For the first time since 2004, the top names in this year’s draft ranking are Russian. Skaters like Nail Yakupov, Alex Galchenyuk, and Mikhail Grigorenko and goalies Andrei Vasilevski and Andrey Makarov are some of 2012’s best of the best, but it seems as of late the NHL’s faith in Russian draft picks is dwindling. The threat of the KHL seems to be a growing problem and with the few Russian stars the NHL has becoming less and less reliable, whether they’re failing to produce like Washington Capitals stars Alex Ovetchkin and Alex Semin or have a seemingly lax commitment to the NHL off-ice like the Nashville Predators, Alexander Radulov, who returned to the team this season after leaving for the KHL 4 years ago in the middle of a contract. Radulov was suspended not by the league but by his team after violating team curfew the night before Game 2 of their series against the Phoenix Coyotes and left the team again at the end of their playoff run to sign another contract with Moscow’s KHL club. This growing doubt could seriously hurt the chances of these young talented players from being drafted as high as they deserve, but in the heart of it all, one name is noticeably absent. Evgeni Malkin.
The 25 year old Pittsburgh Penguins forward seems to be – for lack of a better term- the anti-Russian superstar. He led league with 109 points winning the Art Ross, captured the titles of team MVP and both of the League’s MVP awards, the Ted Lindsey and the Hart Memorial. Malkin carried on his season’s success on the World Stage dominating the scoring race and winning tournament MVP along with his first Gold Medal. The man lovingly known as Geno had as his fair share of struggles in the past. In seasons prior, he’s suffered from season ending injuries and scoring dry spells but has bounced back better than ever every time. None better than this season, coming back from not one but two consecutive knee injuries to score a career best 50 goals and was the only player to score over 100 points. In the absence of team captain Sidney Crosby – and even after his return – Malkin played a key role in the success of the Pittsburgh Penguins.
In all his success, Malkin has stayed humble. Upon winning the Ted Lindsey, the MVP award voted on by the players themselves, Malkin made an effort though restrained by his limited English to stress what an honor the award was and thanked those who helped him get to where he is today, Mario Lemieux, Ray Shero, his family, friends and of course the Pittsburgh fan base. Notably missing among them though was former teammate and fellow Russian, Sergei Gonchar, who took Malkin under his wing when he came to the NHL 6 years ago. An error rectified by the Russian MVP when he received the Hart Memorial trophy. Malkin dedicated his entire acceptance speech and the award itself to the Ottawa Senators defensemen, thanking him for his support and friendship.
If GM’s could be assured that the young Russians in the draft today would, in 6 years time, turn out to be more like Evgeni Malkin than his Russian opponents, the growing hesitation in drafting Russians wouldn’t be just that – a hesitation. No longer would they question the sincerity of Russian draftees if they fought tooth and nail to make it to North America like the Russian superstar had when his former club refused to release him to an NHL contract. Or doubt their passion and drive to play the game they love if they played with the fire of the league leader in shots on goal. Sadly, it seems Evgeni Malkin is the exception, not the rule; and these young guns are going to have to prove themselves worthy of being in the same class as the Russian King.