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Hockey Night in CanadaFrom Russia with not so much love

Posted: Tuesday, May 1, 2012 | 06:55 PM

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Before Alexander Radulov, left, and Andrei Kostitsyn were caught out too late in the desert last weekend, they were two late-season acquisitions who were supposed to help the Predators go deep into the playoffs. (Carlos Osorio/Associated Press) Before Alexander Radulov, left, and Andrei Kostitsyn were caught out too late in the desert last weekend, they were two late-season acquisitions who were supposed to help the Predators go deep into the playoffs. (Carlos Osorio/Associated Press)

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The team-imposed one-game suspension for Nashville Predators forward Alexander Radulov and his Belarusian teammate, Andrei Kostitsyn, for missing curfew was the latest challenge for Russian players in this three-week-old playoff run.
The demise of the Russian hockey talent is only a rumour. But certainly the 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs have not helped their cause in the NHL.

The team-imposed one-game suspensions for Nashville Predators forward Alexander Radulov and his Belarusian teammate, Andrei Kostitsyn, for missing curfew was the latest challenge for Russian players in this three-week-old playoff run.

Pittsburgh Penguins forward Evgeni Malkin put together an MVP regular season, but with the exception of a strong four-point outing in Game 4 in the first round, he was limited by the checking of Philadelphia Flyers centre Sean Couturier.

Washington Capitals forward Alexander Semin has been called out by his coach and demoted to the fourth line. His teammate Alex Ovechkin saw his ice time reduced drastically on Monday evening, only to rebound to score the Game 2 winner against the New York Rangers.

The Flyers have survived even though their big-money goalie Ilya Bryzgalov will carry a dismal .873 save percentage and whopping 3.70 goals against average into Philadelphia's game against the New Jersey Devils on Tuesday.

With the bad, however, there has been the good. Until he was recently felled by an undisclosed lower-body injury, forward Ilya Kovalchuk has been a solid performer for the Devils.

Russian hockey has taken a hit in the NHL in the past few seasons, even though it has won back-to-back world championships in 2008 and 2009, fizzled in the 2010 Olympics and captured the 2011 world junior title.

FEAR THE RUSSIANS

As individuals, however, NHL general managers have exhibited a fear factor when drafting a Russian player in the past few seasons. Some of the hazards include Russians staying at home and playing for more money than the NHL entry-level contract calls for and a recent change in draft regulations.

It used to be when a team chose a European prospect, it could hang on to his rights until that player decided to jump across the Atlantic Ocean. Now, if a player doesn't sign after two years, he re-enters the draft.

"Of all the nationalities the Russians seem to have the least understanding of what the Stanley Cup means to win and the commitment it takes," an NHL team executive shared with us. "Drafting Russians is a risky business because of the money available to them in the KHL. Players from other countries have tried the KHL, but it's a difficult season or culture to endure for non-Russians.

"Also, rules and laws are slack in Russia for their players and it's not always easy for them to adjust over here."

These reasons are not unique to Russians, but whether the attached risks are fair or unfair, there has been a decline in the number of Russians being drafted since an all-time high of 39 were selected 12 years ago.

2011 - 8      2007 - 9        2003 - 29 

2010 - 8      2006 - 15      2002 - 33 

2009 - 7      2005 - 11      2001 - 36 

2008 - 8      2004 - 18      2000 - 39 

The drop was further troubling last June, when the first Russian taken was not until the Tampa Bay Lightning chose London Knights forward Vladislav Namestnikov 27th overall.

Even with the 2012 NHL entry draft two months away, there has been speculation the Columbus Blue Jackets will trade away the second overall selection if Nail Yakupov is not taken first by the Edmonton Oilers. Another Russian draft pick will be a tough sell to the Blue Jackets fan base after Russians Nikolai Zherdev (2003, fourth overall) and Nikita Filatov (2009, sixth overall) flopped in Columbus.

Before Kostitsyn and Radulov were caught out too late in the desert last weekend, they were two late-season acquisitions who were supposed to help the Predators go deep into the playoffs. 

Radulov returned from Russia in mid-March after a three-and-a-half year absence. Kostitsyn was acquired from the Montreal Canadiens on Feb. 27 in exchange for second and fifth-round draft choices.

Both players arrived with character issues. Radulov bailed out on the final year of his entry-level contract with the Predators to return to Russia for more money. Kostitsyn had a questionable work ethic in Montreal and his production had dropped from 26 goals in 2007-08 to only 12 goals in 53 games before he was dealt to Nashville.

The stance taken by Predators general manager David Poile and backed up by head coach Barry Trotz with their malcontents on Tuesday was applauded.

The curfew-breaking incident allegedly took place between Games 1 and 2 in Phoenix. The Coyotes certainly did not have a good game on Monday, even though Kostitsyn scored for the second game in a row.

Whether this development galvanizes or further disrupts the Predators remains to be seen. But to lose a couple of talented top-six forwards at this time of the year because of selfish acts further damages Russia's dubious hockey reputation.

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