This was never about Evgeni Malkin arriving. When you win a Stanley Cup and a Conn Smythe Trophy and a scoring title, well, you’re already here.
But when Malkin, who won his second scoring title this season, walked away Wednesday night with both the Hart trophy as league MVP and the Ted Lindsay Award as the players’ MVP, this clearly marked a seminal moment in the talented Russian’s career.
"It's the best day of my life," Malkin said. "It's a pretty special day, and I'm very excited and nervous."
The best players are always driven to be better, to reach higher. That’s part of their DNA.
Since coming into the NHL, Malkin has always been in the neighborhood of greatness. He was runner-up for the Hart trophy twice, losing both times to countryman Alex Ovechkin, in 2008 and 2009. His teammate Sidney Crosby earned a Hart and Lindsay (formerly the Lester B. Pearson Award) in 2007.
For Malkin to earn his first Hart and first Lindsay adds to a body of work that now suggests he must be considered among the best players in the league since the lockout.
"It's a special day to me," Malkin said. "I hope it's not the last one. I try to work every year and I hope to be here again."
Malkin ran away with the scoring race this season, registering 109 points and beating runner-up and Hart trophy nominee Steven Stamkos by 12 points. It was the largest margin of victory for a scoring champ since Jaromir Jagr, then with Pittsburgh, finished 20 points ahead of Teemu Selanne in 1998-99.
With Crosby sidelined for much of the season, Malkin showed up at training camp with renewed determination after knee surgery sidelined him for the latter part of the 2010-11 season.
“This guy always competes,” coach Dan Bylsma said Wednesday. "He works hard in practice. But, I think you saw a difference right from the spring, and it carried right into camp and being ready for what he was doing in the season.
“With Geno this year, the amazing part of what he was doing is that the other players, both his teammates and the other players in the league, repeatedly saying things about how dominant and how special and how awesome some of the things he was doing on the ice, how he was taking over games, how he was playing an almost unstoppable type of game. That's what Evgeni was for almost two-thirds of the year, and you could see it in his own teammates and other players looking at him and the reaction of how special it is what he's doing on the ice.”
Malkin, still nervous speaking in front of crowds and to the media, read his acceptance speech for the Lindsay award from a card and then joked when he was announced as the Hart winner that he would just read the same speech again.
"I remember my first speech when I won the first Art Ross Trophy. I think this year was a little bit better," Malkin said. "Maybe next year's a little bit better, too."
On a personal note, Malkin spoke about how he’d like to dedicate the Hart trophy to his former teammate Sergei Gonchar, whom Malkin credits with helping him adjust to life in North America.
"I remember six years before, when I come, it was a different life, you know?" Malkin said. "I'm not speak English. First [person] who took care of me, it's Sergei Gonchar. He's a great guy, unbelievable player. It's my best friend here, thanks to him and his family, he always supports me. We work out together in the summer and vacation [together] and always talk on the phone, too."
Bylsma wasn’t surprised at the connection between the two players.
“It was a big part of Geno being comfortable, Geno growing as a player," Bylsma said. "I think you saw when Sergei went [to Ottawa], you saw him grow even more. Now you're missing that mentor and friend, the guy who has helped you a lot, but Geno has stepped out even more from a language standpoint, a media standpoint, a leadership standpoint as well. It's fitting to talk about that relationship, and what it meant to him and his success as a player in North America.”