Bob McCammon looks into Vladimir Krutov's eyes and tries to find some light, a glimmer, a sense of motivation. He finds only a wall. Krutov will open up only in his own time, at his own pace, if he ever does at all. "I ask him if he's happy," says McCammon, Krutov's coach with the Vancouver Canucks. "He says yes. I ask him if he wants to be here. He nods. That's about all I get. It's frustrating. We all have a lot of compassion for the guy."
Krutov, one of 10 Soviet pioneers in the NHL this season, spent the 1980s as the world's best left wing. Now, with his first NHL season halfway over, he's sputtering like a four-cylinder Lada. And he's not the only Soviet in a funk.
What gives? Krutov and the countrymen who migrated with him to North America were famous for their deft puck handling, slick skating and marvelous shooting. So far, though, they've delivered next to nichego. For all the hoopla surrounding their entry into the NHL, the grand experiment at this point has to be deemed a major disappointment.
Oh, sure, a couple of Soviets are playing a little above average, and more than enough time remains in the season for the others to raise their levels, but don't hold your breath. Most seem either too old, too heavy, too slow or too disoriented to wow the NHL. For all the money that the league is paying the players, and in most cases the Soviet Ice Hockey Federation, which gave them permission to emigrate (one of the players, right wing Alexander Mogilny of the Buffalo Sabres, defected), a number of guys at Moose Jaw could do at least as well for considerably fewer dollars.
January 15, 1990
Krutov is exhibit A of the Soviet malaise. Nicknamed the Tank because of his wide shoulders, the 5'9" Krutov was a picture of power, strength and speed back home. He had a scorching backhand shot, and he helped spur the Soviet National Team to two Olympic gold medals, seven world championships and an 8-1 rout of Canada's best NHL players in the 1981 Canada Cup final.
However, as of last Saturday, he had only six goals and 14 assists for the Canucks. After a summer of sloth in Moscow, the Tank reported to Vancouver's training camp at 212 pounds, 15 above his usual weight in the U.S.S.R. Krutov is down to about 205 now and says, in one of his few attempts at English, that things are getting "better." But that's not apparent in his play.
According to McCammon, the other Canucks sympathize with the difficulties Krutov has faced trying to adjust to the NHL. But the money Vancouver is paying—$750,000 a season over three years, split equally between Krutov and the Soviet federation—and the Canucks' woeful record have not helped the atmosphere on the team. Vancouver won only two games in December as Krutov's hands, once among the most gifted in the game, continued to seem as if they were made of stone. Official expressions of tolerance aside, patience among the Canucks is running thin.
"When we get traded," says Paul Reinhart, Vancouver's best defenseman, "we all believe we need time to get used to new teammates, new surroundings, new systems. Add language and lifestyle to that, and you understand what he is going through.
"At the same time, we're under the gun to win hockey games, and it's a lot easier to be patient when you win. Krutov is the typical Russian, not very emotional or talkative. If you accept that as a cultural difference, then fine, but there are guys on the team who don't understand that. They reach out to try to make him feel at home and after a while expect him to reach back. Nobody's turned away. But some are nearing that point."
The Canucks are one of three teams with at least two Soviets. In the Vancouver locker room, the cubicle next to Krutov's is occupied by Igor Larionov, who had been Krutov's center with the Central Red Army and Soviet national teams. As of last Saturday, Larionov had 12 goals and 18 assists.
Compared with Krutov's, Larionov's play has been satisfactory. "Everything different," he says. "Different life, different style on ice. Play is much more physical, much more difficult every night." He grins. "Everybody wants to hit the Russians."
The reason Larionov is playing better than Krutov and some other Soviets may lie in his better adjustment to life in North America. Unlike Krutov, who considered playing in Europe until Larionov persuaded him last summer to accompany him to Vancouver, Larionov, who has an easy smile and a growing command of English, campaigned for years for the opportunity to play in the NHL. His wife, Lena, a former figure skater who had traveled extensively outside the Soviet Union, is embracing all aspects of North American life. "It will be most difficult for me to go back to Russia," says Larionov when asked what he'll do when his three-year contract expires. "Here, there are no problems. There, there are many problems."
But here, in fact, most of the Soviets are finding problems in the style of play in the NHL. Europeans play a precise passing game, designed to keep players constantly circling in the offensive zone until one gets open in front of the net for a tap-in. The NHL features more banging, screening, shooting and up-and-down skating. The NHL way can be learned, but except for the 20-year-old Mogilny and 26-year-old right wing Sergei Priakin of the Calgary Flames, all the Soviet players are 28 or older.
At least three of them—Priakin; goaltender Sergei Mylnikov, 31, of the Quebec Nordiques; and right wing Helmut Balderis, 37, of the Minnesota North Stars—were never expected to make a big splash in the league. Priakin, the first player to enter the NHL with the blessing of the Soviet federation, skated for Calgary late last season to test the climate for others. A trial balloon without much air, he has dressed for only six games this season. Give him a D for his performance so far. Mylnikov, who has looked ordinary in international competition in recent years, plays a backed-up-in-the-net style that figured to back him right into Quebec coach Michel Bergeron's doghouse. It has; at week's end, Mylnikov was winless in five appearances for the defensively inept Nordiques and refusing attempts to send him to the minors. He too rates a D. Balderis, retired for four years when he joined the NHL, is a part-timer in Minnesota. He gets a C—.
Five other Soviets—Krutov, 29, Larionov, 29, Calgary right wing Sergei Makarov, 31, and New Jersey defensemen Viacheslav Fetisov, 31, and Alexei Kasatonov, 30—have long been considered among the top 15 talents in the world, but it may have been too much to expect them to become premier NHL players overnight. They performed together on practically every shift for the Red Army and national teams but now find themselves isolated, with new teammates. "We saw they could play well against NHL players," says New Jersey coach John Cunniff, "but how they would play with NHL players we just didn't know."
One thing the Soviets have to learn is how to chase the puck. When one of their plays is broken up in the attacking zone, their instinct is not to go after the puck but to drop back into the neutral zone and try to clog the lanes and intercept a pass. NHL teams approach the attacking blue line with the idea that unless a teammate is clearly open, the best ploy is to dump the puck deep into the opposition's zone and attempt to bang out turnovers and scoring chances. In short, the NHL is a more difficult school for the Soviets than they or anyone else had imagined. Here are the midterm grades for the Soviets who were expected to make the biggest impact.
•Makarov: B—. "He has to shoot more," says Flames coach Terry Crisp. "He'll back-pass three times on a breakaway." Calgary defensemen have learned that Makarov is rarely to be found in the standard North American outlet position along the boards. Makarov has shaken his head at his teammates when they make him reach a little ahead or behind for a pass. Still, Makarov has been among the league's scoring leaders all season, and his passes are often spectacular, which explains why grinding left wing Gary Roberts has become a goal scorer.
•Krutov: D. He'll make a good tip pass and can still blister his shot, but on most shifts he looks bewildered. Almost every time he gets to the blue line with the puck, he slows up. Is he thinking about making a drop pass or having another hot dog? After years of living under 11-month training-camp conditions, Krutov is having trouble with self-discipline. Opponents, however, are having no problem rendering him useless.
•Larionov: C+. After playing for the perennial champion Red Army team for eight years, he's learning what it's like to get hammered night after night on a last-place club. "Many easy games in the Soviet Union," says Larionov. "No easy games here." The Canucks, who showed remarkable defensive improvement a year ago, thought they would move up in class by adding a couple of Soviets. That hasn't happened, although the fumbling of Larionov's inventive setups by his slumping, uptight teammates suggests that the fault does not lie only with him. Larionov's biggest difficulty may be that he has to play on the same line with Krutov.
•Fetisov: C—. As he holds on to the puck, waiting to begin the attack with a drop pass, the rest of the Devils head up-ice, leaving him alone to get creamed by a forechecker. Fetisov, who was not intimidated by a fistic beating administered by the Toronto Maple Leafs' Wendel Clark earlier in the season, rolls off checks nicely and threads outlet passes that 90% of NHL players make only in their dreams. But it may take more years than he has left as a player to get him to jump up into the play and put his wonderful offensive skills to work. On the power play, in which he figured to be deadly, he looks like a mannequin, standing idly by while his roommate, Bruce Driver, runs the offense from the point.
Defenseman Sergei Starikov came to New Jersey to keep Fetisov company but spent the summer power-eating his way from 212 pounds to 235. Starikov, 31, who was sent to the Devils' farm team in Utica, N.Y., on Dec. 26, merits a D—for his time with New Jersey. He was replaced by Kasatonov, Fetisov's longtime defensive partner with the Red Army and national teams. Kasatonov played superbly in his debut against the Sabres on Jan. 4—give him an I for incomplete—but he and Fetisov don't get along. When Fetisov and Larionov threatened strikes against tyrannical Soviet coach Viktor Tikhonov last year, thereby winning the right from the Soviet federation to finish their careers in North America, Kasatonov stayed loyal to his mentor and thus left the others exposed to criticism. "I'm not happy," says Fetisov of Kasatonov's signing. "The situation with the team may be tense."
•Mogilny: B—. Some of the Soviets may master the NHL game in two years, just in time for their marvelous skills to desert them. But by defecting at 20, Mogilny has time and perhaps the best set of legs in hockey on his side. After spending most of the first half of the season trying to beat people one-on-one, he is learning to use his teammates and showing signs of becoming a prolific scorer—he had nine goals and 16 assists through last Saturday. The moral of the Mogilny story is that the team that shopped at the black market by hiring a defector seems to have gotten the best deal.