FOR THE second
year in a row the Penguins will send out the NHL's must-see rookie, but it took
a cold-war-style defection to get Evgeni Malkin to the NHL.
member 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. The
lanky 6'3", 192-pound center starred last season as a point-per-game player
for his hometown team, Metallurg Magnitogorsk, in the Russian Super League; at
the world championships four months ago he wowed observers when he vaulted
Kazakhstan's sprawling goalie to score.
taken Malkin with the No. 2 pick in the 2004 draft, right after the Capitals
tapped Alexander Ovechkin, but he decided to get more seasoning playing for
Mettalurg. Though he was under a four-year contract, he says the team promised
to let him out of the deal once he felt he was ready for the NHL. When Malkin
held Mettalurg to its word this summer, however, the team resisted, instead
coaxing him into a negotiation session on Aug. 7 that ended at 3 a.m. Under
what Malkin's North American agent, J.P. Barry, later described as "intense
psychological pressure," Malkin agreed to stay under terms of a new, richer
one-year deal. "He was distraught when he called me the next day," says
Barry. "He asked for help."
traveled to Finland on Saturday, Aug. 12, to play in a tournament, Barry and
some Finnish friends met Malkin at the Helsinki airport as the player left
customs. The Finns, who were used to dealing with rock stars and VIPs, whisked
Malkin out a back entrance and into a van, before driving off to hide him in an
Barry had planned
to take Malkin to the U.S. embassy to apply for a visa when it reopened that
Monday. But when his friends reported that the embassy was probably being
watched, Malkin and Barry waited an extra day, even switching apartments as a
further precaution. "Evgeni was concerned because his parents and brother
were still in Magnitogorsk," says Barry. "The owner of the team, Viktor
Rashnikov [a steel magnate], is one of the most powerful people in
mother, Natalia, told Russian media during the first days after her son's
disappearance that unspecified people "will not leave us alone,"
apparently no direct threats were made against the family. With a baseball cap
pulled low on his head, Malkin walked into the U.S. embassy on that Tuesday
without incident. The next day he was on a flight to the U.S.
managing director, Gennady Velichkin, termed Malkin's departure an act of
"sports terrorism" and will fight it in U.S. courts. But a similar suit
brought 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 the
Penguins. Within a short time of arriving in Pittsburgh he signed a three-year
deal worth as much as $3 million annually; skated with Sidney Crosby, last
year's must-see rookie; was introduced at a Penguins press conference; and
dined with team owner Mario Lemieux. "He's a smart, talented guy with a
good shot," says G.M. Ray Shero. "His reach and lateral movement buy
him time. He's going to score a lot."