NHL’s 10 all-time Russian greats
It speaks volumes about the state of Russian hockey that, in a season that will go down as one of the finest of his career, Alex Ovechkin ranks sixth among his countrymen in scoring.
It says even more that four of the five players ahead of him are just getting their NHL skates wet. Vladimir Tarasenko and Artemi Panarin are 24 years old. Evgeny Kuznetsov is 23. Nikita Kucherov is all of 22.
We've clearly entered a new golden age, one that wouldn't be possible if not for those who came before. Players like Slava Fetisov and Alex Mogilny, who not only blazed a trail from the insular world of the Soviet Union to the NHL but helped transition this league from one that emphasized size and brawn to one that prizes speed and skill.
Many have left a mark, but here are the 10 Russians who’ve made the most enduring impact on the NHL.
10. Igor Larionov (1990-2004)
During his prime in the 1980s, the Red Army star may have been the finest center in the world ... at least, that’s what Wayne Gretzky thought of him. By the time he arrived in the NHL at 30, Larionov had lost some of his physical ability to age, but his cerebral game was as sharp as ever. Nicknamed “The Professor,” he traded on his vision and his next-level hockey IQ to control the pace of a game that was made more beautiful by him being on the ice. After starting his NHL career in Vancouver and San Jose, he moved on to Detroit where he enjoyed his greatest success, helping the Red Wings to three Stanley Cups and earning annual consideration for the Lady Byng.
9. Ilya Kovalchuk (2002-2013)
He was more than simply the first Russian ever to be selected with the first pick in the NHL draft (2001). Kovalchuk altered the paradigm for the next generation. The big winger had the classic Russian skill set—the speed, the hands, the creativity—but he was built like a linebacker (6' 3", 230 pounds) and had a mercurial temper that made opposing defenders think twice before tracking him down in the corner. He could create space for himself with his feet or his shoulders and used it to challenge netminders with his heavy, accurate shot. He scored 40-plus goals in six consecutive seasons (2004-10) and 30-plus in four others to establish himself as one of the top offensive players of his era. In the five-year period coming out of the 2004-05 lockout, only Ovechkin scored more goals than Kovalchuk’s 260.
8. Evgeni Malkin (2007-present)
Not bad for a consolation prize. The second pick behind Ovechkin in the 2004 draft, Malkin has matured into one of the most dangerous forwards of his generation. His blend of size and skill allows him to dominate at will, and he has the unique ability to ratchet up his intensity when the game demands it. He’s averaged well above a point-per-game pace for his career (749 points over 635 games) and his 3.46 points per 60 minutes average ranks third best over the past decade, trailing only Sidney Crosby and Peter Forsberg.
7. Slava Fetisov (1990-1998)
His best years were spent in Russia, where his dominant two-way presence made Central Red Army and the national team virtually unbeatable. But in 1989, Fetisov became the first player to win freedom from the Soviet system and join the NHL. The strong-willed 31-year-old defenseman excelled despite a profound shift in culture and playing style, recording 228 points in 546 games and helping Detroit to back-to-back Stanley Cups in 1996 and 1997. His courage and success paved the way for the current generation of Russian stars who now are free to choose to play in the NHL.
6. Alexander Mogilny (1990-2006)
He was the trailblazer. The first player to defect from the Soviet Union, and the first to reach the NHL in his prime. The first Russian to be named to an All-Star team (1992). The first to be named a team captain (1993), and the first to become a superstar. Mogilny was a fast, creative and physical forward, boasting an uncanny release that helped him roll up 473 career goals. He led the league with 76 tallies during the 1992-93 season and went on to score 30 goals or more on eight occasions. He won the Cup with the Devils in 2000 and retired as the second leading Russian scorer in NHL history.
5. Sergei Zubov (1993-2009)
The greatest Russian defenseman to spend his prime years in the NHL, Zubov was the precursor to mobile stars like Erik Karlsson and Kris Letang. Revered for his ability to control the puck and set the pace of a contest, he played in 1,068 career games and scored 771 points—31 more than his contemporary, and recent Hall of Fame honoree, Scott Niedermayer. Zubov won two Cups during his career. He was part of the New York Rangers’ magical run in 1994, becoming the first Russian to have his name inscribed on the chalice. Five years later, he keyed the attack as the Stars captured their first championship in franchise history. Although he’s not likely to earn a spot in the Hall of Fame, he was clearly one of the best of his generation, receiving All-Star consideration in 12 of his 16 campaigns.
4. Pavel Bure (1992-2003)
They called him the Russian Rocket. The NHL had seen plenty of quick players before, but Bure’s wheels were an electrifying upgrade, 4K to everyone else’s HD. And he had the hands to match. He was every bit the equal of Ovechkin as a goal-scorer, averaging .623 per game. (Ovechkin is currently at .624 and sits just ahead of Bure in third place among modern shooters.) He notched five seasons of at least 50 goals and twice scored 60—the only Russian ever to hit that milestone on two occasions—and might have tallied more if injuries hadn’t shortened his career.“When he was on the attack, there was no one better,” former coach Pat Quinn once said.
3. Pavel Datsyuk (2002-present)
He might be the most respected player in the game today, and certainly one of the most skilled. Even in his declining years, Datsyuk is still the game’s preeminent puck wizard, capable of highlight reel dekes and dangles. He’s also one of the top defensive forwards in the league, his dogged determination rewarded with three Selkes and a string of top-three finishes. A two-time Cup winner, his talent and selflessness epitomize the old-school of Russian hockey.
2. Sergei Fedorov (1991-2009)
“He was the best player I’ve ever played with,” Ovechkin said of his former teammate. “He was unbelievable. You put him in every position and he was going to be the best. His hockey sense was unbelievable. His shot and vision, unbelievable."
While Ovechkin now owns the Russian goal-scoring record, Fedorov set the standard in every other noteworthy category. He collected 1,179 points during his 1,248-game NHL career, making him the highest-scoring Russian in NHL history. He scored 176 points in 183 playoff games, making him the most prolific Russian in the postseason. He captured three Stanley Cups, the most of any Russian player. He won both the Hart and Lester Pearson MVP awards in 1994 and claimed two Selke trophies on his way to becoming a first-ballot Hall of Famer in 2015.
1. Alex Ovechkin (2006-present)
No question any more as to the greatest of them all. Ovechkin hasn’t enjoyed the team success of some of the players on this list, but his individual achievements are unparalleled. He's the highest scoring player of the past decade, racking up 938 points in 807 career games as of this writing. He's the first, and only, Russian to score 500 goals in the NHL and has led the league in goal scoring five times, including each of the past three years. He's been named to the First or Second All-Star team in nine of his 10 seasons and has won the Hart Trophy and Pearson Award twice each.
That’s the kind of dominance the league hasn’t seen since Mario Lemieux was dragging defenders all over the ice. And it speaks to the desire and drive of the Capitals' captain.
“Ovechkin is very unique because he is always able to adjust to new rules, [coaching] changes, bigger goalies,” Pavel Bure wrote on NHL.com. “He continues to produce at the highest level no matter what.”