Evgeni Malkin wants to keep it loose.
He’s trying. But his Penguins begin playing real games in a few days, and all around him, people are paying attention.
From the bench on a practice rink at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex, coach Mike Sullivan coolly observes Malkin’s engagement during conditioning. Is Geno dialed in? Later, associate coach Todd Reirden intently nods his head toward worn ice inside the blue line as pucks are passed to Malkin on a power-play drill. What read will Geno make? All the while, general manager Ron Hextall and hockey operations president Brian Burke stoically stare from a balcony as Malkin stops, starts and turns on his twice-surgically repaired knee. How will Geno hold up early in the new contract?
Malkin hasn’t actually heard any of those questions from any of those people. He presumes they’re asking them — and other questions — about him at all times, though. He’s wired this way, to believe even without evidence that somebody somewhere is somehow doubting him.
There’s a reason Malkin thinks like this. Part of him is always the younger brother in a competitive two-son family from a remote industrial city in Russia. For all the physical gifts he’s displayed since he first put on a pair of hockey skates, for any of those times he beat big brother Denis in tennis matches, for those early NHL seasons when he won individual awards and those later ones marked by the highs of more Stanley Cups and lows of declining performance resulting from injuries, and for a “rough last year” when his future, along with that of his own young family, hung in the balance — through all of it, Malkin, a sure-bet future Hall of Famer and destined to be remembered as one of the greatest Russian hockey players, has suffered from confidence crises.
And now he sees those same doubts in his son, Nikita, who is shy around unfamiliar faces, who is trying to learn two languages while bouncing between Pittsburgh, Miami and Moscow, and who recently switched from hockey to soccer, a game his dad feels uncertain of how to help teach. On this particular day, Nikita sits by himself on the bench connected to Malkin’s locker stall, his 6-year-old legs dangling while he plays a game on dad’s phone. Around Nikita, Penguins players pass through and media gathers, but the boy is transfixed by that game until Malkin emerges with pizza. Off go father and son to the players’ lounge — serious-faced dad speaking in Russian and precious son giggling as they hold hands.
“I need to try to relax,” Malkin said. “Like, I think I know what I can do.”
About to begin his 17th season with the Penguins, Malkin wasn’t just talking about hockey.