Russian players are hard to get and becoming harder to keep. Some fed-up teams don't even want to draft them
WHEN BLUE JACKETS center Alexander Svitov jumped to the Super League in his native Russia in August, the move barely made the transactions column in the U.S. and Canada. Given his impact on the NHL—13 goals in 179 games—Svitov might as well have been named Write-ov. Still, the news stunned Columbus general manager Scott Howson, who had just re-signed the 24-year-old for two years and $2.25 million, and Lightning G.M. Jay Feaster, whose team drafted Svitov third overall in 2001 before trading him to Columbus three years later. "We went through heaven, hell and high water to get [Svitov] out of [Russia] in the first place," Feaster said. "I felt like I was in an Ian Fleming novel at times." From Russia, with baggage.
Svitov's departure is emblematic of a larger tale: The love affair between the NHL and Russian players (with a few clear exceptions such as Capitals left wing Alex Ovechkin) is as yesterday as Gorbachev. There were 32 Russians on NHL rosters when the season opened last week, down from 98 who played in at least one game in '00--01. Also, the number of Russians drafted has dived from 41, in '00, to nine in June, a list topped by dandy right wing Alexei Cherepanov, who shockingly fell to the Rangers at No. 17. The Russians are going, the Russians are going! Many executives and coaches are fed up with what they consider high-maintenance players and hope the door doesn't smack them on the way out.
"For 15 years everyone wanted them and catered to them," says an assistant coach who requested anonymity. "It was like, We have to get these guys. Now the trend is..." and he made a downward motion with his hand. Here's why.
• There is no transfer agreement between the NHL and the Russian Ice Hockey Federation. NHL teams have to grab Russian players when and where they can, sometimes facing legal entanglements, cloak-and-dagger machinations or both, like when the agent for center Evgeni Malkin spirited him out of Magnitogorsk's training camp in Finland in August 2006 to sign with Pittsburgh. NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly suspects there's more at work than Russians wanting to raise the transfer fee of $200,000 per player that's in place with other national federations. "I was told the federation was fine with the transfer agreement [last May], but it was up to [president Vladimir] Putin," he said. "I'm led to believe the Russian government is interested in the performance of its hockey teams and players."
• The Super League is a legitimate alternative for middle-of-the-road Russian players. Super League teams aren't bound by the limits the NHL imposes on salaries during a player's first three years, and playing conditions in Russia are improving. There has been a spate of new arenas, including one in Kazan, home to league-leading scorer Alexei Morozov, who barely made a dent with the Penguins from 1997--98 through 2003--04 but now earns $4 million a year. After Islanders captain Alexei Yashin was cut loose and couldn't find an ardent NHL suitor last summer, he opted for Locomotiv Yaroslavl.
• Some high-profile Russian players have been notable busts in recent years (Chicago's Sergei Samsonov, Montreal's Alexei Kovalev), and not since Detroit in 2001--02 have Russian skaters been a factor on a Stanley Cup winner. Given the paucity of Russians leaguewide, the latter point might be a self-fulfilling prophecy, but, said an NHL player personnel director, "Anaheim's [physical] style is how you try to approach the playoffs. There aren't many Russians who play that style. They're not trained that way. They're trained to stickhandle and pass."
ONLY AT SI.COM Michael Farber's On The Fly.
LOU CAPOZZOLA (SAMSONOV)
SKATING AWAY Samsonov (far left) and Kovalev have stumbled; Morozov (below, in '04) was lured to Kazan.
DAVE SANDFORD/GETTY IMAGES (KOVALEV)
[See caption above]
VLADIMIR BEZZUBOV/FOTO S.A. (MOROZOV)
[See caption above]