LAS VEGAS – Pittsburgh Penguins center Evgeni Malkin won his first Hart Trophy as the NHL's most valuable player Wednesday night.
Because even on a team with Sidney Crosby, Malkin has the ability to stand out. Even in a league with Crosby and Steven Stamkos and Claude Giroux and so many other stars, Malkin could win the Hart again – maybe even should win the Hart again. The way he's training, the way he's talking, he seems more committed, confident and comfortable than ever before, and that has already made a great player even greater.
"I hope it's not last one," said Malkin after the NHL Awards, standing behind a table packed with hardware – the Hart, the MVP chosen by the Professional Hockey Writers' Association; the Ted Lindsay Award, the most outstanding player chosen by the NHL Players' Association; and the Art Ross Trophy, which goes to the NHL scoring champion.
At another point, he added: "I love this sport. I like my team. I want to be best next 10 years."
That ought to make the rest of the NHL shudder. The Penguins lost in the first round of the playoffs this spring, and this is a salary-capped league of parity in which an eighth seed just won the Stanley Cup for the first time. But the Penguins were the favorites heading into the playoffs for a reason, and they are the favorites heading into next season. The sports book at the Wynn Resort and Casino has them at 7-1 odds, best in the league.
No team is a sure bet, but no team is a better bet than Pittsburgh.
"Every year it's different," said Malkin, who turns 26 at the end of July. "Sometimes Crosby have injury. It's tough. But if all players healthy, we have great chance to win."
Crosby came back late in the season, but he had missed most of the previous year-and-a-half with concussion and neck problems. He wasn't totally himself. His teammates had to adjust to his return. They opened up defensively in a goals-galore series with the potent Philadelphia Flyers, and instead of covering up for their mistakes as he did in the regular season, goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury exacerbated them.
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The Penguins need to improve their defense. They need to solve their cap crunch, with Crosby and Jordan Staal scheduled to become unrestricted free agents next July 1, and Malkin the following year.
But Crosby is likely to sign a cap-friendly long-term deal. General manager Ray Shero has said he wants to sign Staal, not trade him. And Malkin wants to stay, not go somewhere he can hog the spotlight. He doesn't just want to be the best for the next decade. He wants to be the best in Pittsburgh.
"I hope they sign me, too," he said.
Imagine if the Penguins have their three elite centermen – Crosby, Malkin, Staal – all healthy and ready in training camp for the first time in forever. The Penguins can be better defensively than they were against the Flyers, especially if they don't have to adjust to a Crosby comeback. Fleury can be better than he was against the Flyers, especially now that he has a backup, Tomas Vokoun, who can assume some of the workload in the regular season.
Now imagine if Malkin continues to play at an MVP level. Good luck. In a league where talent is so evenly distributed, it is an incredible advantage to have arguably the game's two best players along with Staal, Kris Letang and company. Listen to Boston Bruins center Patrice Bergeron, who won the Selke Trophy as the NHL's best defensive forward.
"My job is to play against [Malkin] when we play Pittsburgh …"
"Well, or Sid."
One theory is that Malkin rose to the fore because of Crosby's absence, and there is truth to that. Malkin's numbers historically have been better when he has had the responsibility and opportunity to be the No. 1 guy. But the key here really wasn't Crosby's absence. It was Malkin's.
"It wasn't necessarily that we didn't have Sidney Crosby," said Penguins coach Dan Bylsma. "It was, I think, that [Malkin] was really motivated to come back and help our team, and he knows, feels, that him at an elite level is a big part of the success of our team."
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Malkin missed most of the second half of the 2010-11 season and the playoffs because of torn knee ligaments, with Crosby already out. Malkin rehabbed and wanted to come back in the playoffs. Bylsma said he had never seen him more motivated. But the Penguins lost in the first round to the Tampa Bay Lightning, and Malkin went home for the summer.
This was a player who had won the Calder Trophy as the NHL's rookie of the year, who had won a scoring title, a Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP, a Stanley Cup, and who had been a runner-up for the Hart – twice. But he admitted to himself, as he did to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, that he was "lazy before."
And he decided not to be lazy anymore and to reach an even higher level. Penguins strength and conditioning coach Mike Kadar traveled to Moscow and worked with Malkin for two weeks in the off-season. He came to camp in top shape. He dominated the league much of the 2011-12 season.
Though he wasn't his best in the playoffs – trying too hard at times and taking penalties, not making enough of an impact at others – he still produced three goals and eight points in six games. Then he went to the world championships and dominated again, winning the tournament MVP award as Russia went 10-0 and claimed gold.
The best part: He's still hungry. Bylsma said Malkin is doing even more this summer. Kadar is working with him in Moscow for a full month.
"He's a bully on the ice," Bylsma said. "He does it with speed. He does it with finesse and hands. But he also does it with power. He goes through and around, and I think he's motivated by a lot of things. He wants to be a great player. He wants to help our team. And I think that motivation right now, it's going to be there for a long time."
Don't discount Malkin's comfort, either. He came from Magnitogorsk, Russia, unable to speak much English. He lived with teammate Sergei Gonchar as a rookie. He learned the language watching TV with Gonchar's daughter, Natalie, and Gonchar translated for him.
Malkin is still low-key by nature, still shy in front of cameras, still no orator in English. He spent most of his wild Vegas days relaxing by the pool and hanging out with friends. When he accepted the Lindsay Award, he read from a prepared card and stumbled over his words.
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But he has a better grasp of English now. He even has a Twitter account. He is more at ease in a starring role. And when he accepted the Hart at the end of the evening, he joked that he had lost his prepared card and spoke from the heart. He seemed much more natural as he dedicated the trophy to Gonchar, with whom he has remained close, even though Gonchar moved on to the Ottawa Senators two years ago.
After the show, he laughed about how far he had come – and hinted again about how much farther he expects to go. He remembered how bad his speech was when he accepted his first Art Ross in 2009.
"I think this year a little bit better," he said with a laugh. "Maybe next year a little bit better, too."
He said "next year" casually, as if there were no doubt.
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