Like most Penguins fans, I experienced some minor anxiety when I heard that reigning NHL scoring champ and MVP Evgeni Malkin had signed a contract to play for his hometown Metallurg Magnitogorsk team in the Kontinental Hockey League.
Similar to all the deals being signed by NHL stars trying to find a place to play during the lockout, Malkin’s contract includes an escape clause to be triggered when a new collective bargaining agreement is signed. But getting stuck in Russia (again) isn’t what’s worrisome about Evgeni’s homecoming.
No, what had me concerned was the thought of Malkin getting hurt in a league that doesn’t have the most sterling safety record. Yes, work conditions have improved since Rangers prospect Alexei Cherepanov died on the bench during a KHL game due to medical negligence, but an aura of incompetence still hovers around the self-proclaimed second-best hockey league in the world.
To go a step further, Malkin sustaining an injury while doing anything other than trying to propel the Penguins to their fourth Stanley Cup seems reckless, at least superficially.
Looking a bit deeper, though, I see this temporary excursion as being more good than bad for Malkin and, by extension, the Penguins.
First of all, the commitment to stay active in a high-level league speaks well of Malkin’s determination to strongly follow up on his 2011-12 banner campaign. The same desire that inspired him to work harder at conditioning last summer is pushing him to be “game ready” whenever the NHL season faces off.
I recall many NHL veterans who took a year off in 2004-05 had a difficult time getting back up to speed when the league resumed. The KHL isn’t the NHL, but it’s probably the next-best alternative – if you’re willing to cross the Atlantic.
Secondly, perhaps getting a last chance to play with good friend Sergei Gonchar in Magnitogorsk will provide Malkin mental refreshment. It can’t be easy to make your living halfway around the world from home, and this opportunity doesn’t figure to come along for at least the next several years.
I have a feeling that when Malkin returns to Pittsburgh and the NHL, he will have a renewed appreciation for his luxurious lifestyle in the States and the elite league that has given him the platform of international stardom. Not to mention he’ll be coming back to play alongside one of the handful of players who can see the game at his level, Sidney Crosby.
Injury-related worries aside, I see Malkin’s current stay in Russia as positive for his body, mind and soul. While there is always risk in playing a violent sport, there’s a good chance that pulling on the familiar Metallurg jersey will be rejuvenating for the Penguins’ No. 71.