Smile, Ovie, you're our selection as the NHL's top Russian player. (Photo by Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images)
We’ve done the Czechs, the Swedes and the Finns, in our on-going analysis of the NHL’s best European players. This week we turn to Russia.
No European nation has produced more top-flight NHLers over the years than Russia and the former USSR. And no European nation has more top-flight NHLers right now than Russia, even though only 32 have spent time in the league this season. And it’s fair to say Russians are currently the most exciting players in the NHL.
So without further ado, we give you THN.com’s Top 10 NHL Russians, right now.
10. Slava Kozlov, Left Winger, Atlanta
Kozlov played his first NHL game during the 1991-92 season as a Red Wing and has tallied 346 goals and 821 points in 1121 NHL games. The 36-year-old is currently enjoying one of his best campaigns with 24 goals – including 12 on the power play – and 70 points in 76 games.
9. Nikolai Khabibulin, Goaltender, Chicago
Khabibulin makes the grade, but barely. He had pretty much sewn-up the No. 1 job with the Blackhawks before an injury in mid-February. He’s 20-8-6 with a 2.54 goals-against average and .915 save percentage for the season, but since the 36-year-old’s return to health March 15, his numbers have steadily declined – his GAA has risen from 2.37 and his save percentage has fallen from .924.
8. Sergei Gonchar, Defenseman, Pittsburgh
The fact Gonchar made this list is nothing short of amazing. The 34-year-old missed 56 games due to a pre-season shoulder injury, but he’s back now, quarterbacking the Penguins power play and adding a calm, veteran presence to the D-corps and the team. Gonchar has six goals – five with the man advantage – and 15 points in 19 games. He’s also a plus-7 and is averaging 25:29 of ice time.
7. Ilya Kovalchuk, Left Winger, Atlanta
Simply put, Kovalchuk is one of the most electrifying players in the world. He has all the talent to be higher on this list, but is hampered by a poor supporting cast and a tendency to loaf through the season’s dog days. Nonetheless, the first overall pick in 2001 has broken the 40-goal plateau for the fifth-consecutive season (he had 38 as a sophomore and 29 as a rookie) and will finish with 90-plus points for the second time in his career.
6. Alexander Semin, Left Winger, Washington
The lesser Alex on the Caps is the heir to Joe Sakic as the NHL’s best wrist shot. Semin has been hampered by injuries this season, but is still 22nd in scoring with 71 points – including 29 goals – despite playing just 56 games. His 1.27 points-per-game average is fourth in the league and his plus-25 rating is 12th overall and first on his team.
5. Andrei Markov, Defenseman, Montreal
Your guess is as good as ours as to where the Canadiens would be without Markov this season. He leads his team in scoring with 11 goals and 62 points; second in the NHL in that category amongst blueliners. His 24:41 of average ice time is nearly three minutes more than his next closest teammate. The 30-year-old Markov is, basically, the glue that holds Montreal’s blueline together and is really the only success story on the team this season.
4. Evgeni Nabokov, Goaltender, San Jose
Kazakh-by-birth, but Russian by international hockey standards, Nabokov is one of the top tenders in the game. The 33-year-old has a 39-9-8 record in 2008-09, good for second in the NHL in wins. He’s fourth in GAA and 11th in save percentage amongst goalies who have played 50-plus games this season. Look for him to backstop THN’s gold medal-favorites at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.
3. Evgeni Malkin, Center, Pittsburgh
Malkin’s 33 goals and 107 points make him the odds-on favorite right now to win the Art Ross Trophy (top scorer), but the 22-year-old is quickly maturing into more than just a point producer. He’s playing 22:43 per game (second in the league amongst forwards), kills some penalties and is a plus-20, which is tops on the Pens. His goal total is down this season, but he already has 15 more assists than his previous career high, showing he can distribute or score, whichever is needed.
2. Pavel Datsyuk, Center, Detroit
Some say Datsyuk is one of the most underrated players in the league. Others say he’s overrated. But this season he’s proven the former by taking his game to a new level. The reigning Selke Trophy winner (best defensive forward) is the NHL’s third-highest scoring Russian with 30 goals and 91 points, good for fourth overall behind Nos. 3 and 1 on this list. Datsyuk leads the Red Wings in scoring by 23 points and in plus-minus by six at plus-34, good for third overall in the NHL. The 30-year-old plays in all situations and wins 56.6 percent of his faceoffs to boot, good for seventh in the league.
1. Alex Ovechkin, Left Winger, Washington
Ovechkin has topped a couple of our lists this season – including Dynamic Duos with No. 6 on this list and Stars Who Hit – so we considered dropping him here just to stir things up a bit. But this guy is the best player in the world right now and suggesting otherwise just to elicit responses would be foolhardy. Offensively, AO leads the Rocket Richard Trophy-race by 11 goals, is second in power play markers with 18, tied for first in game winners with 10 and his 482 shots on goal are 131 more than the league’s next most prolific shooter. As for the intangibles, Ovechkin leads all forwards in average ice time at 22:59 per game, is eighth in the NHL with 233 hits, is the most exciting and exuberant player on the planet and has almost single-handedly taken the Capitals from also-rans to the darlings of the Washington sports scene.
The THN.com Top 10 appears Wednesdays only on TheHockeyNews.com.
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