Russian Return
by Ryan O'Leary|21 SEP 2020
Andrei Vasilevski (middle) and Nikita Kucherov (right) – pictured with Artemi Panarin – won bronze at the 2017 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship together. Now they have the chance to win the Stanley Cup with the Tampa Bay Lightning in a final with Russian players on both sides.
photo: Andre Ringuette / HHOF-IIHF Images
There was a time in the 1990s where Russian talent could be found in droves on any NHL roster. Your Fyodorov’s, your Bure’s, your Mogilny’s. 

They dominated hockey.

But, as recent as five years ago, finding a Russian on an NHL roster was a difficult task. Numbers dwindled, however, the talent pool from that country in headlining the Stanley Cup Final.

For Tampa: Nikita Kucherov, Andrei Vasilevski, Mikhail Sergachyov and Alexander Volkov; and for Dallas: Alexander Radulov, Denis Gurianov and Anton Khudobin.

With roughly seven of the 40 players skating, Russia consists of 17.5% of the overall rosters.

And this isn’t just a list of role players, these are stars. Kucherov is arguably the most dynamic winger in the league right now, while Vasilevski won the Vezina Trophy last season.

Khodobin is having his best stretch ever in professional hockey as the leader in the clubhouse for the Conn Smythe Trophy, handed to the playoff MVP. Of course Gurianov is a high draft pick who scored the overtime winner to advance past Colorado in the Western Conference Final. 

It’s the fourth time in NHL history that at least six Russians were in the Final. The feat also happened in 1995, 1998 and 2000.

What jumps out immediately is that the goaltender matchup faces one of the best goalkeepers in all of hockey in Vasilevski, vs journeyman keeper in Khodobin.

It’s the first time in NHL history that two Russian goalkeepers have gone head-to-head in the Stanley Cup Final.

“It’s actually quite interesting to experience this because it has never happened before,” Khabibulin said during NHL media day. “I would’ve never thought this would happen, but it is happening.”

"You can see lately a lot of good goalies coming from Russia to play in the NHL," Islanders goalkeeper Semyon Varlamov told NHL reports. 

Varlamov was another Russian who shined this postseason, falling just short of the final, losing in six games to Tampa. Others included Sergei Bobrovski (Florida), Ilya Samsonov (Washington), Alexander Georgiev and Igor Shestyorkin (both New York Rangers).

"It just says we have more good goalie coaches and more guys who are actually working with the goalies back home, and they understand better the training and all this process. It just shows our goalie schools in Russia got a lot better, in the last decade especially,” Varlamov said.

Roughly 30 years ago, Russian NHLers experienced their heyday -- following the groundbreaking defections of Slava Fetisov to the New Jersey Devils or Sergei Pryakhin with the Calgary Flames.

The peak of Russian influence came in 2000, where according to Elite Prospects, upwards of 7.3% of the NHL was Russian. That was third to Canada (55.1%) and the USA (15.5%) as expected, with Sweden (4.8%) rounding out the top-four.

But then came the dip. 

The first reason for the drop in numbers -- just 3.3% of the league being Russian in 2010 -- has to do with the rise of the Kontinental Hockey League. Quick expansion and deep pockets kept many Russians from pursuing careers in the NHL, whether drafted or not.

Other established NHL stars, take Ilya Kovalchuk for instance, were lured back to Russia for a massive pay-day (with low taxes compared to the United States) and the chance to star back home. Kovalchuk left the New Jersey Devils at the height of his career, with $77 million dollars left on his deal.

Two other key factors kept Russians playing in the KHL. 

Firstly, the NHL has had an on-again, off-again stance on sending its players to the Olympics, and in 2014, with the games being hosted in Sochi, many Russians thought it pertinent to play in the KHL to have a glimmer of hope to represent their country on home soil.

While NHL players eventually did participate in Sochi, the wheels were already in motion and players signed contracts in the KHL around 2012 or 2013 to give themselves that opportunity.

Finally, the lockout of 2012/13 was a major influencer in terms of Russian players going back to the KHL for a year and either staying put or getting the taste for the league and signing a contract in Russia, once their NHL deal was done.

In 2018 the NHL didn’t make a break for the Olympics and those players who stayed home and were nominated came back with a gold medal from PyeongChang 2018.

With numbers back up, many point to financial struggles in the KHL with stricter salary cap rules as of 2020 and the comfort level that young Russian players have in North America - much more than the early days of their migration to North American rinks.

Today, some of the players, like Kucharov, are completely bi-lingual and integrated into the society.

Whatever the trend, the Stanley Cup Final is proof there might be a bull run on Russians in the NHL in the future while clubs may see the “Russian factor” with different eyes when watching the Stanley Cup finals.