In the final season of his NHL career, Vladimir Konstantinov finished second in Norris Trophy voting. It was a distant second to Brian Leetch, but it was second nonetheless. The season before that, he finished fourth in Norris voting. We tell you that only because you might have forgotten how outstanding a player Vladimir Konstantinov was.
To recap, he was a top-five defenseman in the best league in the world for consecutive seasons before a limousine accident during the Detroit Red Wings’ 1997 Stanley Cup celebration robbed him of an NHL career and a normal existence.
Konstantinov had just recently turned 30 and had played six years in the NHL to that point. He was just reaching his career crescendo and probably had at least as many, if not more, NHL seasons ahead of him. That would have given him plenty of time to win more Stanley Cups, perhaps a Norris or two and make a compelling case for Hall of Fame status. To be sure, it would have moved him up significantly on our list of the Top 100 NHL Defensemen of All- Time, where he landed at No. 101. “It took a couple of years, but with our run to the final in 1995 and winning the Cup in 1997, he was starting to get the recognition from people over here that he was one of the top defensemen in the world,” said former Red Wings GM Ken Holland. “I think he had a chance to be regarded as one of the best defensemen in the NHL for a long time. His status in the NHL at that time was beyond Nick Lidstrom’s.”
Defensemen who spent some of their careers wearing the winged wheel tended to stick around for a while. After all, Chris Chelios played until he was 48, Lidstrom until he was 42 and Slava Fetisov until he was 40. Using that as a template, there’s no reason to believe Konstantinov didn’t have another decade of good hockey left in him. One mitigating factor was the style he played, which might have taken its toll on his body because as good as he gave, he also received.
The unique thing about Konstantinov is he could play the game pretty much any way you wanted to play it. Dictate the terms, then watch him adapt to them and take over. You want to play a skill game? Well, he did have seasons of 12 and 14 goals. You want to grind it out? Bring it on, because he could hit and block shots all day long. You want to get down and dirty? Well, they didn’t nickname him ‘Vlad the Impaler’ for nothing. (He was also part of the Soviet junior team that was kicked out of the 1987 World Junior Championship along with Canada after a bench-clearing brawl.) “If someone came in and jammed him from behind into the boards, I’ll tell you one thing, he ain’t laying there to draw a penalty,” said Hall of Fame defenseman and former teammate Paul Coffey. “He would get up and never say a word.
When Scotty (Wings coach Bowman) put the Russian Five together, I never saw a guy get breakaways like him. Slava (Fetisov) or Igor (Larionov) would go back and get the puck and all of a sudden coming across the right side and the far blueline was Vladdy. I would think to myself, ‘I’m a pretty good player, and I don’t know if I could have done that.’ ”
Considering that over the course of NHL history, 2,339 players had played at least one regular-season game on defense through 2019-20, being No. 101 still puts Konstantinov in the top 95th percentile of anyone who has ever played. Konstantinov didn’t play a game in the NHL until he was 23 and didn’t speak a word of English when he joined the Red Wings in 1991.
To be sure, he was one of the best value draft picks of all-time, going 221st overall in 1989, four years after he was eligible for the draft. If all things had been equal and the world had been a different place then, it’s not a stretch to suggest Konstantinov would have been one of the best players in the 1985 draft.
Unlike No. 102 Mike Green, No. 103 Red Horner and No. 104 Moose Vasko, we’re left to wonder what might have been if not for that fateful night in suburban Detroit. But the memory of Konstantinov endures.
The Red Wings still have a vacant stall in their dressing room for him and even though Konstantinov’s No. 16 hasn’t been retired by the organization, nobody has worn it since him. Consider that Brett Hull took No. 17 when he joined the Red Wings after spending his NHL career wearing No. 16. The Wings someday might retire Konstantinov’s number and hang it from the rafters.
The memory of a brilliant and too-short career will then be on display forever.
In our 2020 Collector's Edition, The Hockey News counts down the Top 100 Defensemen of All-Time and tells the tale of each legendary player on the list.
Get your copy in our online store via the link below or on newsstands, or buy it digitally on our Apple or Android apps, or at Zinio here.