THE RUSSIAN QUESTION

For better and worse, players from the former Soviet bloc have been the focus of playoff drama. Are they playing to type, or just playing hockey?
May 14, 2012

The W Hotel in Scottsdale, Ariz., attracts the beautiful people, even ones with scruffy second-round-playoff beards. The Shade Lounge, poolside at the W, is precisely the kind of swank establishment you might expect Predators forwards Alexander Radulov and Andrei Kostitsyn to frequent if Nashville were in town. The trouble was that when they were there in the early morning of April 29—some 17 hours before the Predators were to play the Coyotes in Game 2 of their Western Conference semifinal—the other Nashville players were at a hotel in a different town, Glendale, 21 miles to the west. Snoring, presumably.

The soiree at the W—alcohol free, according to a source—was followed by an L for the Predators: The Coyotes dominated uncharacteristically sloppy Nashville 5--3 that night. Kostitsyn scored, but Radulov, other than an assist on a power-play goal, was noticeable only for his sloth. During the second intermission NBC Sports Network in-studio analyst Keith Jones, who customarily prepares highlight clips that range from 23 to 27 seconds, offered one minute and seven seconds of Radulov's hockey misdemeanors during the first two games of the series, a devastating show-and-tell that stripped the two-time MVP of Russia's Kontinental Hockey League and sold him for parts.

Then Radulov's evening really turned lousy.

Although one team official learned about 30 minutes before Game 2 that Radulov and Kostitsyn had broken the Predators' midnight curfew, he did not feel that it was the appropriate time to relay the news to coach Barry Trotz or general manager David Poile. Trotz learned of the indiscretion after his postgame press conference, when a reporter pulled him aside and mentioned that media members had spotted the two players out late the night before. When the Predators returned to the team hotel adjacent to Jobing.com Arena in Glendale, Trotz checked the security logs: Radulov and Kostitsyn indeed had returned around 1 a.m.

Radulov was summoned to a lobby restaurant, where Trotz was waiting, stiff in his white shirt and suit slacks. The tableau looked like a scene from The Godfather. They talked for 45 minutes. Two days later the Predators suspended the 25-year-old winger, their leading playoff scorer with six points, and Kostitsyn, a 27-year-old second-line wing. The players missed Game 3, an industrious 2--0 Nashville win, and then, because Trotz was not inclined to change a winning lineup, were scratched for Game 4 two nights later, when the Predators, lacking finish, lost 1--0. "It was a pretty easy decision," Poile said in announcing the suspension. "Our creed has always been to do the right thing." The moral high ground had a spectacular view of the abyss; down 3--1 in the series, the Predators faced elimination in Game 5 on Monday night.

For hockey's chattering classes—including some NHL executives—the Scottsdale episode represented a "Russian problem." Forget that while Radulov grew up in Nizhni Tagli, Kostitsyn is actually from Belarus. In the Russian Devolution all semblance of nuance is lost. Although it has been more than two decades since marquee players left a crumbling Soviet Union to play in the NHL, players from former bloc countries often are still tossed into the same pot of borscht. When former Flyers captain Mike Richards and teammate Jeff Carter—who helped the Kings into the Western Conference finals with a sweep of St. Louis—were exiled by Philadelphia last summer amid rumors of excessive partying, their story was never framed as an example of the shortcomings of Canadian players. But Russians (and fellow travelers) are not given the same benefit of individuality. They are, in the collective imagination of many in the league, me-first players who are shy on sacrifice and not fully committed to the idea of the Stanley Cup as the ultimate hockey prize.

"Their mentality is what it is," says Devils forward Patrik Elias, who is Czech. "A lot of the times they're being brought up to be individual players throughout their careers, because if you have the skills, you've got to show it.... And I think it's an adjustment for some of the guys to come here and build into that team system."

This was a confounding week for one-size-fits-all theorists. The Penguins' Evgeni Malkin was announced as a finalist for the Ted Lindsay Award as the NHL's most outstanding player. The Red Wings' Pavel Datsyuk was named a finalist for his fourth Selke Trophy as the top defensive forward. Solid Los Angeles rookie defenseman Slava Voynov scored a goal. The Devils' Ilya Kovalchuk returned last Thursday from a one-game absence, because of what the team called a lower-body injury, and set up the overtime winner by Alexei Ponikarovsky, a Ukrainian, to cap a gritty three-point night in a 4--3 Game 3 win over the Flyers, who trailed the series 3--1 at week's end.

These were footnotes to the tale of the tardy Predators and the modest minutes that Capitals captain—and Moscow native—Alexander Ovechkin played on April 30 in a 3--2 victory over the Rangers in Game 2, a match in which he scored the winning goal. There was also speculation that the blinkered perception of Russians, reinforced by Radulov's example, might affect the status of Nail Yakupov, the likely No. 1 draft pick who plays junior hockey in Canada and is an ethnic Tatar. Terry Jones, a columnist for the Edmonton Sun, tweeted last week, "The way the Russians are going in Stanley Cup playoffs, Oilers better give a real, real, real, real good hard think about Nail Yakupov, huh?"

"Obviously you can't make a bold statement that all Russians are alike," an NHL executive of a nonplayoff team says. "[But] for all the character guys like [Canadiens defenseman Andrei] Markov and Datsyuk, you also can't ignore the 'Russian element.'"

Poile had certainly tried. In March the Nashville G.M. repatriated Radulov from the KHL, where the right wing starred after skipping out of his contract with the Predators in 2008, allowing him to burn the final season of his original entry-level deal by playing only nine regular-season games. Before the February deadline Poile also reunited the Kostitsyn brothers, trading two 2013 draft picks to Montreal for Andrei, a gifted but unmotivated winger, to join his younger brother, Sergei, a Predator since '10. Now Poile was punishing two top six forwards for "selfish behavior," repudiating not merely Radulov and Kostitsyn but also, indirectly, his own hockey judgment.

"The thing with Radulov, don't forget: Every sector of the game—players, media, coaches, G.M.'s—he's not going to get a lot of leeway for [bolting his contract]," Kings G.M. Dean Lombardi says. "I got no problem with [the Predators], because it wasn't like Nashville stashed him over there. It was more the individual. And you've got to wonder what his teammates think: You've bailed on us before."

Meanwhile, Radulov said in response to reports that he'd been out until 4 a.m., "I didn't come back that late as [they] say," and he subsequently apologized to his teammates.

Apparently the new avatar for Capitals hockey is Jay Beagle.

Beagle is a 26-year-old forward of exceedingly modest pedigree. He has played 82 NHL games—the equivalent of one full year—spread over four seasons. He has seven career goals. He is not one of the faces of the NHL. He is barely a face in the crowd. But Beagle has seemingly become more critical to Washington's spring success than Ovechkin, a two-time Hart Trophy winner with four 50-plus-goal seasons and a playoff average of 1.19 points per game.

In Game 2, when Ovechkin scored the power-play winner on a 57-foot wrist shot with 7:27 remaining, he skated for 18 shifts—only one after the goal—that spanned 13:36, third-line minutes for one of the most renowned players in the world. Beagle had 10 more shifts and almost 6½ more minutes. The pattern repeated itself in the Rangers' triple-overtime win in Game 3, when an energized Ovechkin played 10 more seconds than Beagle but nine fewer shifts. (Power-play shifts, of which Beagle gets almost none, tend to be longer than those at even strength.) But the defensively indifferent Ovechkin, who opened the scoring with an unassisted goal in Game 4 last Saturday, had five fewer shifts and three fewer minutes than Beagle in a 3--2 series-tying Washington win. The Great 8 was eighth among Capitals forwards in ice time in the game. "Sometimes it's hard," Ovechkin said of his reduced role after Game 2, "but I have to suck it up. I have to make plays when I can." His ice time might have seen further reduction for Game 5—maybe to zero—but the left wing was not suspended for a leaping open-ice hit, penalized as a charge, in which he appeared to smack Rangers defenseman Dan Girardi's shoulder.

The passive-aggressive ice-time war between Ovechkin and coach Dale Hunter—Ovechkin is chafing but being a good teammate, while Hunter is being publicly supportive of his captain if you disregard the fact he is tethering him to the bench—is as much a story of a coach as a player. If Hunter were to draw a picture of his ideal player, it would be with stick figures; he prefers clean lines to Ovechkin's occasionally florid style. Hunter does not view Ovechkin's creativity as a boon as much as the frivolous use of precious offensive-zone time. "With Dale, you understand exactly what's going on," left wing Jason Chimera says. "You know exactly what's expected of you and what you're supposed to do."

Sometimes Ovechkin and teammate Alexander Semin, a fellow Russian, don't actually know what they want to do until they do it. That is a recipe for diminished ice time. Hunter can read Beagle's game; he doesn't get Ovechkin's.

This is the paradox of a plugger who is more valued than a star in which the franchise has a $124 million, 13-year investment. Obviously the situation can't continue indefinitely. (Imagine Angels manager Mike Scioscia batting Albert Pujols eighth until August.) But Hunter might not have to deal with the inevitable fallout. He took a one-year deal when Bruce Boudreau was fired late last November—Ovechkin called his former coach a "fat f---" merely for leaving him off the ice at the end of a one-goal game—and could return to the junior team he co-owns, managed and coached in London, Ont. (Caps G.M. George McPhee has said he wants Hunter back for 2012--13.) "Dale is a situational coach who likes to shorten his bench now and then," veteran right wing Mike Knuble says. "Look, I'm sure [Ovechkin's] not happy about those times when he doesn't play, but ... he still rises to the occasion, you know? He's getting his, and he isn't complaining about winning."

The Capitals were fighting another skirmish on the Russian front last week. Evgeny Kuznetsov, their first-round selection in 2010 who they hoped would be playing at center in Washington next season, intends to sign a two-year contract with Chelyabinsk of the KHL. "It's clearly different than in the past in that [players] can make a lot of money [in the KHL]," Lombardi says. "There is an option [to the NHL]."

The KHL, the muscular version of the old Russian Superleague, was formed in 2008. But even before the advent of the big-money league, the NHL's ardor for young Russian talent was already abating. Since the '04--05 lockout, NHL teams have drafted just 59 players from former Soviet republics, 10 fewer than in '01 and '02 combined. The dearth of recent draftees is beginning to be reflected in the gloss of a silver trophy: The last two Stanley Cup winners—Chicago in '10 and Boston in '11—did not ice a Russian, something that had occurred only twice since 1994.

So what should a team think about Nail Yakupov heading into the draft? Some hockey executives are lukewarm. The Oilers might be inclined to select a defenseman, while the Blue Jackets, at No. 2, have had two high draft picks from the former Soviet Union—Nikolai Zherdev, a Ukrainian, in 2003 and Nikita Filatov in '08—wash out. "Still, the Russians have a skill element that all teams need," says one team executive. "You draft Yakupov and put him in the NHL next year, he could get 25 or 30 goals."

The Predators opted for skill, which seemed like a reasonable choice until the eve of a playoff game when Radulov and Kostitsyn went off the reservation. Or at least out of Glendale. A late night is hardly groundbreaking in hockey annals, but a playoff run can be as fragile as the players are sturdy. A team needs luck, health, goaltending and commitment. Sometimes the smallest thing—one blown defensive-zone read, a curfew blown by 60 minutes—can be an impediment.

"I think what you're seeing is that most Russians here now are high-profile players," Detroit G.M. Ken Holland says. "Ovechkin, Radulov, the goalie in Philly"—the Flyers' Ilya Bryzgalov, who signed a nine-year, $51 million contract last summer—"[would] pretty much be under the microscope anyway. But really, can anyone make a case that Radulov's situation has anything to do with Ovechkin's ice time?"

Not logically. But some are still more than ready to give it a try.

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SINCE THE LOCKOUT, NHL TEAMS HAVE DRAFTED 59 PLAYERS FROM FORMER SOVIET REPUBLICS, 10 FEWER THAN IN 2001 AND '02 COMBINED.

PHOTOROBERT BECK (VOYNOV)MYSTERY MEN The playoff experience for Russian players has run the gamut from (clockwise from upper left) Voynov's stellar play, to Bryzgalov's shaky goaltending, to Radulov's curfew caper to Ovechkin's diminished role. PHOTOADAM HUNGER (BRYZGALOV)[See caption above] PHOTOCHRISTIAN PETERSEN/GETTY IMAGES (RADULOV)[See caption above] PHOTODAMIAN STROHMEYER (OVECHKIN)[See caption above] PHOTOERICK W. RASCO (KOVALCHUK)TOUGH ENOUGH After he missed Game 2, Kovalchuk fought off a lower-body injury to lead New Jersey to a Game 3 victory, scoring a goal and adding two assists. PHOTOGENE J. PUSKAR/AP (MALKIN)RUSSIAN IDLE Malkin, the presumptive Hart Trophy winner, was stellar in the first round, with three goals and five assists, but he couldn't save Pittsburgh from elimination.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)