Yes, No. 66. Malkin won’t play his first shift, take his first shot, make his first pass until the Penguins face the New Jersey Devils on Wednesday. That didn’t prevent Recchi and Sidney Crosby from bringing up the same name – Mario Lemieux – when they were asked how good the 20-year-old Russian centre is.
“He’s really good. He’s going to be scary good,” Recchi said Tuesday. “I hate to bring up this comparison, but I don’t think we’ve seen anybody with his size who can skate like him and do as much as him. He’s as close to Mario as we’re going to see for a long time.”
Recchi wasn’t suggesting the six-foot-four Malkin will threaten to score 200 points in a season or average nearly two points per game for his career as Lemieux did before retiring in January for the second time.
Rather, it is how Malkin plays the game that, to Recchi, makes him resemble Lemieux. The uncanny ability to see a play develop before it occurs. To put a pass directly onto a stick through heavy traffic. To improvise and create a goal when there seems to be no possibility of doing so.
“Obviously, some people have tried to pass that torch along to other people, but the way he skates and sees the ice, he’s the whole package,” Recchi said.
Maybe a slightly taller version of Crosby, who had 102 points in his rookie year at age 18 last season?
“He’s going to surprise people with how good he is,” forward Colby Armstrong said. “He’s got confidence with the puck, he’s a smooth skater, he makes things happen with the puck, he can score. It seems like he scores every time he shoots on net (in practice).”
Malkin’s NHL debut was delayed nearly a month by a dislocated left shoulder that occurred when he and teammate John LeClair collided behind the net during a Sept. 20 exhibition game. Malkin’s recovery time was slightly faster than expected, and the Penguins have gone 2-2 without him.
They expect to be better now that he is playing, though there will be some nervousness on their part until Malkin shows he can take hits on his left shoulder without reinjuring it.
“My arm is in good shape, so everything is good. I just want to play hockey,” said Malkin, speaking through an interpreter, defenceman Sergei Gonchar.
For now, Malkin will centre the No. 2 line with Ryan Malone at left wing and Recchi on his right.
Crosby and Malkin likely will play together on the power play, where the Penguins are 12th in the NHL with a 19.2 per cent conversion rate.
“I’m thinking selfishly, but I can’t wait to play with him,” Crosby said. “When you get a chance to play with someone like that, it’s like it was with Mario – you don’t know what’s going to happen, but you know you’re going to create something. With a creative mind like that, you don’t know what to expect and it makes for an element of surprise.”
Malkin was the No. 2 pick in the 2004 draft, one spot behind fellow Russian star Alexander Ovechkin. Malkin played last season for Magnitogorsk of the Russian Super League, but sneaked away from that team in August and made his way to the United States so he could play in the NHL.
Gonchar, who played with Ovechkin and Malkin on Russia’s Olympic team last winter, said it is difficult to compare the two because their games are dissimilar. Ovechkin was the rookie of the year last season with 106 points for Washington.
“My personal feeling is Ovechkin is going to be like Pavel Bure, who’s going to score a lot of goals and shoot the puck a lot,” Gonchar said. “Evgeni, I see him as a Sergei Fedorov who plays well in both ends of the ice and kills penalties. He can do it all. He can score. He can create offence. He’ll be there for you in an every-game situation. So it’s really hard to say who is better.”