Despite what seemed blatantly obvious from the outside for a good chunk of last season, Evgeni Malkin does not hate Phil Kessel. He just couldn’t stand playing on the same hockey team as him.
Malkin wants us to know the hockey-derived rift between the two stars didn’t extend beyond the rink, or even the ice surface. In fact, their “friendship is real,” according to the Pittsburgh Penguins star, who recently opened up to The Athletic’s Rob Rossi about what the former claims to be the “worst” campaign of his NHL career.
Last season was a tire fire on and off the ice for Malkin. Underwhelming offensive production, constant battles with his coach over ice time, and the ongoing, visible feud between he and Kessel all contributed to Malkin’s hellish year.
When it was all said and done, the organization knew one of them had to go, with multiple team sources saying Malkin would have requested a trade out of Pittsburgh if Kessel was to return, according to Rossi's reporting.
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.
If not for the backing of captain Sidney Crosby, who added Malkin’s name to the list of Penguins “untouchables” after GM Jim Rutherford said Crosby was the only player on the squad they wouldn’t consider trading this summer, Malkin could very well be in another uniform right now.
And Kessel wasn’t the only big organizational player on the receiving end of Malkin’s ire, as the Russian and head coach Mike Sullivan regularly butt heads over ice time throughout the season. According to Rossi, Malkin wanted to play upwards of 20 minutes per game, while Sullivan needed the 2016 and 2017 version of Malkin to show up in order to grant that kind of TOI.
Sullivan wanted Malkin to contribute in all parts of the rink, cut down on the giveaways, and earn his trust in the defensive zone, and the ice time would follow — but none came to fruition in the end.
It was an undoubtedly rough year for Malkin, one he is completely and admirably owning up to while shedding some light on the personal issues he faced during the most tumultuous stint of his professional career.
“I think last year, it was all my fault,” Malkin said.
“I think my head starts, like, (getting) crazy,” Malkin says, “I fight with Sully. I fight with teammates. A little bit upset at everyone.”
According to Rossi, Malkin went extended periods of time without seeing his young son, Nikita, and his wife, Anna. He still struggles with language barriers in North America, his confidence often running on empty even after living in the U.S. for a dozen years.
“U.S. is a little bit hard for me. Because (of) language. Because maybe it’s, like, different mentality,” Malkin said, adding that he doesn’t speak often or openly to even his Penguins teammates and friends in Pittsburgh over the fear of being misinterpreted.
He knows he needs to be a bigger presence in the room, too, another factor he feels is negatively affected by the language barrier.
“I know I need (to bring) leadership in the room,” Malkin says. “Sometimes I’m scared because I feel like my English is, like, bad.”
Malkin remains “scared” he will say the wrong words, according to Rossi, and is worried that “people will not understand me.”
There’s absolutely no doubt the talent is there and there’s no reason to believe Malkin is anywhere near washed. With Kessel now gone, Sid in his corner and two Stanley Cup rings in his back pocket, Malkin has a fresh page and a tonne of organizational leeway to start writing a new chapter after such a disastrous one.
The ending to that story — his Penguins legacy — is completely in Malkin’s hands now, for better or worse.
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