When someone mentions Russian hockey, it conjures a set of very specific images in the minds of fans around the world, especially in the West. For older fans, it conjures images of the famous Soviet Olympic teams coached by the indomitable Viktor Tikhonov, combining iron-clad, Red Army discipline in training off the ice with an aesthetically pleasing, passing-based style on it.
In the minds of younger fans, the face of Russians in hockey is right winger Alexander Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals, or “the Great 8” as he is often nicknamed. A product of the Russian club Dinamo Moscow, Ovechkin has been the world’s greatest goal scorer for the past fifteen years. With his deadly one-time slap shot as his primary weapon, Ovechkin has scored seven hundred and six NHL goals so far in his career. If he plays for just a few more years, he will have a legitimate chance at surpassing Wayne Gretzky’s record of eight hundred and ninety four, the most scored of all time.
Ovechkin plays the right wing, and the wing position has, in the past several years, become the signature position at which Russian players have succeeded in the NHL. In 2018–19, Tampa Bay Lightning winger Nikita Kucherov won the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s most valuable player, and in 2019–20 helped the Lightning win the Stanley Cup. Other star Russian wingers in the NHL today include Artemi Panarin, Vladimir Tarasenko, and others.
Furthermore, the wing position seems to be the one that is being most readily developed by Russian hockey in recent years. Every year since 2017, the top Russian skater (so eliminating goaltenders) drafted plays the wing position. Between 2017 and 2019, each of the top three Russian skaters drafted were wingers. This trend is likely to continue for the next several years, as in two out of the next three drafts, the top rated Russian prospect plays the wing position.
Russia has had some success recently with other positions, to be sure. Goaltending is the most notable besides the wing- this being best illustrated by the fact that, in the 2020 Stanley Cup finals, both teams featured Russian starting goalies- Anton Khudobin for the Dallas Stars and Andrei Vasilevsky for the Tampa Bay Lightning. This trend also looks to continue, as Russian goalie trio Igor Shesterkhin (of the New York Rangers), Ilya Sorokin (of the New York Islanders) and the Nashville Predators 2020 draftee Yaroslav Askarov (11th overall), currently playing for the Kontinental Hockey League’s SKA St. Petersburg, but his eventual NHL debut is much anticipated in hockey circles.
The position where Russia has been most lagging behind in recent years is that of center, traditionally considered the most important position in the sport. The country has produced many greats at the position in the past, from Igor Larionov, one of the famed “Russian Five,” to Evgeni Malkin of the Pittsburgh Penguins. But development at that position has trailed off in recent years, with the most recent Russian center to be an NHL All Star Washington’s Evgeny Kuznetsov, drafted in 2010.
In recent international competitions such as the Olympics, the Russian national team has been carried at the center position by the likes of Malkin and Pavel Datsyuk of the Detroit Red Wings. However, the team’s uncertain future at that position is illustrated well by a recent article in The Athletic projecting Team Russia’s roster for the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. The wing position is an embarrassment of riches, but the team’s projected first line center is still Malkin, who will be thirty-six years old in 2022 and may have already started his decline from the elite heights he once occupied.
In the comments section of the article, The Athletic’s NHL prospects writer Corey Pronman noted regarding Team Russia’s lack of center options “It’s a problem and it’s not clear the options coming up are all that much better. [Vegas Golden Knights prospect Ivan Morozov], [Columbus Blue Jackets prospect Dmitri Voronkov[ and [2021 draft eligible prospect Nikita Chibrikov] are very good players but there’s no monster center prospect around the corner.”
It may be that the 2021 NHL draft will be the start of a turnaround for Russia at the position- Chibrikov is projected as a first round talent by some analysts (although that linked source does not project him to remain at center), as is Daniil Lazutin, a product of the same Dynamo Moscow system that produced Ovechkin. An even younger prospect with potential is Danila Yurov, of the same Metallurg Magnitogorsk that produced Evgeni Malkin. But Pronman is correct to state that, at least right now, none of them are a prospect on the same level as Malkin, who was taken second overall in 2004 and will almost certainly be a first ballot inductee into the Hockey Hall of Fame after he retires.
It is possible that one of these talented teenagers will surpass expectations and reach the heights of past Russian centers- Pavel Datsyuk was, after all, the 171st overall pick by the Detroit Red Wings. The decline in the center position is likely a product of structural issues that befell Russian hockey beginning in the post-Soviet era, and continuing up to recent years.
The previously linked article outlines how, in 2015, the Federation of Russian Hockey was reorganized and a major plan for renewed investment into construction of rinks and greater access to hockey resources for young player is being undertaken by the Federation’s new leadership. Even if successful, the fruits of this undertaking are likely yet to emerge even onto the prospect scene in Russian hockey.
Furthermore, there has been a changing of the guard at the top levels of youth coaching. This has been most notably represented by one of the legendary centers of the Russian Five, Igor Larionov, coaching the 2021 Russian World Junior Championships team. Clearly, steps are being taken to address the shortcomings in Russian hockey development, but only time will tell if they will produce the likes of Evgeni Malkin yet again.