Two seasons ago, four of the top six scorers in the NHL were Russian. Last season it was four of the top 19. So far this season, it’s four of the top 29. Alex Ovechkin, Ilya Kovalchuk (in past seasons), Evgeni Malkin, Alex Semin and Pavel Datsyuk are represented in that elite group with the two players often involved in the debate of best current NHLer (Malkin and Ovechkin) showing up each season. That’s why they’re always centered in that conversation: they put up points.
If you were building a hockey team from scratch, the first player you’d choose would have to have the skills to carry your squad, the youthfulness to lean on for years to come, the responsibility at both ends of the ice, reliability so you know what you’re getting each night and the leadership that comes with it. If you were building this fantasy team from scratch, Malkin and Ovechkin lead the Russian class.
But who is currently the best Russian in the NHL? Who would you take first if age wasn’t a factor?
Is it Evgeni Malkin? He entered the league a year after Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby, finished 18th in scoring with 85 points and won the Calder Trophy. In 2007-08, Malkin was second in league scoring to Ovechkin with 106 points, but took the Art Ross for himself a year later with 113 points. He won the Stanley Cup and the Conn Smythe that year, proving his mettle at the most important time on the NHL schedule and challenging Crosby as the Penguins’ best player. Last season he dipped to 77 points and though he is scoring at slightly better than a point per game pace right now, confidence in his ability to be ‘The Guy’ has waned.
Is it Ovechkin? Winning the Calder over Crosby in 2006, Ovechkin is undeniably one of, if not the most, flashiest players in the game today. He brings fans to their feet, has scored at least 50 goals the past three seasons (including 65 in 2007-08) and has two Hart and Rocket Richard Trophies on his mantle. Ever since Ovechkin arrived in Washington, the franchise has become relevant and a force in the standings and television ratings. But where Ovechkin excels in offense, he lacks in defense. While you’ll notice his flash and dash, you might miss him slacking at the finer points, like accelerating to take the last man back on the rush. The Capitals are his team – and his teams have underwhelmed greatly in the post-season. Ovechkin had zero shots in Game 1 and one shot in Game 3 in last season’s first round loss to Montreal and garnered 70 percent of his points in that series in two Washington wins.
Kovalchuk is no longer in the discussion thanks to his miserable play so far this season, the fact none of his teams have ever won a playoff round and only one of his full-time teams has even made the playoffs. You can hardly argue Alex Semin as the best Russian when he isn’t even the best one on his team.
No. The best Russian in the NHL today, clearly, is Datsyuk.
Datsyuk beat out Joe Thornton on THN’s all-decade team at the center position – and Thornton had scored the most points of anyone in that 10-year span. It’s not always about points when you’re talking best player, not that Datsyuk lacks in that department. He has been remarkably consistent with seasons of 87, 87, 97 and 97 points in the first four post-lockout seasons. Yes, he did dip to 26th in scoring with 70 points last season (which still ain’t bad), but he led the league in takeaways by an astounding 49 en route to his third straight Selke Trophy. The only other player to win three Selkes in a row is Bob Gainey, who won the first four, and he never scored more than 45 points.
While the argument can certainly be made Datsyuk has better support players than his counterparts, it should be noted the Red Wings have been through a bit of a transitional period themselves. In the past six years, with stars aging and new players coming along, the Wings haven’t missed a step thanks largely to the consistency of players such as Datsyuk.
His speed and shot don’t stand out like Ovechkin’s and he doesn’t have the size of Malkin, so Datsyuk doesn’t instantly stand out on the TV screen. But watch a Red Wings game and you’ll see the 5-foot-11 Datsyuk protecting the puck from two or even three defenders, going into the corner and coming out with possession nine times out of 10 and patiently weaving through traffic until he has a good shot on net or sees an opportunity to pass away from traffic.
When Canada routed the Russians at the Olympics, Ovechkin was noticeable in how he seemed to slow down and almost give up. But to me, Datsyuk was noticeable as the one guy still doing all the little - and big - things that he brings to the table every night.
While with a talent like Ovechkin you might trade off a little defense for 50 goals and 120 points and you’d give Malkin the benefit of the doubt during a cold stretch, with Datsyuk you know you’re getting the same dominating two-way presence whether it’s Game 1 or Game 82, if you’re up 5-0 or down 5-0.
And that’s why the 32-year-old is the best Russian in the league right now.
Rory Boylen is TheHockeyNews.com's web editor. His blog appears Tuesdays only on THN.com.
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