During the Cold War, the Soviet Union dominated most of the international competition on the ice. Their fast, highly skilled style dazzled and more importantly frustrated the hard nosed North American hockey traditionalists. These talented players were kept out of the NHL due to the secrecy and restrictions of the USSR. Finally, in the late 1970’s, Czechoslovakian brothers Peter and Anton Stastny defected from their team and boarded a late-night plane, courtesy of the Quebec Nordiques. While they technically aren’t Russians, these were the first two in a long line of players to escape the Iron Curtain and bring their on-ice artistry to North America. Today, there are 29 Russians in the NHL. Most of them possess mind boggling talent, so narrowing them down to the Top Five should get interesting to say the least.
One of the main criticisms of Russian hockey players is that they play too soft, often neglecting the physical side of the game in favor of a more fluid brand of hockey. Alex Ovechkin is the missing link. At 235 pounds, the Washington Capitals left wing is just as likely to go through opposing defenders as around them. Armed with one of the hardest shots and the quickest feet in the league, “Ovie” instantly stands out the moment he touches the ice. These weapons amassed him 269 goals in his first five seasons in the NHL. Only Wayne Gretzky, Mike Bossy, and Brett Hull scored more in their first five seasons. The line often associated with Ovechkin is that he “loves to score goals.” One would think that this applies to all players, but when you see the determination of the one man stampede blazing down the left wing, you get the feeling that Alex the great needs to score goals.
The second best Russian in the NHL has to go to the second best player on the Pittsburgh Penguins, Evgeni Malkin. After winning the Art Ross, Conn Smythe and Stanley Cup in the 2008-2009 season, “Geno” followed it up with an injury plagued campaign last year that limited him to 67 games and 28 goals and 49 assists. While 77 points in 67 games is quite a feat in itself, there was a sense that Malkin wasn’t playing to his potential. If the 24 year old Russian can re-raise his game this season, there is no reason to count him out as a candidate for the Hart Memorial Trophy.
The Russian that got the most attention this summer comes in third on our list. Ilya Kovalchuk spent the offseason negotiating and re-negotiating his contract with the New Jersey Devils. After his first contract, a $102 million, 17 year deal, Kovalchuk signed a 15 year deal that will pay the 27 year old 100 million dollars. Kovalchuk spent the early years of his career in Atlanta, where his incredible speed and world class shot made him shine on a mediocre Thrashers roster. Ilya will attempt to continue his production in the much more competitive Atlantic division this year.
The only Russian on this list in the Western Conference is also the oldest Russian on this list. Thirty two year old Pavel Datsyuk is the most talented player on the Detroit Red Wings and arguably the entire NHL. Datsyuk has some of the best hands in the league, which he uses to embarrass defenders and goaltenders alike. While he is famous for his ‘Datsyukian Dekes’ in the offensive zone, Datsyuk is almost as well known for his outstanding defensive play and sportsmanship. His responsibility in his own end has been recognized in the form of four straight Lady Byng Memorial Trophies and three straight Frank J Selke Trophies.
The final Russian on this list is Alex Semin, teammate and close friend of Alex Ovechkin. Semin usually plays on the second line, allowing head coach Bruce Boudreau to spread his top talents over two lines. Armed with a deadly set of hands and a shot that many goalies claim is the hardest in the league, Semin has the ability to dominate the competition when he turns on the afterburners. However, the “other Alex” has yet to produce at the same rate in the postseason, causing many around the league to question his resolve.