Russian Hockey: Dead or Alive?
Anyone who knows anything about hockey knows about Russian superstars Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, Andrei Markov, Alexander Semin, Sergei Gonchar, Ilya Kovalchuk, Evgeni Nabokov, Ilya Bryzgalov, and Pavol Datsyuk. That said, outside of those nine elite level players, just how solid is the Russian bear?
The NHL currently boasts a total of 28 Russian forwards and defensemen. Of those 28, only seven were “plus” players. Of those same 28, only eight scored 50 or more points and only 13 scored 30 or more points.
Only three Russians registered a short handed goal (Malkin, Semin and Nikolai Kulemin), only 16 Russian players scored a game winning goal—of which, just 12 had more than one.
A total of ten Russians registered 38 or more penalty minutes (which can be viewed as good or bad) and a total of just six players scored 20 or more goals (Ovechkin, Malkin, Kovalchuk, Semin, Datsyuk, Afinogenov), surprising for a Nation that is commonly known as the most offensively potent on the planet.
Now, needless to say, Russia has more than it’s fair share of “elite” players. Alex Ovechkin is one of the best players on the planet, Malkin is no slouch either, while Semin, Datsyuk, Markov, Ilya Bryzgalov and Evgeni Nabokov make up a cast of players that can rival any nation.
The problem with the Russians is that they no longer produce enough overall talent. Seems to me, outside of the aforementioned “elite” players, Russia is struggling to produce NHL calibre players.
NHL.com officially lists four goalies as Russian, Bryzgalov, Semyon Varlamov, Nikolai Khabibulin (who was injured most of this season) and Alexander Pechurski (who played just once with the Pittsburgh Penguins this season).
Fact is, Evgeni Nabokov is listed as being born in Kamenogorsk, Kazakhstan (although he did play for Russia at the 2010 Olympics), so I guess that makes five Russian goalies—which is still a rather small number, isn’t it?
A quick tally tells us that there are a grand total of 43 Russians in the entire NHL, which is surprising to say the least. I mean, isn’t Russia supposed to be a leader in turning out NHL players? Are they no longer a hockey power?
Many on the pro-Russia side of this argument will be quick to point out that their are numerous Russians playing in the KHL. Great! That’s the KHL, lot’s of Canadians, Swedes, Americans and Fins in that League too.
Bottom line, if you are not in the NHL you are not plying in the best league in the world, the focus of this article is Russian players in the NHL, not the KHL. There are great Leagues in Sweden, great Leagues in Finland, they don’t count here, end of story.
Can you completely dismiss these leagues? No. That said, without question, all of these Leagues are inferior to that of the NHL and while I will admit there is some talent hiding in these Leagues, it’s not relevant to the argument here. Again, I can find “good” players from all of the major nation’s in those Leagues, so they kind of cross each other out in the end.
Russia’s performance at the 2010 Olympics was borderline embarrassing with even their big stars (Ovechkin, Nabokov, Malkin and Semin) coming up rather small on the grand stage that is the Olympic games.
Comparatively, a total of 479 Canadians played in the NHL this season, 128 of which scored a total of 30 or more points on the season—again, Russia had just 13 players score 30 or more points on the season.
Canada had a total of 54 players score 50 or more points, 143 Canadians scored two or more game winning goals, 74 Canadians scored a shorthanded goal, Sidney Crosby and Steven Stamkos (two Canadians) led the NHL in goals scored (51), Stamkos led the NHL in power play goals (24) and Canada boasts some of the best goaltenders on the planet (Martin Brodeur, Roberto Luongo, Marc-Andre Fleury, Cam Ward and others.
Now, this article is not a Russia vs. Canada rant, far from it. When compared to the likes of the Americans and Swede’s, Russia is losing ground as well.
The Americans boast a total of 194 players that dressed for an NHL game. Of those 194 a total of 12 registered 51 or more points. A total of 47 Americans scored 30 or more points, 49 American players scored two or more game winners, 27 Americans scored a game winning goal.
American goaltenders Ryan Miller, Tim Thomas (last season’s Vezina Trophy winner) and Craig Anderson need no introduction—they are all studs in the crease! Miller was the best goalie at the Olympics and Anderson was a save or two away from knocking off the San Jose Sharks in the first round of the playoffs (yes, I know Nabokov was in the other net).
The Americans came up one goal short at the 2010 Olympics, narrowly missing an opportunity to make history by knocking off the ultra-tough Canadian squad. They were rewarded with a silver medal for their efforts, with many more medals expected to come in the future.
Team USA is on the upside, participation in hockey is on an all-time high in the States and there are more recognizable American star players in the NHL than ever before. Hockey is alive and well in the States, as is their hockey program—which continually cranks out top prospect after top prospect, just look at the most recent drafts, they are littered with American players.
Sweden is another hockey nation that is slowly, but surely, surpassing the Russians.
Henrik Sedin (the new king of Swedish hockey) led the NHL in scoring with 112 points with twin brother Daniel close behind with 85 points in just 63 games played.
The Sedin twins are joined by the likes of Loui Eriksson, Daniel Alfredsson, Nicklas Backstrom, Henrik Zetterberg, Mikael Samuelsson and Nik Lidstrom to make up the crème de la crème of a very formidable hockey nation.
Sweden boasts 46 players that dressed for an NHL game this season. 15 Swedish players had 30 or more points, 20 players had a game-winning goal, five Swedish players registered a shorthanded goal while 20 Swedes were “plus” players on the season.
Clearly, the gap between Russia and Sweden is not what it is with respect to Canada and the U.S., but one could argue the Swedes are right there with the Russians with regard to overall talent, especially when you consider the Swedes goaltending led by the likes of New York Rangers standout Henrik Lundqvist—arguably the best goaltender on the planet.
Is Russian hockey dead? No—but it is on a downturn and, given the lack of Russians selected in recent drafts, that is not about to change anytime soon. Clearly, the Russians have a long way to go before they are back on top of the hockey world—this much we know.
Until next time,