Malkin at 1,000; a star hiding in plain sight

By Will Graves (AP Sports Writer)

PITTSBURGH (AP) — The cameras crowd around Sidney Crosby‘s stall, parting only to let the Pittsburgh Penguins captain slip through and tug on a baseball cap before the lights flip on, the microphones close in and the questions come.

Fifteen feet away, Evgeni Malkin goes about his business quietly as part of his game-day routine, consulting with a staff member about a piece of equipment before ducking out, a star hiding in plain sight.

In another era or in another NHL city, it wouldn’t be this way. Yet this is Malkin’s lot, one the 32-year-old Russian and most recent member of 1,000-point club readily accepts. Drafted one spot behind fellow countryman Alex Ovechkin and one year ahead of Crosby – whom he’s partnered to win three Stanley Cups with over the last decade – Malkin is forever being nudged ever so slightly into the shadow of the two players who have defined the league for a generation.

”I think he likes it that way, to be honest with you,” said former teammate Brooks Orpik, now a defenseman for the Washington Capitals. ”He lets Sid do a lot more of the media stuff. And he kind of does his own thing and flies under the radar. I think he’s good with that part of it.”

Even if Malkin’s affable public reticence plays in stark contrast to the way he goes about doing his job, where the 2012 Hart Trophy winner, four-time All-Star and two-time scoring champion is a study in contrasts. Hulking yet nimble. Intimidating yet imaginative. A 6-foot-3, 195-pound anomaly of speed, power and skill who joined Ovechkin and Crosby, San Jose’s Joe Thornton and Toronto’s Patrick Marleau as the only active players to hit four digits when he collected two assists in Pittsburgh’s 5-3 victory over Washington on Tuesday night.

Malkin picked up secondary assists on Crosby’s second-period goal and Phil Kessel‘s third-period marker and celebrated by getting mobbed in the corner as the sellout crowd that included his parents and his wife rose to its feet in appreciation. Not bad for a kid from Magnitogorsk, Russia who never imagined he’d called America home.

”I grow up in small city and never think I play in NHL and score like, 1,000 points,” Malkin said.

Yet what once must have seemed impossible became inevitable as the years passed, the goals piled up and his reputation as one of the NHL’s most dynamic and daunting players blossomed.

”He makes it look easy, that’s the thing,” Crosby said. ”It’s so effortless for him.”

Crosby offered a sequence during Pittsburgh’s 4-2 win over Boston on Sunday night as proof. Malkin collected a pass at the Penguins’ blue line, raced by Bruins forward Peter Cehlarik, slipped the puck underneath Boston defenseman Brandon Carlo‘s flailing stick – spinning Carlo around completely in the process – then re-gathered it before ripping a wrist shot that soared over the crossbar. The whole thing took five seconds. Even now, 13 years into a partnership as productive as any in modern NHL history, Crosby couldn’t help but shake his head.

”You know how hard those things are to do?” Crosby said. ”And to see him do it the way he does is pretty special.”

And also a well-kept secret of sorts.

When the NHL released its top 100 players of all-time in conjunction with the league’s 100th anniversary in 2017, Crosby and Ovechkin’s names were on the list. Malkin’s was not, a fact he tried to play off by joking that if he won a couple of more Stanley Cups he could be No. 101. His friends and teammates didn’t take it quite so well, with Orpik calling the omission ”pretty outrageous.”

Maybe, but it’s also symbolic of Malkin’s unusual place in the NHL stratosphere. Famous, but not that famous. Well-respected. Just not quite as much as the two players he’s most closely associated with.

”I think of outside of Pittsburgh, I don’t think he gets the credit he deserves for the body of work that he’s put together in his decade-plus years as a Pittsburgh Penguin,” Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan said. ”When you look at what he’s accomplished, it’s remarkable.”

It’s just that he happens to share a dressing room with the league’s most recognizable name and the same homeland as the greatest Russian player ever. Malkin’s 1.178 career points per game is second-highest among active players. Crosby is first. Ovechkin is third.

Even on the night Malkin reached elite company, he couldn’t hold the spotlight for long. Less than three minutes after reaching 1,000 points, Malkin watched Ovechkin set up John Carlson for a goal that made Ovechkin the 48th player to reach 1,200 points. Maybe it’s fitting. Crosby’s combination of talent and relentlessness helped make him the face of the NHL, with Ovechkin long serving as Crosby’s emotional counterpoint, raw and primal. Malkin’s persona – much like his stats – falls somewhere in between.

”He’s Malkin,” Ovechkin said with shrug. ”Everybody’s different.”

And no less effective. Malkin plays with a natural ease, producing highlight-reel plays with the casualness of someone goofing around at the end of a morning skate. That casualness is a testament to both Malkin’s immense ability and one of the primary reasons his production can be taken for granted.

What Malkin does is incredibly difficult. The fact he doesn’t make it look that way is both a compliment and a curse.

”Sid’s the hardest-working guy I’ve ever played with and I think he has to do that to be at the level he’s at,” Orpik said. ”You can see Geno take a month off and come back and most guys are usually pretty rusty, he’s pretty much right at that level all the time.”

Well, maybe not all the time.

Malkin’s milestone moment came during an uncharacteristically uneven season. He didn’t score an even strength goal during November, his minus-23 rating heading into Tuesday ranked worst on the team and he’s shown a penchant for taking needless offensive zone penalties.

”It’s a tough year for me but every game, team play better and I think my game, it’s like back and I feel so much better every night,” Malkin said. ”My confidence back.”

Pittsburgh’s best chances at emerging from the crowded race for a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference will rely heavily on Malkin being Malkin over the last three weeks of the regular season.

There have been signs of late, like his sizzling end-to-end rush against Boston or the way he quarterbacked a resurgent power play that scored twice against the Capitals. They are things that he’s done with astonishing regularity through the years, so much so that when he doesn’t do them the discussion centers on what he’s doing wrong rather than an appreciation for all the things he’s done right.

Those who get to witness his excellence on a day-to-day basis think it’s time for that perception to change. Malkin might not care. But they do.

”We all understand what he means to this team,” Sullivan said. ”He doesn’t get the credit he deserves outside of Pittsburgh in the hockey world. He’s been one of the elite players in this hockey league for more than a decade and he deserves more attention for that.”

GAME OF THE WEEK

The Wild and Stars are in the middle of a wide-open scramble for the final two playoff spots in the west. Their meeting in Minnesota on Thursday could start to provide some clarity.

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Trade: Penguins send Olli Maatta to Blackhawks for Dominik Kahun and draft pick

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Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford made it clear that changes were coming to his team this offseason.

On Saturday evening he made his first one.

The Penguins announced that they have traded defender Olli Maatta to the Chicago Blackhawks in exchange for forward Dominik Kahun and a 2019 fifth-round draft pick that originally belonged to the Tampa Bay Lightning.

It is a trade that accomplishes quite a bit for both teams.

First, from the Pittsburgh side, it clears up a log-jam the team had on its blue line with as many as eight NHL defenders either under contract or under team control (Marcus Pettersson is a restricted free agent) for this season. That alone made it seem likely that someone was going to be on the move, and especially after the team’s defensive play regressed again this past season and had a particularly brutal playoff run against the New York Islanders. By trading Maatta, it not only clears a roster spot but also sheds more than $3 million in salary cap space given that Kahun is still on an entry-level contract and counts only $925,000 against the cap for the 2019-20 season.

It also gives them some much-needed youth at forward.

Even after Maatta’s departure the Penguins still have a lot of questions to deal with on defense, where Jack Johnson and Erik Gudbranson are still taking up more than $7 million in salary cap space over the next few seasons (not ideal!), while Justin Schultz is an unrestricted free agent after this season. Will more players be on the move to address that position? Or does this just make it more likely the returning players take on bigger roles and are more set in the lineup? Based on what we have seen the past few seasons more changes are going to be needed.

The 23-year-old Kahun scored 13 goals and added 24 assists for the Blackhawks in 82 games this past season, his first full year in the NHL.

The addition of the draft pick also gives the Penguins six picks in this year’s draft: A first, a fourth, two fifths, and two sevenths.

As for Chicago, Maatta joins a defense that has needed an overhaul for a few years now and provides a fresher, younger face in the lineup. Even though Maatta has six years of NHL experience under his belt he will still only be 25 years old when the 2019-20 season begins. His career has gone through some extreme ups and downs. When he made his debut during the 2013-14 season he looked like a player that had legitimate top-pairing potential in the NHL could be on his way to becoming a cornerstone player in Pittsburgh. But in the years that followed he had to overcome cancer and an extensive list of injuries that sidetracked his career and led to some pretty significant regressions across the board. Injuries have still been an issue before him in recent seasons, but he seems to have understood his limitations and adjusted to the sort of game he has to play to make a positive impact.

He is not going to bring much speed to the Blackhawks’ blue line, and he tends to play a more conservative game when it comes to defending entries at the blue line, but he is a sound player in his own end and while he lacks top-end speed, is still very good with the puck on his stick. When he is at his best, he plays a clean, quiet game that will not get noticed (and there is nothing wrong with that; not everyone is going to be Erik Karlsson).

The problem is he is still prone to getting beat by faster forwards and when it happens it can at times look bad, which then leads to criticism.

He appeared in 60 games for the Penguins in 2018-19, scoring one goal and 14 total points. He averages around five goals and 25 total points over 82 games.

He has three years remaining on a contract that carries a salary cap hit of just over $4 million per season. He alone is not going to fix all of the Blackhawks’ shortcomings on defense, but he is not a bad addition, either.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Blues parade Stanley Cup down streets of downtown St. Louis

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Rain or shine, as they say. And the rain wasn’t going to put a damper on this parade.

And while the wet stuff poured down prior to the parade proper in St. Louis on Saturday, it let up as to allow quite the sight, one a half-century in the making.

St. Louis fans lined Market Street just days after their Blues hoisted their first Cup in franchise history after defeating the Boston Bruins 4-1 in the Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final.

The parade route began at the intersection of 18th and Market, went down past Enterprise Center — the home of the Blues — and ended at Broadway and Market, a couple blocks from the famed Gateway Arch along the Mississippi River.

The celebrations continued as players, coaches and alumni led a ceremony under the Arch.

“This is incredible,” Craig Berube said. “I knew that there was going to be a lot of support out here today. People are excited and happy and deserving because they love the game of hockey here. The fans are unbelievable. And they finally got a championship.

Brayden Schenn called it the best day of his life. Schenn wore a firefighter hat, honoring his father who is one and was on the back of one of the fire truck floats.

Rookie sensation Jordan Binnington called the moment surreal, and hardly looked nervous as he let loose and soaked the whole experience in.

Ryan O'Reilly, meanwhile, grabbed the Cup and took it down the street near the thousands of fans lined up, allowing those close enough to touch it as he went by.

Former Blues great Brett Hull, who has two Stanley Cup wins to his name, but never with St. Louis, labelled Saturday as the greatest day in the history of the city.

Hull was one of the first people on stage. Not sober, Hull wanted to change the chant from, ‘Let’s go Blues’ to ‘We went Blues’.

“We don’t have to say, ‘Let’s go’ anymore because we already did it,” Hull said.

Of course, the Blues parade wouldn’t be complete without Laila Anderson, a part of the team’s inspiration during their run to the Cup.

Anderson was surprised with Game 7 tickets and got to watch the Blues hoist Lord Stanley. She told Fox Sports Midwest that she thought her mom was pulling a prank on her when she said she was getting to go and be part of the championship parade.

“I’m just glad I could help them,” she said. ” I don’t know what I do but I’m just glad the whole city supports me so much.

Yesterday, the Blues took the Cup to OB. Clark’s, a neighbourhood sports bar and restaurant.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Kings buy out Dion Phaneuf

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Dion Phaneuf‘s time with the Los Angeles Kings has come to an end.

The team announced that they were buying out the 34-year-old’s contract on Saturday afternoon, the first day of the buyout window that lasts until June 30.

[RELATED: Buyout Frenzy: Five candidates to have contracts nixed from the books]

Phaneuf’s name had been circulating in buyout discussions for a while, so it’s hardly surprising that the Kings have elected to do so.

Phaneuf is a shade of the player he used to be and is on the back nine of his career. He’s got two years remaining on a deal and the Kings will save $2,833 million over the course of the buyout, including shedding over $4 million of cap space next year.

Phaneuf’s cap hit over four years will $8.375 million, with the Ottawa Senators retaining 25 percent or $2.791 million per the transaction the two teams made in 2018.

Trading Phaneuf was never likely. He had six points in 67 games last year and the Kings, who were dreadful, healthy-scratched Phaneuf down the stretch.

The Kings acquired Phaneuf prior to the trade deadline in 2018. He’d appear in 93 games over the past two seasons, recording 16 points.

Phaneuf, a first-round pick in 2003, played his 1,000th game during this past season. He’s six points shy of 500 for his NHL career.

The Kings have 10 picks in the upcoming 2019 NHL Draft, including the 5th overall selection in the first round.

MORE: Flyers waive MacDonald, set to buy him out


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Flyers waive MacDonald, set to buy him out

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Well, that didn’t take long.

The Philadelphia Flyers put defenseman Andrew MacDonald on unconditional waivers for the purpose of buying him out, according to the club on Saturday. The Flyers can buy MacDonald out on Sunday after he clears waivers.

Today marks the opening of the buyout window where teams can shed bad contracts (for the most part) and save a little money when it comes to the salary cap. MacDonald’s name was written on the wall on Friday, however, after the Flyers and Washington Capitals swapped Radko Gudas for Matt Niskanen, a defenseman.

[RELATED: Buyout Frenzy: Five candidates to have contracts nixed from the books]

MacDonald had a year remaining on his six-year-, $30 million contract he signed prior to the 2014-15 season. The Flyers will save $3.833 million next year, reducing the cap hit from $5 million to just $1.66 million.

“It was a difficult decision,” Flyers GM Cliff Fletcher said. “It was solely cap related…This guys is a constant professional. He did whatever we asked him to do…He’s just a quality person & a guy who played an effective two-way game for our team.”

MacDonald’s play has tanked in recent times and his minutes followed. He had no goals and nine assists last year in 47 games where he averaged around 16 minutes a night, six less than when he was acquired by the Flyers in 2014 from the New York Islanders.

A shortened season became commonplace for MacDonald, often through injury as well as being healthy scratched. He’s never played a full 82-game schedule in his 10-year NHL career.

MacDonald’s buyout is the first foot to fall.

There are several more candidates who could follow the same path over the next two weeks.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck