Malkin ‘looks strong, fit, in shape, hungry’ for Penguins at age 36

CRANBERRY, Pa. — Evgeni Malkin trusts his game. So do the Pittsburgh Penguins.

But if anyone doubts the 36-year-old center, he said he welcomes the chance to prove them wrong.

“I believe in myself,” Malkin said when training camp opened Thursday. “I’m still a good player. I believe in myself. I believe in my teammates. I’m here to win. I’ll do my best. I’ll be ready for the first game.”

After agreeing to a four-year, $24.4 million contract ($6.1 million average annual value) July 12, Malkin’s goal has not changed. He hopes to reach the Stanley Cup Final a fifth time, win the Stanley Cup a fourth.

“I’m glad to stay here and enjoy a great organization, great team,” Malkin said. “We’re focused on making the Final again, try to win.”

Malkin could be better set up than he was a year ago, when he missed training camp following offseason knee surgery. He went home to Russia before leaving to train in Miami this offseason. He rested his knee, which held him out until Jan. 11 last season before he had 42 points (20 goals, 22 assists) in 41 games, and left early for Pittsburgh to participate in informal skates leading to camp.

“I’m still focused on my knee, it’s like the most important thing right now,” Malkin said. “I feel fine. I think I rested a little bit more this summer.”

Entering his 17th NHL season, Malkin said he won’t be able to fully test his condition until the Penguins begin the regular season against the Arizona Coyotes at PPG Paints Arena on Oct. 13.

No matter what, Malkin doesn’t think he’s lost much of a step. Defenseman Kris Letang feels the same and said the Penguins would have made a mistake by letting Malkin go.

“Anything you would have tried to do to replace him, you would lose that trade-off,” Letang said. “To have him on our side and be able to witness what he does every night, he’s a magician out there. He does things that nobody can. You want him on your team.”

Malkin and Letang, 35, are the oldest of Pittsburgh’s core three. Sidney Crosby, 35, is the youngest but will play his 18th NHL season, one more than his two longtime teammates. Malkin doesn’t see any decline in Crosby or Letang. Crosby had 84 points (31 goals, 53 assists) in 69 games last season. Letang had an NHL career-high 68 points (10 goals, 58 assists) in 78 games.

“Age is nothing. We have great experience. This is important,” Malkin said. “New guys here, young guys, we try to help them. Leadership, this group. What we’ve done the last 16, 17 years, nothing’s changed too much. Just be a leader, be strong and stay positive too. We know it’s not easy. Every team tries to beat us. We try to focus every game, play right and try to help the team to win.”

That core has led Pittsburgh to 16 straight appearances in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the longest active streak in the NHL. The winning culture is a reason forward Bryan Rust and Rickard Rakell chose to return on new contracts, Malkin said.

“I think we have a good team and I think most players want to stay here because they understand we have a chance to win,” Malkin said. “This is a professional organization. We work here every day. We work to win. New guys sign here, they want to stay here a long time because they have a chance to win. I’m glad we signed [Letang], we signed Rakell. It’s amazing.”

With new contracts, Malkin, Crosby and Letang are likely to stay together for at least three more seasons. Letang agreed to a six-year, $36.6 million contract ($6.1 AAV) July 7. Crosby has three seasons remaining on a 12-year, $104.4 million contract ($8.7 million AAV).

To Penguins coach Mike Sullivan, keeping those three together was always the best option.

“We have, in my mind, the best core that I’ve ever been around,” Sullivan said. “These guys are driven to win. They’re hungry. You can see it in their fitness level on the ice coming off Day One here. I know they’re excited.

“[Malkin] looks strong. He’s fit. He’s in shape. And he’s hungry.”

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