This NHL season has not been kind to Russians. Check that. This season has been decidedly unkind to Russians. Alexander Ovechkin is now dropping his gloves to make up for his team’s poor showing and his own goal-scoring drop off. Washington teammate Alexander Semin is the Alexei Yashin Playoff Vanishing Act winner every year, and Semyon Varlamov is fighting the puck like never before in his young career. And that’s just one team!
Remember the early 1990s when Russians were first allowed to come to the NHL? In 1992, teams drafted 44 Russians, and every scout and general manager believed this was the start of a new era. Russians would provide the skill, Americans the size and power, and Canada the fighters and fourth liners. That’s what they said.
Throughout the ‘90s, more and more Russians were playing in the NHL. There was only one Russian in the league in 1988-89, but three years later there were 25. In 1999-2000, there were 71, and the trend seemed to be never-ending. But guess what? It has gone in the opposite direction emphatically and swiftly, down to 34 last year and even lower so far this year (27 to date, with few signs that number will increase in the next few months).
To date, there have been 23 skaters and four goalies from Russia in the NHL this 2010-11 season, and the players who were supposed to dominate haven’t.
The drafting of Russian players has reached cod levels off the Newfoundland coast – nil. The rise of the KHL and the absence of a Player Transfer Agreement have scared many Russians from coming to the NHL and many NHL teams from drafting or relying on Russians. The relationship between leagues and countries is just too brittle.
As for those 27 who are in the NHL, few are playing well. Yevgeni Malkin was supposed to be just as good as Sidney Crosby. They play for the same team, make virtually the same money, but have not been playing like they’re equal talents. Not by a long shot.
Think Ilya Kovalchuk, a proud Russian who has done impressive things for his country at the World Championships, but who has all of seven goals in 29 games since signing a gajillion-dollar contract with New Jersey – twice!
Sergei Gonchar was a huge pickup for the Ottawa Senators in the off season. The gifted offensive defenceman was a key element in Pittsburgh’s Stanley Cup win in 2009 but has been a nightmare with the Sens this season. His +/- rating of -16 is one of the worst in the league – before Kovalchuk’s -17.
Anton Volchenkov did the opposite. After playing his whole career in Ottawa, he signed a huge contract with New Jersey, a team that is now comfortably in 29th place, with only the lowly Islanders in behind and 28th place almost insurmountable even at this stage of the season.
Remember Nikolai Zherdev and Nikita Filatov and Alexander Frolov? Their names were synonymous with “future great” when they first were drafted. Not any more. Zherdev was selected 4th overall in 2003 and is now a spare part with Philadelphia, his eighth team in as many years.
Filatov, like Zherdev, was a high draft choice and returned after having been loaned to CSKA Moscow last season, but the once bright prospect in much demand has all of zero goals in his first 23 game with the Blue Jackets this year. And Frolov has gone from 71 points in 2006-07 to 67 points a year later, to 59 to 51 with Los Angeles. This year he is on pace for 31 points with the Rangers.
There are older players like Alexei Kovalev, who seems to be nearing the end of the line, and Sergei Samsonov, who went overnight from a star player to a minor-leaguer, only to have his career reignited with far lower expectations with Carolina a few years back.
In Toronto, Nikolai Kulemin showed promise last year playing on a line with Tyler Bozak and Phil Kessel, but this year neither Kulemin nor the line has done much right.
In truth, three of the top four Russians this year are goalies. Ilya Bryzgalov is in net for the quixotic Phoenix Coyotes, a talented team owned by the NHL playing before miniscule crowds. Nikolai Khabibulin is a veteran on an Edmonton team loaded with youth and talent, and in the opposite twist is rookie Sergei Bobrovski, a rookie on an experienced Philadelphia team who seems to have been handed the starter’s job mysteriously and has done brilliantly with the opportunity.
And of course there is Pavel Datsyuk in Detroit, a team that just wins and wins. He can score and play defence, make brilliant passes and sublime dekes – and block shots and win faceoffs. He might technically be the best player in the NHL.
The Russian invasion of the 1990s is but a long-ago memory, and the post-lockout reality is one that does not much feature Russians playing a prominent role in the NHL. Malkin has to be more consistent, and Ovechkin has to do much more than score a YouTube-famous goal every now and then. And the young players have to show the determination of the kid from Sudbury or Örnsköldsvik if that country is going to have an impact on the current NHL season and beyond.