Today, I'm introducing another new feature. Basically I will be taking 2 players from separate eras that had a similar playing style and try to evaluate which is better. There are all sorts of possibilities with this particular feature, but to start out I figured I'd stick with players that younger hockey fans could weigh in on.
Perhaps no two players in the game have ever generated more excitement on a given shift than Alexander Ovechkin and Pavel Bure. Both players are (were) explosive, and routinely score(d) goals of the highlight reel variety. Comparisons of the two will be inevitable throughout Ovechkin's career, and I figured I'd weigh in with my own take on the matter.
The Russian Rocket
When the Vancouver Canucks drafted Pavel Bure 113th overall in the 1989 draft they probably didn't hold out much hope that the Russian Rocket would ever lace up his skates for the club. Obviously every other NHL team was of the same opinion otherwise Bure would have been snapped up long before that. Bure had been an absolute force at the World Junior Championships the winter before, leading the powerful Soviet team in scoring. He would play two more years at the World Juniors and when he was done he was the leading goal scorer in that tournament's history with an incredible 27 goals in just 21 games.
During this time Pavel Bure was also starring for the powerful Soviet Red Army team, and he, along with linemates Sergei Fedorov and Alexander Mogilny quickly became one of the most dangerous lines in hockey. It was obvious they were being groomed to follow in the footsteps of the legendary Soviet line of Krutov, Larionov and Makarov.
However a career with the Soviet team was not in Bure's future. In 1991-92 the Russian Rocket made his first launch with the Vancouver Canucks, joining the club 15 games into the season, and never looked back. I still remember watching that first game that Bure played with Vancouver. He didn't score, but every time he touched the puck it seemed like something magical would happen. He pulled off at least two incredible end to end rushes that showed his tremendous speed and stick-handling ability, and had the crowd out of their seats on numerous occasions. Right then I knew I was watching a player that was going to be a dominant force in the league.
Though he didn't get on the score sheet that first game he quickly found his groove and managed an impressive 34 goals in his rookie campaign, good enough to capture the Calder trophy as rookie of the year. That was just a taste of things to come. Bure absolutely exploded offensively the following year, scoring 60 goals and 110 points in just his second season. He thrilled fans, and filled buildings with his electrifying style of play. So much for the sophomore jinx.
Just to prove it wasn't a fluke Bure scored another 60 goals and 107 points in his third season with the Canucks, becoming just the 8th player in NHL history to score 60 goals in two seasons. He followed that up with one of the greatest playoff performances in Vancouver Canucks history, scoring 16 goals and adding 15 assists to help them get all the way to game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals before finally bowing out to the New York Rangers.
That would be the pinnacle of Pavel Bure's NHL hockey career. The following season was shortened by an NHL lockout which saw Bure only net 20 goals in 44 games, respectable, but not up to the expectations of fans, media and himself. The following season disaster struck. Bure sustained an ACL tear in his knee that would see him shelved for the season. He returned the following season, but only scored 23 goals. However, in 1997-98 he was back on form, hitting the 50 goal plateau for the 3rd time as he tallied 51 goals, and 90 points to lead the Canucks. However, despite his resurgence there were rumblings that Bure wanted out of Vancouver.
The Florida Era
Midway through the 1998-99 campaign Bure got his wish, and he was dealt from Vancouver to the Florida Panthers which saw young up and coming defenseman, Ed Jovanovski come the other way.
The Florida sun obviously agreed with Bure and he had an immediate impact with his new team, scoring 13 goals in just 11 games. However, the honeymoon would be interrupted as Bure again was forced to undergo knee surgery, putting him out for the remainder of the season.
The next two seasons Bure absolutely tore up the league, scoring 58 and 59 goals respectively. In his second full season with the Panthers he scored an incredible 29.5% of his team's total goals, an NHL record. He played the bulk of the next season with Florida before being dealt to the Rangers. He would go on to score 31 goals in just 51 games with the Rangers before his traitorous knees forced him to call it a career.
Much like they had with Mario Lemieux and Bobby Orr, injuries limited the sky high potential that this super-skilled, dynamic winger could have reached. Had his knees held up and he could have had a long, healthy career there is little doubt in my mind that Pavel Bure would be the NHL's all time goal scoring leader. He was that good. But was he better than another certain Russian who is currently following in his footsteps?
Alexander the GR8
After Pavel Bure retired I didn't think I'd ever see another player that could pull me out of my seat quite like the Russian Rocket did. Boy, was I wrong. Alexander Ovechkin is a one man wrecking crew and far and away the most exhilarating player in the NHL today.
Ovechkin's father was a professional soccer player, and his mother was an Olympic gold medalist, so he definitely has the genetic makeup to be a phenomenal athlete, but even with that pedigree Ovechkin quickly outstripped the athletic abilities of his parents, and at a young age was already drawing the eyes of North American scouts who were drooling over the potential of the young Russian star.
Much like Bure had before him, Ovechkin joined a dominant Russian hockey team at the age of 16 when he signed on with Moscow Dynamo of the Russian Superleague. Ovechkin would quickly establish his dominance even among men several years his senior and in the 2003-04 season he became the youngest player to lead Moscow Dynamo in scoring and was given the Superleague award for Best Left Winger.
At this point the NHL was at full attention and nobody was surprised when Ovechkin was selected as the #1 overall pick in the 2004 draft by Washington. However, because of the NHL lockout that erased the 2004-2005 season eager Washington Capitals fans would have to wait another agonizing year before getting a first hand look at the Russian superstar. When he finally got his chance to give Washington a taste of what he could do he didn't disappoint, scoring 2 goals in his very first game in a victory over the Columbus Blue Jackets.
The extra year's wait did come with one benefit for hockey fans everywhere. Sidney Crosby, a Canadian born hockey phenom was drafted the year following Ovechkin, and the lockout ensured that they would arrive in the NHL at the same time, setting up a legendary battle for the Calder trophy. Ovechkin and Crosby didn't disappoint, going head to head all season long, and putting up staggering numbers that hadn't been seen from rookies since Teemu Selanne's rookie campaign. When the dust settled Ovechkin had the slight edge in points, 106 to 103, and his 52 goals gave him the nod as the Calder trophy winner that year.
In his second year Ovechkin slowed down ever so slightly as teams became more accustomed to his style and became more adept at defending the dynamic forward. Despite the extra attention from the league's best defensive players Ovechkin still put up 46 goals and 92 points. However, it was year 3 that Ovechkin really came into his own, scoring a staggering 65 goals, and notching 112 total points. These totals earned him the Rocket Richard trophy as the league's leading goal scorer, the Art Ross as the leading point producer, and the Hart trophy as NHL MVP. He also got his first taste of playoff action, and helped the Caps push a strong Philadelphia Flyers team to overtime of game 7 before a Philly goal ended the hopes of fans of a dream series between Pittsburgh and Washington.
The style of play exhibited by Pavel Bure and Alexander Ovechkin is remarkably similar. Bure had the rare ability to stickhandle while skating at full speed, and while Ovechkin doesn't quite have Bure's flash and dash with the puck he certainly has the ability to turn defenders inside out. Ovechkin is one of those rare finesse players who hits harder than the players trying to shut him down. Bure didn't throw his weight around like Ovechkin does, but he did play with a chip on his shoulder. Just ask Shane Churla. Bure had a wicked slapshot, but Ovechkin's release is on another level, and his snapshot is even better than his slapper. Bure is arguably the best player in NHL history when it came to breakaways, and his penchant for floating in the neutral zone, coupled with his incredible acceleration ensured he got a lot of them. He had the quickest hands in tight that I've ever seen.
As you can see there is not much to choose between these Russian superstars, but since I have to pick one I'm going to give the (slight) nod to Ovechkin. Alexander Ovechkin's physical play allows him to dominate in the offensive zone in a way that Bure never could. However, that physical style could eventually be his downfall, and there's a good possibility that his own career, much like Bure's, may be cut short by injuries. Hopefully this is not the case, but with the brutal punishment he exposes his body to I don't like his odds of enjoying a long healthy career.
WINNER - ALEXANDER OVECHKIN
Having trouble making up your mind? Check out these video tributes to Pavel Bure and Alexander Ovechkin: