A new class of young Russian dynamos are about the take the NHL postseason by storm
WHILE RUSSO-AMERICAN relations are under intense scrutiny around 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue these days, just eight blocks away a sanctioned Russian back channel is open after most Capitals games. In the hallway between dressing rooms at Capital One Arena, the host of these informal summits, Washington captain Alex Ovechkin, engages his visiting countrymen in short chats. They don't last long—10 minutes max—but they do serve as refreshing reminders of home.
"There's not so many Russian guys in this league right now," says Maple Leafs defenseman Nikita Zaitsev. "That's why we're so happy to see each other."
They are sticking together—and sticking out. Veterans like Ovechkin and Penguins center Evgeni Malkin remain dangerous as ever. But a new generation of Russian talent is reaching its prime, occupying key roles for Cup contenders throughout the East.
In Toronto, the 26-year-old Zaitsev averages 22:23 on coach Mike Babcock's top pair. Sharpshooting Artemi Panarin, also 26, leads the Blue Jackets with 69 points. Few playmakers operate with the flare of 25-year-old Caps center Evgeny Kuznetsov (25 goals, 53 assists), while 26-year-old teammate Dmitry Orlov has developed into an all-situations workhorse. Add winger Vladimir Tarasenko, 26, of the bubble-sitting Blues, and that quintet wouldn't make a bad sequel to the Red Wings' Russian Five.
"They were the generation that inspired this one," professor of Russian history at South Florida Golfo Alexopoulos says of Detroit's 1990s-era legends Sergei Fedorov, Slava Fetisov, Igor Larionov, Vladimir Konstantinov and Vyacheslav Kozlov.
The number of Russian NHLers climbed to 66 by 1999--2000 before declining sharply after the '04--05 lockout. This season 33 have appeared in at least one game, and plenty more are on the way. Last June teams drafted a record-tying 18 Russian-born players, putting to bed the ridiculous notion of a "Russian problem," a code phrase for selfishness often perpetuated by old xenophobes in flashy suits on TV.
What was once the biggest adjustment—the switch from Communism to capitalism—is no longer much of an issue. Orlov and his peers were raised during a time of relative economic prosperity in Russia, which, at the behest of noted puckhead Vladimir Putin, trickled down to youth programs. "The conditions they trained under have gotten significantly better," says Dan Milstein, a Soviet-born agent who represents Lightning winger Nikita Kucherov, Panarin, Zaitsev and future Hall of Famer Pavel Datsyuk. "That's why perhaps it's easier for the Russians to adapt now. The talent was always there."
They have also benefitted from the experience of the first generation of Russian NHLers, who returned home to become coaches and train a new class of players for the North American game. "They're all real skilled," says Washington defenseman Brooks Orpik, a 15-year NHL vet. "But they go to the hard areas, which goes against some of the stereotypes. The [NHL has] evolved too. The game is probably more suited to [their skills]."
Even more could break out this postseason. Like Mikhail Sergachev, the Tampa Bay teenager whose 39 points lead all rookie defensemen. Or Flyers blueliner Ivan Provorov, 21, averaging a team-high 24:11. When Provorov was 13, his family made the tough decision to have him move to Wilkes-Barre, Pa., thinking it would ease a transition to the NHL. It was lonely at times. Even now he is the only Russian native on Philadelphia's roster, although he does speak perfect English. At least if he does get homesick, there's a good chance Provorov will see some fellow Russians at Capital One Arena in the first round. He just shouldn't expect that, come April 11, the friendly back channel will be open.