As recently as a decade ago, coming up with a list of the top 10 best Russian players in the NHL would have been challenging simply due to the fact that it would have been tough to find enough Russian NHL stars to populate a list. These days it is still a challenge, but for completely different reasons. Now, instead of scrambling, trying to find enough stars, the challenge lies in narrowing down the list to just 10, and inevitably several star players are left on the outside looking in, narrowly edged out by their superstar countrymen.
Such is the reality these days, as the NHL has become a truly international league. Long gone are the days when the league is comprised almost solely of Canadian players, and similar challenges would be had compiling lists of the best players from Finland, Sweden, the U.S.A., the Czech Republic and even Slovakia.
Today’s Russian stars, much like Sergei Makarov, Pavel Bure, Alexander Mogilny and Sergei Fedorov before them, represent some of the most exciting, dynamic players in the league, and every year one or more seems to be challenging for major trophies like the Art Ross or Hart. So, who are the best of the best from this powerful hockey nation? Read on to see who made the cut on my list of the top 10 best Russian hockey players in the NHL today:
10 – Anton Volchenkov - Though he may not have the flash and dash of many of his countrymen, this guy is pretty darn valuable to the Ottawa Senators for his tough as nails style of defense and his unparalleled shot-blocking ability. Every year he seems to be at or near the top of the league in shots blocked, and with Zdeno Chara and Wade Redden moved on to greener pastures he has become the cornerstone of the Ottawa Senators’ blueline.
9 – Evgeni Nabokov - Some might be surprised to find Nabby so relatively low on the list. Every year he posts stellar numbers in the wins and shutouts categories. However, Nabokov has the luxury of playing for one of the most powerful teams in the NHL, and though he plays close to 90% of his team’s games, he rarely has a night where he has to face more than 25 shots. He also has had more than his fair share of struggles come playoff time, the time of year when a goalie’s reputation is really cemented. Still, he is one of the best Russian goalies playing in the league today, and certainly deserves his spot on this list.
8 – Sergei Gonchar - Though this Pittsburgh Penguins defender is starting to get a little long in the tooth he remains one of the most dangerous blueliners in the NHL. He quarterbacks a Pens powerplay that features such stars as Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and the threat of his booming slapshot opens up plenty of down low opportunities for his fellow stars.
7 – Ilya Bryzgalov - Just one short year ago people would have scoffed to see Ilya Bryzgalov’s name ahead of Evgeni Nabokov and Nikolai Khabulin on a list of the best Russian hockey players. However, Bryzgalov has come into his own this season, and his performance helped a mediocre Phoenix Coyotes team finish in the top 4 in the Western Conference standings. Look for Bryzgalov to earn some votes for this year’s Vezina Trophy, though he is likely to lose out to Buffalo’s Ryan Miller.
6 – Andrei Markov - In my estimation few NHL players are as underrated and underappreciated as this Montreal Canadiens’ rearguard. Markov is the lynchpin of the Habs defense and is routinely among the league leaders in defensive scoring. He logs huge minutes for his club, and plays an even-keeled, nearly mistake free game reminiscent of Nicklas Lidstrom of the Detroit Red Wings. He is the Canadiens’ MVP.
5 – Alexander Semin - It is hard to believe that this 40 goal scorer could be considered the Washington Capitals 4th most offensively talented player. Yes, Alexander Ovechkin, Mike Green and Nicklas Backstrom might be better than this super sniper, but not by much. Semin has an amazing shot, and many consider his release even better than Ovechkin’s. Look for Semin to join the 50 goal club in the not-so-distant future.
4 – Ilya Kovalchuk - Though he has been something of a bust since joining the New Jersey Devils prior to the trade deadline, no one can deny the incredible talent this Russian superstar possesses. With size, speed, tremendous stickhandling ability, and one of the deadliest shots in the NHL, Kovalchuk is the complete package. Teams will be clamoring for this unrestricted free agent’s services come July 1st. Hard to believe the Atlanta Thrashers let this franchise cornerstone go.
3 – Evgeni Malkin - I strongly suspect that one day this Conn Smythe Trophy winner will leap to the top of this list. Only inconsistency keeps Malkin at #3 on the list of the best Russian hockey players. Not since Mario Lemieux have I seen a big man dominate the game in the offensive zone like Malkin can when he puts his mind to it. He already has one Art Ross Trophy under his best (the same number as teammate Sidney Crosby) and if he can stay healthy you can bet he’ll add a few more to his trophy case before the dust settles on what is sure to be an amazing career.
2 – Pavel Datsyuk - Pavel Datsyuk is to the Detroit Red Wings at the forward position what Nicklas Lidstrom is to them at the back end. Datsyuk is a coach’s dream. One of those rare players that always seems to make the right decision with or without the puck, Datsyuk routinely challenges the league leaders in points while simultaneously running away with the title of the league’s best defensive forward. Though his numbers weren’t quite up to his usual standards this year, Datsyuk was still one of the best two way players in the game.
1 – Alexander Ovechkin - My #1 pick on the list of the best Russian hockey players in the NHL today should come as a surprise to no one. A two time Hart Trophy winner, Ovechkin has been the most dominant offensive force in the NHL since breaking into the NHL back in 2005. A threat to score on every shift, Ovechkin brings a punishing physical style along with his immense skill. His enthusiasm and intensity are contagious, and he naturally makes the players around him better – a trait which the Capitals coaching staff recognized when they named him captain earlier this season. Evgeni Malkin may one day overtake him, but right now Ovie is without question the biggest Russian star in the NHL today.