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The New New Kid
E.M. Swift
October 02, 2006
After a dramatic flight from Russia, dazzling Evgeni Malkin takes a star turn in Pittsburgh
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October 02, 2006

The New New Kid

After a dramatic flight from Russia, dazzling Evgeni Malkin takes a star turn in Pittsburgh

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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.

The youngest 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.

Pittsburgh had 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."

When Metallurg 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 apartment.

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 Russia."

While Malkin's 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.

Metallurg'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."

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