In Moscow, Evgeni Malkin opens up about his lost season

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  • Nobody was more shocked than Malkin when last season turned into “the worst” of his 13-year NHL career.

“I think last year, it was all my fault,” Malkin says.

  • He scored half as many goals (21) as the previous season.
  • He seemed slow in transition.
  • He took too many risks and made too many turnovers.
  • He was injured at times but also frustrated.
  • He grew distant. He fought with his coach. He lost faith in his winger. He looked like a “regular player.”
  • Malkin was unrecognizable in almost every way. To himself most of all.

“I think my head starts, like, (getting) crazy,” Malkin says, “I fight with Sully. I fight with teammates. A little bit upset at everyone.”

  • Malkin’s fights with his coach, Mike Sullivan, were about ice time.
  • Malkin lobbied for around 20 minutes and he wanted to play when opponents pulled their goalie.
  • Sullivan needed to see the Malkin from the Penguins’ championship runs in 2016 and 2017.
  • He wanted to trust Malkin in the crucial moments of games.
  • He wanted Malkin to give what captain Sidney Crosby was giving the Penguins every game.
  • He needed to eliminate blind passes to the middle of the ice.
  • Pick spots instead of going in the corner.
  • Take pucks from opponents rather than committing turnovers.
  • While Malkin’s fights with Sullivan typically took place in private, his problems with Phil Kessel were much harder to hide.
  • Each is proud to the point of being stubborn.
  • They are fussy about their equipment (and were agitated by problems last season: skates and gloves for Malkin, sticks for Kessel).
  • They have some of the best shots in the history of the game.
  • And when the stakes are highest, Malkin and Kessel are at their best, a trait among some great players who transform into icons.
  • Their friendship is real, Malkin says.
  • But by the end of last season, everybody from ownership to management to coaches believed Kessel had to go for Malkin to stay.
  • Malkin declined to elaborate on how his on-ice relationship with Kessel fell apart.
  • But it’s clear he grew tired of feeling caught between the ongoing Sullivan-Kessel rift, according to multiple team and league sources.
  • Those sources also say Malkin had come to believe Kessel was content with two titles and mostly interested in his statistics.
  • Malkin was worried he’d be seen the same way if Kessel remained his winger.
  • Multiple team sources say Malkin requested a trade if Kessel was to return.
  • Malkin denies that, but it doesn’t mean he wanted to play another game, let alone another season, with Kessel as his linemate.
  • He did not.
  • So now Kessel is in Arizona, traded away.
  • In June, Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford said only Crosby was untouchable in trade talks, a shot across Malkin’s bow, intended or not.
  • Multiple team sources said Crosby, rarely one to involve himself in management matters, made it clear to the Penguins that Malkin should not be traded for any reason.

“It’s me and Geno,” Crosby said.

  • Malkin downplayed Rutherford’s comments.
  • He rolled his eyes while discussing them and noted he had heard trade talk before.
  • Privately, the trade talk stung.
  • It hurt worse because he first heard the news while with Team Russia at the World Championships in Slovakia.
  • Mostly, Malkin was peeved because for the first time, his future — not just in Pittsburgh, but as a great NHL player — was being openly doubted.

“We talk (about) one bad year, you know?” Malkin says. His quick, deep sigh suggests exasperation.

Sources & Credits: Rob Rossi, The Athletic
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