With skilled players like Sidney Crosby and Marc Andre Fleury on their roster and a host of young talent in their system, the Pittsburgh Penguins has been dubbed the team of the future. But after starting the season 7-3-0 through their first 10 games and with their last six first round draft picks having made their NHL roster, the Penguins have captured the attention of the entire hockey world and have proven that the future may be closer than anyone could have anticipated.
"They're a good skating team," said Ducks captain Scott Niedermayer a player who has been a member of many winning hockey teams from juniors to the Stanley Cup. "That's what the league is about now and there is a lot of opportunity to skate and move with the puck and they do that. They're aggressive. Obviously, the young guys they have are pretty darn good hockey players."
The young guys and the rest of the Penguins roster became even richer this past offseason when 2004 first round draft pick Evgeni Malkin made the decision to leave Russia to play in the NHL. After enduring a cloak and dagger type saga in order to make those NHL dreams a reality, Malkin has finally arrived in Pittsburgh.
"For the past two seasons, he's been regarded probably as the most talented player outside of the NHL," said Pittsburgh's first year Assistant General Manager Chuck Fletcher. "And there has sort of been a long wait for his arrival at least in Pittsburgh. He's 20 years old. He's played three years of professional hockey in Russia already so he's really coming over a very mature 20-year-old in terms of his game and in terms of his professional experience."
Malkin's game is indeed mature. At just 20, he led his former club, Metallurg Magnitogorsk, in scoring and was ranked third in the Russian Super League for points scored (47). The Russian center has not disappointed since his arrival, becoming the first rookie of the modern era to score a goal in each of the first six games of his NHL career. The feat hadn't been done since the league's inception back in 1917 and was enough to earn Malkin the league's Rookie of the Month award for October.
According to Fletcher, who helped draft and develop the young guns who have helped make the Anaheim Ducks a Stanley Cup favorite, Malkin's quick adjustment has been surprising.
"I think we have been a little bit surprised," Fletcher admitted. "I don't think anybody anticipated that he would score seven goals in his first six games -- particularly for a player who's coming over to a new culture, who doesn't speak any English and at this point he is really still adjusting to our system and style of play never mind the culture and the lifestyle."
And while the Penguins have been pleasantly surprised by Malkin's early success, former Calder Trophy winner Teemu Selanne hasn't been surprised.
"I haven't seen him play much but obviously you can see he's a great player and who's got all the tools. He's one of the brightest stars in the league right now and I think that's great. I am always excited to see young players coming up in the league and just play like a 10-year pro. ..I don't see Malkin, in my mind, as a rookie anymore because he has played World Championships, Olympics and that high level for so long a time back in Russia."
Malkin's NHL career got off to a late start after he injured his shoulder in a collision with teammate John LeClair in the team's first preseason game. Malkin missed the first four games of the regular season.
Since his NHL debut on Oct. 18, Malkin has managed to score 8 goals and 14 points while averaging 19:42 minutes of ice time a game. The 6'3, 192-pound forward ranks second among all rookies (behind 19-year-old Anze Kopitar) in points scored and leads all rookies in power play goals. Malkin's success has helped the Penguins get off to their best record in October (6-3-0) since their 2002-03 season.
"He's helped us a lot," said fellow phenom Crosby. "I think especially when he was starting off the first couple of games he was great scoring some big goals and he made a huge impact as he is now but I think for him to come in the way he did his first year in the NHL coming off an injury. I mean it really boosted us and I think he's dangerous every time he's out there. He's a guy who can score so he's nice to have."
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