Although there have been only 27 Russians in the NHL so far this season, the 24 skaters and three goalies from the great hockey-playing nation have made an impact on the league far greater than their numbers suggest. Indeed, it might well be argued that Russia has never had a stronger presence in the league than this 2008-09 season.
Leading the way are the big five of Alexander Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, Ilya Kovalchuk, Pavel Datsyuk, and Alexander Semin. Apart from the fact that they are all among the leading scorers in the NHL this season, they have two other very important qualities in common: They are all young and have all experienced success. Datsyuk leads the way in that he has won the Stanley Cup twice with Detroit, first in 2001-02 and then again this past summer.
Ovechkin has played in several World Championships and the 2006 Olympics, winning gold in Canada in May 2008 along with Kovalchuk, another frequent participant with Russia internationally, and Semin.
Semin, the baby of the bunch, led the league in scoring earlier this season after a torrid start and currently sits second with 27 points, four behind leader Malkin.
There have been only two other occasions when Russians, as a group, have made a significant mark in the NHL. The first came in 1993-94 when the Rangers won the Cup with four Russians on the team: Alex Kovalev, Alexander Karpovtsev, Sergei Nemchinov, and Sergei Zubov. Perhaps it was this success that gave Detroit coach Scotty Bowman the courage to put together a “Russian Five” unit of Igor Larionov, Sergei Fedorov, Slava Kozlov, Slava Fetisov, and Vladimir Konstantinov.
These players helped the Red Wings win the Cup in successive years, 1996-97 and ’97-’98. In both cases, however, the Russians played on one team and had an impact only on that team. The current Russian stars are spread out across the league’s map and have influenced the North American game as a whole. Each has a distinctive style.
Ovechkin is the gap-toothed star with the brilliant shot, hard shoulder check, and infectious enthusiasm for the game. His Washington teammate Semin is a brilliant skater and stickhandler. Kovalchuk is the game breaker with the wicked one timer on the off wing, while Malkin is the co-leader of the Pens with Sidney Crosby, a player who can beat an opponent with a great one-on-one deke, a quick shot, or a slippery pass to an open man.
Datsyuk is the quintessential team player, fitting in with a Detroit team stocked with stars but himself among the most talented in all facets of the game, and at both ends of the ice.
If a coach had to pick one of these players to form a franchise which, his decision would be difficult, to be sure. Does he go with Malkin, a proven player even when Crosby is out of the lineup? Datsyuk, with his Cup experience? Semin, the youngest and fastest-rising star? Ovechkin for his overall star factor? Kovalchuk, the game-breaker and pure goal-scorer?
Perhaps more telling is that these Russians are more team players than ever to play in the league. They can all score, but they can all pass as well. They all earn their ice time because of at least a little defensive ability, and their stats are nicely balanced between goals and assists.
And then there is the second tier of Russians, notably Nikolai Zherdev, who is perhaps deserving to be mentioned in the big group, and veterans such as Fedorov, Slava Kozlov, Alex Kovalev, and Alexander Frolov.
Of course, we can’t forget the three goalies – Evgeni Nabokov, Nikolai Khabibulin, and Ilya Bryzgalov – all of whom have made their own contributions to their teams, perhaps to a lesser extent than the big five, but a significant one all the same.
There may not be many Russians in the NHL, but it seems like there are a lot more because the few who play are among the best players in the game. They will not only be a factor in the chase for the Cup and at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver; they will most probably also be the core of the team that goes home to Sochi in 2014.