Friday, January 9, 2009

Greatest Russian Defencemen

If a junkie like me is gonna do hockey lists, I'll have to keep them interesting. Keep in mind I'm taking into account the player's entire pro career here, not just the NHL. At least a couple of these guys distinguished themselves moreso internationally. The years they spent as a pro will be included in brackets. I tried to not make it all about stats but sometimes the stats tell the best story. Not a single one of these guys has ever won the Norris Trophy. Yeah, sometimes I use the "s" and sometimes the "c". Whatever.

5. Dmitri Yushkevich (1988- )
I am dead serious. This guy is a warrior. He hasn't played in the NHL for the past six years but it's not because no one wanted him. It's his choice to play in Russia. I know his numbers aren't flashy and that if I argue he's a defensive defenceman you'll point to his career minus twenty-one on the plus/minus. But...when you're a top-pair d-man on a weak team (like he was in Florida, LA and, initially, Toronto) your plus/minus is going to suffer. And I can tell you this: when this guy was patrolling the blue line for the Leafs (often paired with fellow Ruskie, Danny Markov - a very similar player), they weren't letting in six goals a game. His plus twenty-five for the Leafs in 98/99 is extremely impressive.

He scored a decent amount for a non-offensive type (often in the 25 point range) but his role was shutdown guy. And he did it all - blocked shots, killed penalties and played physical (but didn't take dumb penalties - he never had more than 88 minutes over a season). He was tough as hell too, often playing through injuries. He was on the Russian Olympic team twice - 92 and 98. Some might accuse me of coming up with this list just to put Yushkevich here - well, maybe I did.

4. Sergei Gonchar (1991- )
With 185 NHL goals and counting, Gonchar is the best goal-scoring rearguard in Russian history. He's got six seasons with 15 goals or more (including two with over 20 and only ONCE dipping below 10) and topped 50 points eight times (over 60 in his last two, so he's not slowing down with age). Strangely enough, the one year he had under 10 goals, he had 5, then scored 7 in the playoffs (97/98). He WAS the power play for years in Washington with his cannon from the point. But he wasn't just a big shot like Sheldon Souray. He's a dynamic skater who can rush the puck well and make slick passes (430 NHL assists so far) as well. And because of his offensive talent, his defensive play is the most overlooked part of his game.

But while not a shutdown guy by any means he's always defensively sound (he's a plus fifty-two in his career so far). He's played in two Olympics (98 and 02 - don't ask me why he wasn't there in 06), two World Championships and two World Cups. He's also been named to the NHL second All-Star team twice. He's not physical but not soft either - the guy takes hits just fine and hasn't had many injuries over his career. The one thing I'll never understand is how during the lockout in 04/05, when he played for Metallurg Magnitogorsk, he somehow only scored 2 goals in 40 games. Weird.

3.Vladimir Konstantinov (1984-1997)
No, he's not just here because of the accident. No pity points on my lists. Konstantinov was an even tougher customer than Yushkevich, and his PIM's reflected that, amassing well over a hundred every season in the NHL and a fairly high amount in the Russian Super League before that. And unlike most defenceman, he was an effective agitator, skilled at getting opponents off their game.

I've got to include him here mostly for his amazing defensive capabilities and toughness but his stats also show some offensive talent. While his point totals were never high due to never putting up many assists, he did have some goal-scoring ability hitting twelve in 93/94 and fourteen in 95/96. Now 95/96 was of course the magic year where the Red Wings did everything but win the Cup, recording over fifty wins with a bunch of players having high scoring totals. Besides the career high in goals, "The Vladinator" as he was sometimes called, posted an eye-popping plus/minus of plus 60 - the highest in a decade.

He first distinguished himself as a teenager at the World Junior Championships in 87 during the infamous Canada/USSR bench-clearing brawl that got both teams kicked out of the tournament. He's remembered as the only Russian who really knew how to fight. In his last season (96/97) he was runner up to Brian Leetch for the Norris. He won the Cup with the Red Wings that season and then...well, you know the rest. I don't wanna talk about it.

2. Sergei Zubov (1988- )
One of my favourite little trivia questions to ask hockey people is which player led the New York Rangers in scoring the year they last won the Cup (1994). Everyone says Mark Messier. When I shake my head, they snap their fingers and say, of course, Brian Leetch. When I tell them no again some people try Adam Graves (he did score 52 goals that year) and after that they say, alright, who? Guess you know who now. Zubov put up 89 points that year - a total he's never come close to matching since but he's still been one of the most consistent offensive defencemen of his generation. He's a really underrated guy, actually. A Cup with New York after leading them in scoring, then a point-a-game season in his short stop in Pittsburgh then the backbone of the defense corps of the Dallas Stars for over a decade (with another Cup in 99).

He's slick, he's smooth and he's smart. Doesn't possess an overpowering shot but he's got a knack for getting it through traffic and on net. No one in the NHL runs a power play from the back end like Zubov, not even Gonchar. A very similar player to Niklas Lidstrom, really but with no where near as much recognition. Injuries have plagued him in recent seasons but whenever he plays he's a difference maker. Always good for at least forty points when he's healthy and he even hit seventy pretty recently (o5/06) and he's an extremely impressive +152 over his career thus far. His playoff stats are just as good as regular season too. The second-best Russian born and trained defencemen ever and no one ever talks about him.

1. Viacheslav Fetisov (1978-1998)
Referred to as no less than "The Russian Bobby Orr", it should be no surprise that he tops this list. He may not just be the best Russian defenceman - he's arguably the best Russian player, period. Unlike the other members of this list, Fetisov's best stuff really came before he hit the NHL. He was part of the first wave of Soviets to defect to play hockey in North America. He and Igor Larionov are seen as brave pioneers for that reason but it's what he did on the ice that counts here.

For ten years in Russia, he was far and away the best defenceman they had, making up a part of the famous "Green Unit" on the Russian Red Army team and was a huge reason for their dominance on the international stage. He was nearly a point a game player for nearly four hundred games in Russia and the guy has won EVERYTHING - 2 Olympic gold medals and a silver; seven golds, one silver and two bronzes at the World Championships; and gold in a Canda Cup and the World Juniors (he and Larionov are the only two players of ANY nationality to win all those in their career).

Entering his thirties, he went to the NHL in 1989 playing for New Jersey then Detroit, winning two Cups with the latter. He wasn't quite as dominant as an NHLer but was still really, really good, putting up moderate to good offensive numbers and often mentoring his team's younger d-men. He's a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame and currently the Minister of Sport in Russia. But now he's won his most prestigious accolade of all - the top of one of my "best" lists.


Sam said...

Cosgrove Vagislam!

Cole D'Arc said...

i knew that was coming. and yes, he is a Russian great (although fictional) but also i'm pretty sure dude's a forward. don't worry, some day he will get his due. until then, he'll just reap the profits of his feminine hygiene product empire.

Shane said...

I was pleased to learn some hockey facts from this list, yet disappointed that none of the players were named Boris.

Go Cosgrove!

Cole D'Arc said...

Boris Mirinov might have made a top ten. I used to constantly confuse him with ANOTHER Russian defenceman called Dmitri Mirinov (no relation). They played in the NHL for many years simultaneously. I still don't remember who's who are what made them different from each other.

Cosgrove Vagislam said...

I love feminine hygiene!

Avoid puerperal fever with Hartmann's Hygienic Towelettes!

Cole D'Arc said...

i was totally wrong on the "no relation" thing - they are in fact brothers. i knew that. don't know what i was thinking.