Columnist says stigma of Russian players “far outweighs anyone else’s baggage”

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In the wake of Nashville suspending Alexander Radulov and Andrei Kostitsyn for violating team rules, Sportsnet’s Mark Spector decided to analyze the current plight of Russian players in the NHL.

His conclusion? They carry more bags than a bellhop.

You’ve got to admit though, the stigma that has grown on players from that country now far outweighs anyone else’s baggage.

Today, with the infusion of the KHL dilemma, the problematic innuendo extends to potential draft picks. On the same day that Radulov and Kostitsyn — we know, a Belarussian, not the same thing — were outed, Washington’s 26th overall draft pick in 2010, Evgeny Kuznetsov, announced he is set to sign a contract to spend two more years with Traktor Chelyabinsk of the KHL.

Who knows what kind of player he’ll be when and if he finally gets to Washington?

Columbus had has its fun with high drafts Nikolai Zherdev (No. 4 in ’03) and Nikita Filatov (No. 6 in ’08). And now, the Edmonton Oilers may just pass along the Russian problem again, should they trade its No. 1 overall pick or choose a defenceman, leaving Nail Yakupov for Columbus GM Scott Howson at No. 2.

Even the established Russians are having a tough time in the NHL these days. Alexander Ovechkin’s ice time has plummeted. Goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov’s a flake. After a 50-goal season Evgeni Malkin managed just three goals in six games of an offence-palooza against Philadelphia in Round 1.

It’s an interesting angle to take (and controversial, based on the heat emanating from Sportsnet’s comments section) but I wonder if this “Russian stigma” is just a cyclical thing.

The NHL has gone through spells of both fascination and frustration with Russian players. It wasn’t long ago that the Hart Trophy finalists were all Russians (Ovechkin, Malkin and Pavel Datsyuk) — and it’s not like this year has been an outright disaster.

Are Ovechkin’s minutes down? Yes, but he still leads the team in scoring. Did Malkin have a bad first round? Sure, but he’s likely going to win the league’s MVP. Is Bryzgalov a flake? Probably, but he was a flake long before coming to Philly.

The NHL also figures to be high on Russians again, and very soon. Yakupov and Mikhail Grigorenko are two of the top prospects heading into the 2012 Draft while the Russian team has won gold and silver at the last two World Junior Championships, suggesting there’s more young talent to come.