Penguins pick Malkin skates out on his Russian club

PITTSBURGH -- Evgeni Malkin, the star forward and
Pittsburgh Penguins draft pick who has said repeatedly he wants to play in the
NHL, left his Russian pro team during a training camp in Finland on
Saturday, various Russian news services reported.

It was uncertain whether Malkin bolted from the team in an
attempt to get to North America and play for the Penguins this
season, but the Itar-Tass news agency, citing a source within the
club, reported Malkin took his belongings and passport with him.

Malkin's departure from Metallurg Magnitogorsk of Russia's Super
League would be yet another unexpected turn in an ever-changing
story in which the Olympics star renegotiated his Russian contract
from two seasons to one season last week, at the same time his
North American-based agents were saying he wants to play in the NHL
as soon as possible.

Malkin's agent, JP Barry, didn't immediately return a phone
message. Penguins spokesman Tom McMillan said the club had no
comment on the report.

In another curious twist, the Russian daily newspaper
Komsomolskaya Pravda reported last week that Malkin recently opened
a new restaurant in Metallurg designed to resemble a Russian jail,
complete with bars on the windows, aluminum forks, waitresses in
striped prison garb and portraits of Soviet dictators. Malkin was
quoted as saying he wanted to open similar restaurants in other
Russian cities.

Malkin was the No. 2 pick in the 2004 draft behind last year's
NHL rookie of the year, fellow Russian Alexander Ovechkin of the
Washington Capitals. But he did not play in the NHL last season
because the league lacked a transfer agreement with the Russian ice
hockey federation.

This spring, it appeared Russia would go along with a transfer
agreement already reached with the main European ice hockey
federations and the International Ice Hockey Federation calling for
a $200,000 transfer fee paid to each country when one of its
players left for the NHL. But, apparently because the Mettalurg
team felt Malkin's rights were worth 10 times that amount, Russia
has not signed the agreement.

However, Malkin's former agent, Don Meehan, said Russian law
allowed Malkin to leave his team -- despite having a signed contract
-- merely by submitting a letter of resignation. Malkin, under heavy
pressure to stay with his Russian team, presumably may have
renegotiated his contract last weekend merely to buy time before
deciding the best course to get to the NHL this season.

Barry told The Associated Press last week that, despite Russian
news agency reports of the reworked contract, Malkin had every
intention of trying to play for the Penguins soon. Barry and Pat
Brisson were Malkin's agents until June, when Meehan took over, but
have since been rehired by Malkin. They did not play any role in
his Russian contract talks.

The 6-foot-3 Malkin is widely regarded in hockey circles as
being the best player in the world not playing in the NHL. The
Penguins badly want Malkin to join a youthful team that already
includes Sidney Crosby, who had 102 points last season as an
18-year-old rookie, and Jordan Staal, the No. 2 pick in the recent
NHL draft.

Malkin led Metallurg with 47 points, including 21 goals, in 46
games last season. He had two goals and six points for Russia in the
Turin Olympics.

If Malkin is attempting to defect while in Finland, he would be
the best-known hockey player to do so since Alexander Mogilny left
the Soviet Union team following the world junior championships in
Sweden in 1989 and defected to the United States so he could play
for the Buffalo Sabres.

If Malkin does intend to play for the Penguins this season, his
contract negotiations likely would go quickly. Under the NHL labor
agreement, he would make slightly less than $1 million in salary,
plus bonuses that would be negotiated with the team.