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Kovacevic: Malkin’s flying, trying, but what’s he changed? ☕

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Evgeni Malkin skates through the Blue Jackets' forecheck Thursday night at PPG Paints Arena. - AP

"Better."

I was asking about the impression Evgeni Malkin's made in this training camp. That was Marcus Petterson's one-word reply, minutes after the Penguins beat the Blue Jackets, 4-1, in a preseason snoozer Thursday night at PPG Paints Arena.

And while it might not seem like much, it's more than most are comfortable offering on the subject. Solely because Malkin commands so much respect in this little world that comparing him to any previous incarnation of himself can come across as disrespectful.

I sought elaboration. Better how?

"I don't know, for sure, how to say it," Pettersson went on. "You know those games where he just takes control?"

I nodded. I've seen at least a couple.

"Well, this was one of them. And I didn't think he could get better than he was, but he is. He was doing all the little things. Stopping on pucks. Going hard on the forecheck. Coming back deep in the D-zone. And every time, we can just hand him the puck, and something good will happen. But that's the same. He's always been very dangerous."

Yep, that's the same. And that's optimal. But so much of the rest needs to be ... well, better.

As I'd been writing since the sad sweep that sent the 2018-19 Penguins into an instant summer, nothing will matter more to the franchise moving forward, at least not in the immediate term, than Malkin morphing more toward a style befitting a 33-year-old NHL superstar, as opposed to one a decade younger. No more stickhandling through a maze. No more lateral prayers between the blue lines. And above all, no more laissez-faire on the way back.

He doesn't need to challenge for the Selke. Hell, he doesn't even need to be a plus. Just stop being a negative -- you know, the team-worst minus-25 last season -- and the possession alone will lead to more points, and more points for him will mean more points in the standings.

Not going to lie: Because of this, I hardly watched anyone else on this evening, which marked his preseason debut.

Let's start with the plus ...

That's Malkin cleaning up on enemy of the state Brandon Dubinsky on a power-play draw, then smartly sliding across toward Jake Guentzel at the far boards to offer an extra passing option. When Guentzel, even more smartly, spies Alex Galchenyuk back over that same left circle, a 40-foot laser spells Heartbreak Hotel for Elvis Merzlikins, Columbus' goaltender.

Malkin claimed 9 of 12 draws, most of them that decisively.

Fine, but we know he can do that.

That's a two-on-one on the opening shift of the second period. In a real game, Malkin should invariably keep that shot for himself, especially with a lefty on that flank, unable to one-time. (Although Galchenyuk's more adept than most at it.) In this game, trying to foster further chemistry with his new designated linemate can be a noble thing, so he tried the saucer. And hey, the two did force Elvis to use his one of his Blue Suede Shoes to make the sprawling stop.

Encouraging chemistry between those two every time over the boards, actually.

"I think they've got the potential to be a real good tandem," Mike Sullivan replied when I asked about that after the game. "We've got some guys on the right side that we can still explore, but to this point, we like what we've seen when we're talking about that tandem. They're starting to establish some familiarity. We can see where it goes."

"We're building," Galchenyuk spoke to that. "It's one preseason game, but it felt pretty good, kind of better and better."

Again, though, we know Malkin can do this.

That's some of what Pettersson was describing related to Malkin's presence with the puck all game long. He collected it along the defensive boards, skated with the head up through the neutral zone and backed the Columbus defense way off, then tried the saucer again. This time, Jake Guentzel beat ... I don't know, whoever had just replaced Elvis in goal. Johnny Cash, probably.

Another fine play.

Yet again, though, we know Malkin can do all of that. It's fun to watch again, reassuring to a tiny extent, but not at all indicative of what's really got to go into motion this winter.

That's not an official giveaway, but it might as well be. Malkin takes a smooth lead from Galchenyuk to bolt up ice. It's promising from the start. And to boot, Galchenyuk rushes to Malkin's right to offer him an outlet, while Brandon Tanev does likewise to his left. But Malkin selects neither his wingers, nor a chip into the Columbus zone -- which two flying wingers are bound to pursue competitively -- and instead gets routinely poked by the Blue Jackets' Vladislav Gavrikov.

Sorry, but that's lousy. That's the same old same old. Lost possession, lost potential scoring chances.

That's Malkin coming back deep, bolstering another of Pettersson's points. It's commendable. But once back there, it's critical to remain responsible throughout. Malkin sees one of his defenseman, newcomer John Marino, in a 50/50, so he follows the Sullivan creed and gets another stick into the mix, and gains possession. At which point, he blindly, carelessly floats a pass right through the slot -- where no Blue Jackets awaited, mercifully -- but still to David Savard at the right point.

If that weren't enough ...

... that's a continuation of the same sequence. Savard has the puck and, as often is the case with him, achieves nothing with it. It's barely a shot in the correct direction. So Malkin lucks out twice and, more fortunate yet, the soft ricochet finds its way onto his blade.

So what's he do now that he's survived?

Well, naturally, he attempts yet another insane breakout horizontally across the same slot to Galchenyuk, who hot-potatoes it out of the zone.

It's preseason. The outcome meant nothing. For the most part, in a camp where no real roster battles are being conducted, the individual performances meant little. So I'm not declaring anything, not labeling anything.

But it sure wouldn't hurt to have a head start on something that'll count a hell of a lot once the real puck drops.

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