FOR THE secondyear in a row the Penguins will send out the NHL's must-see rookie, but it tooka cold-war-style defection to get Evgeni Malkin to the NHL.
The youngestmember of Russia's 2006 Olympic team and its second-leading scorer, Malkin, 20,was regarded as the world's best and most exciting player not in the NHL. Thelanky 6'3", 192-pound center starred last season as a point-per-game playerfor his hometown team, Metallurg Magnitogorsk, in the Russian Super League; atthe world championships four months ago he wowed observers when he vaultedKazakhstan's sprawling goalie to score.
Pittsburgh hadtaken Malkin with the No. 2 pick in the 2004 draft, right after the Capitalstapped Alexander Ovechkin, but he decided to get more seasoning playing forMettalurg. Though he was under a four-year contract, he says the team promisedto let him out of the deal once he felt he was ready for the NHL. When Malkinheld Mettalurg to its word this summer, however, the team resisted, insteadcoaxing him into a negotiation session on Aug. 7 that ended at 3 a.m. Underwhat Malkin's North American agent, J.P. Barry, later described as "intensepsychological pressure," Malkin agreed to stay under terms of a new, richerone-year deal. "He was distraught when he called me the next day," saysBarry. "He asked for help."
When Metallurgtraveled to Finland on Saturday, Aug. 12, to play in a tournament, Barry andsome Finnish friends met Malkin at the Helsinki airport as the player leftcustoms. The Finns, who were used to dealing with rock stars and VIPs, whiskedMalkin out a back entrance and into a van, before driving off to hide him in anapartment.
Barry had plannedto take Malkin to the U.S. embassy to apply for a visa when it reopened thatMonday. But when his friends reported that the embassy was probably beingwatched, Malkin and Barry waited an extra day, even switching apartments as afurther precaution. "Evgeni was concerned because his parents and brotherwere still in Magnitogorsk," says Barry. "The owner of the team, ViktorRashnikov [a steel magnate], is one of the most powerful people inRussia."
While Malkin'smother, Natalia, told Russian media during the first days after her son'sdisappearance that unspecified people "will not leave us alone,"apparently no direct threats were made against the family. With a baseball cappulled low on his head, Malkin walked into the U.S. embassy on that Tuesdaywithout incident. The next day he was on a flight to the U.S.
Metallurg'smanaging director, Gennady Velichkin, termed Malkin's departure an act of"sports terrorism" and will fight it in U.S. courts. But a similar suitbrought against Ovechkin by his Russian team failed, and few doubt that Malkin(who may miss the season opener with a shoulder injury) will stay with thePenguins. Within a short time of arriving in Pittsburgh he signed a three-yeardeal worth as much as $3 million annually; skated with Sidney Crosby, lastyear's must-see rookie; was introduced at a Penguins press conference; anddined with team owner Mario Lemieux. "He's a smart, talented guy with agood shot," says G.M. Ray Shero. "His reach and lateral movement buyhim time. He's going to score a lot."
SKATING FREE Malkin will be turned loose as the No. 2 center and on the power play.