the Stanley Cup,” he said. “You always love your first.”

Two more Stanley Cup titles later, as well as the Hart Trophy for the 2011-12 season, and Malkin is among only a handful of players to have won the Calder (for rookie of the year), Hart (for MVP), Ross (for the single-season points title), Smythe (for playoffs MVP), Ted Lindsay (for player-voted MVP) and the Stanley Cup.

None of those awards, nor his multiple Cup wins, was enough to earn Malkin a spot on the NHL’s 2017 list of the 100 best players of all time. The slight crushed him, bringing back feelings from his youth that he would never be seen as a great hockey player because the greatest Russian hockey players came from Moscow or Saint Petersburg, not places like Magnitogorsk. He also couldn’t help thinking back to all the talk early in his career about how the NHL belonged to Ovechkin and Crosby, even if Malkin was right there with them in terms of production and achievement.

“It hurt me deeply,” Malkin said. “What must I do to be seen as one of the best players? I think I am.”

Sergei Gonchar is one of Malkin’s closest friends. He’s also Malkin’s former teammate with the Penguins and with the Russian national team. He’s admittedly biased, but…

“I have Geno in the top three of Russian players,” Gonchar said. “There’s Alex, and I think Geno is a better overall player, and there’s Sergei Fedorov, and Geno might be better than him by the time he’s done.”

Gonchar might be a little biased, but he might actually be underselling Malkin’s legacy. It’s certainly debatable and it’s clearly close, but of the nine Russian players who made The Athletic’s NHL99 list, Malkin lands second — behind Ovechkin and a shade ahead of Fedorov at 33. For good reason.

Over his career, Malkin has been worth around 46 wins, which is second among Russian-born players behind only Ovechkin at 60.6. Part of that difference is a matter of Ovechkin suiting up for 300 more games than Malkin. On a per-82-game basis, Malkin has averaged 3.85 wins per season while Ovechkin is only narrowly ahead at 3.90. Nikita Kucherov (3.91) and Pavel Bure (3.87) also rank that highly, but neither has the longevity of Ovechkin and Malkin.

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“Alex and Evgeni will always be talked about together — in Russia and the NHL,” Gonchar said. “It’s good company.”

Malkin lived with Gonchar during his earliest NHL years, but Gonchar first noticed Malkin’s desire to stand out among Russian players when they spent the 2004-05 NHL lockout playing for Metallurg. Then, Gonchar said, Malkin was “this big, talented kid who talked about being seen as great among Russian players but also becoming one of the best players in the world.”

“He did it,” Gonchar said.

Malkin needed his first NHL season to acclimate himself to the North American lifestyle as much as its brand of hockey. Even then, as he was rolling toward consensus top rookie honors and proving Patrick’s prediction correct — that the Penguins had found a franchise pillar in Malkin — the comparisons to teammate Crosby and rival Ovechkin weighed on Malkin.

“Evgeni doesn’t seek the spotlight, but he deserves more of it than he’s been given,” Gonchar said. “He never said it bothered him, but if you know him you could tell it did because he wanted to be the best.”

Malkin had one more lesson to learn early in his career, and it’s one he has had to carry with him throughout: Only worry about what you can control.

“I’ve learned many lessons in life,” Malkin said. “Some help me with hockey. Others help me with life, you know?

“I would like people to know my story and see you can overcome disappointment, pain, and be a champion.”

The Athletic’s Dom Luszczyszyn contributed to this report.

(Top photo: Joe Sargent / Getty Images)

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