Russians no longer mesmerize with brilliant hockey, but golden ‘feeling’ is there

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SOCHI, Russia – A feeling lingers in Russia. In the moments after Russia’s occasionally brilliant and often sloppy 5-2 victory over Slovenia Thursday, reporters peppered coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov with somewhat indignant questions that seemed just a little bit out of step with the moment. After all, this was only the Russians’ first game, a virtual warm-up against an over-matched team, and they did win pretty comfortably …

Bam: Why did the team decline so much in the second period?

Bam: If you could not stop the Slovenian line, all due respect, how can you stop the Americans?

Bam: What are you going to do about the struggling first line?

The Russians have not won a gold medal in hockey in more than 20 years. Officially, they have never even won a gold medal as Russia – their eight Olympic gold medals came under the banner of the Soviet Union and the Unified Team.

And still, a feeling lingers – a feeling that this sport is conclusively Russian, a feeling that the nation’s greatest traits come out in ballet, literature and the hockey rink, a feeling that no many how many years of heartbreak go by, Russia is supposed to win the hockey gold medal.

VIDEO: Watch U.S.-Russia (Saturday, 7:30 am ET) live online

There was, for all intents and purposes, no ice hockey in Russia before World War II ended. There were a few fledgling efforts to get hockey started, and these generally died before they were born. Instead, there was a popular ice sport called bandy, and it helped define a Russian style of hockey unlike anything that came before.

Bandy is a lot like soccer on ice – the outdoor rink is roughly the same size as a soccer pitch, there are 11 players on each team, the ball used is small and round and so on. Success in bandy depends on speed and precise passing and angles – there is not much player contact – so this was the perspective the Russians brought to ice hockey. The Canadians and Americans would rough you up. The Russians were too refined for that kind of game.

The father of Russian hockey was a fascinating man named Anatoli Tarasov who seems like he was sort of a Bear Bryant type of coach. In 1946, in the wake of more than 20 million Russian deaths during the war, there was an effort to start the first Russian hockey league. Legend goes that the first championship was basically formed based on a couple of old hockey rulebooks.

Tarasov was soon taking the lead in creating a Russian style of hockey. He wanted to make it different from the rough-and-tumble Canadian version of the game – he never did like those physical Canadians.

“A hockey player,” he once said, “must have the wisdom of a chess player, the accuracy of a sniper and the rhythm of a musician.” This was how he saw the game. As art. As expression. And to a startling degree, he was able to bring that vision to the ice. The Soviet team played in its first world championships in 1954 – just eight years after the sport essentially began. And the Soviets won it, going undefeated and crushing Canada 7-2 in the final game.

Tarasov had instilled his hockey vision just that quickly. He was forceful man, exuberant, irrepressible, exceedingly harsh one minute, positively jovial the next. His players loved him and despised him in equal measure (which made him different from the other giant of Russian hockey, Viktor Tikhonov, who was unanimously hated).

His love was for the strategies of the game, the angles, the methods of attack. He wanted his players to know each other so well that they would sense, instinctively, without looking, where everyone stood on the ice. He saw the beautiful geometry of the rink and was thrilled with a pass that seemed headed for nowhere only to have a teammate materialize and take the puck in full stride.

The Russian style of hockey awed the world, much in the same way that the Brazilian style of soccer or the American style of basketball did. The Soviet Union took its sports very seriously during the Cold War. Each gold medal, each world record, each triumph was seen as just that, a triumph of Soviet dominance. It was that way in space. It was that way in the arts. And it was particularly that way in hockey. The Soviets won 22 world championships and eight Olympic gold medals and, even more, won them with style and finesse and a flair that was exclusively Russian.

VIDEO: Introducing Russian hockey sensation Viktor Tikhonov

“When they got it going,” American Mike Eruzione would say, “it wasn’t even hockey. It was like ballet or something. You would be on the ice watching them just like the fans.”

It has been a long time since Russian hockey was like that. The breakup of the Soviet Union badly hurt the team. Between 2002 and 2010, Belarus, Latvia, Kazakhstan and Ukraine each fielded a hockey team that qualified for the Olympics. All four countries were part of the Soviet Union before the break.

And with the addition of NHL players to the Olympics, Russia’s ability to field a brilliantly honed team that can make art – the way Tarasov’s teams did – is basically at zero. Olympic hockey now is more about individual skill and the ability to make quick adjustments than it is about building a finely tuned team that moves as one.

But a feeling lingers in Russia. Also, there’s a tremendous amount of talent on this year’s Russian team. Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin and Pavel Datsyuk probably go on most fans 10 best players in the world list. And with the advantage of home ice and some goaltending questions among the other favorites, there’s a feeling that this is the year for Russia to capture some old glory.

There really wasn’t a lot to learn from Thursday’s game. The Russians scored two goals in the first five minutes and peppered Slovenia goalie Robert Kristan with shot after shot in the first period. The Russians promptly lost their edge in the second period against a game Slovenian team. They regained their footing in the third.

It was the sort of game, frankly, where you probably saw what you expected to see, and what Russian journalists saw, predictably, was doom. You could almost hear the minds whirring away as they tried to figure out the conversion rate for a 5-2 win over Slovenia against Saturday’s game against the loaded U.S. team.

VIDEO: U.S. ready for its showdown with Russia

There’s so much pressure on this Russian hockey team. The Sochi Olympic cost $50 billion and countless hours of frustration to create … and for what? There are other gold medals, of course. Russia won the pair figure skating, for instance – Russia has an unprecedented record in pairs figure skating.

But, in Russia, realistically, there are no other gold medals.

“What would gold mean here?” Ovechkin was asked in what has already become the most talked about exchange of the Olympics. Ovechkin had clearly prepared his answer.

“It means gold only cost $50 billion,” he said and he smiled. It was a joke. Sort of.

Be afraid Edmonton: Oilers willing to move 10th pick for defense

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Hello, Edmonton hockey fans! I have some good news for you, and I have some bad news for you.

The good news is that after a truly disastrous season that turned out to be a bitter disappointment your front office has identified what might be one of its bigger needs and is maybe willing to trade a key asset — in this case the No. 10 overall pick in the draft — for a quality defenseman.

That is, of course, according to general manager Peter Chiarelli on Thursday in his pre-draft meeting with the Edmonton media.

Unfortunately for the Oilers the bad news is also the same as the good news, and that being that the Edmonton Oilers recognize that the defense was a big problem this past season and are willing to trade a key asset in an effort to fix it.

I don’t mean to be too flippant about this — I really don’t — but let’s be honest about something here: we have seen this movie before from the Oilers where they attempt to throw a significant asset in an effort to fix their defense and it almost always blows up catastrophically in their faces.

A brief history…

Nearly three years to the day, the very first trade that Chiarelli made as general manager of the Oilers, was to trade two high draft picks — the No. 16 overall pick and the No. 33 overall pick — to the New York Islanders in exchange for defenseman Griffin Reinhart who was just a couple of years removed from being a top-five pick in the draft.

The result: Reinhart played 29 forgettable games for the Oilers where he recorded one point and was selected by the Vegas Golden Knights in the expansion draft this past year.

The Islanders, meanwhile, used the No. 16 overall pick to select Mathew Barzal who this past season had one of the best rookie seasons in recent NHL history and was a near unanimous selection for the Calder Trophy as the league’s rookie of the year. They then used the No. 33 overall pick to move up five spots in the draft to No. 28 where they selected Anthony Beauvillier. He scored 21 goals in 71 games for the Islanders this season.

One year later the Oilers attempted another bold move when they traded former No. 1 overall pick Taylor Hall to the New Jersey Devils for Adam Larsson to, once again, attempt to solidify and improve their defense.

The result: Larsson has been … okay? Passable? Pretty good at times but nothing really overly special? Any of those descriptions might work. Had he been acquired in exchange for a comparable player at forward it might have been an okay deal. Maybe even one that was viewed favorably. But he was not traded for a comparable player. He was traded for Taylor Hall, one of the best left wingers in hockey and a player that went on to almost single handedly carry the New Jersey Devils to the playoffs this season and win the league’s MVP award.

That means in the past three years the Oilers have traded Taylor Hall and two draft picks that turned out to be Mathew Barzal and Anthony Beauvillier in an effort to improve their defense (two of those three players won major NHL awards this year!) and today only have Adam Larsson to show for it.

When you look at it in writing it is just stunning.

None of that includes the four-year, $16 million contract (with a no-movement clause and modified no-trade clause) to free agent Kris Russel that is only further complicating a salary cap situation for an already cap-strapped team.

Look, the Oilers have to do something about their defense. And their scoring depth. And pretty much every aspect of the team that isn’t Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Oscar Klefbom (do not trade him!) or Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.

Maybe that means dealing the 10th overall pick for immediate help.

Maybe this time it works out. Maybe they get a Justin Faulk or a Noan Hanifan out of Carolina. Or maybe they pull off a surprise trade and legitimately improve their blue line.

Maybe they simply do nothing and keep the pick.

But if you’re an Oilers fan you have to look at that possibility and at least cringe a little bit at what might soon be coming after seeing this team — this very front office! — try to make this very same move so many times before and just totally messing it up.

Whatever they end up doing the Oilers have to get it right because they have already squandered three years of McDavid’s career (his three cheapest years in the NHL) and have to now figure out a way to build a competitive team around him before they begin to waste his prime years. As great as he is he can not do it alone and the Oilers can not afford to come out on the losing end of another deal involving another significant asset.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Islanders hire Barry Trotz as head coach

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Barry Trotz was not out of work for long.

Less than a week after resigning from the Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals, the New York Islanders officially announced on Thursday afternoon that Trotz has been hired as their next head coach.

“Barry brings to the New York Islanders franchise a tremendous amount of knowledge, experience, and success,” general manager Lou Lamoriello said in a team statement.

“He is and has been one of the top coaches in the National Hockey League. I am excited to have the opportunity to work with him.”

Trotz left the Capitals organization after an incredibly successful four-year run because he and the team could not come to financial terms on a contract.

[Related: Contract request led to breakup between Trotz, Capitals]

Previously thought to be without a contract after this past season, it was revealed after the Capitals’ Stanley Cup win that his deal included a clause that automatically kicked in a two-year contract extension if the team won the Cup. That extension reportedly brought his contract value to $1.8 million per season which would have been well below market value for a coach with Trotz’s resume. With the two sides unable to come to terms on a more lucrative deal, Trotz resigned and the Capitals gave him the opportunity to seek employment elsewhere.

At the moment Trotz’s options were extremely limited as the Islanders were the only other team in league without a head coach. It seemed like a given that the Islanders would have interest as they attempt to overhaul their organization after missing the playoffs for the second year in a row and third time in five years.

According to Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman, Trotz’s deal with the Islanders could pay him around $4 million per year over five years.

This is latest move in what has already been a franchise-altering summer for the Islanders.

Along with the hiring of Trotz, the Islanders also replaced general manager Garth Snow after years of perpetual mediocrity by bringing in Lamoriello after he left the Toronto Maple Leafs organization.

Now the Islanders have to try and figure out a way to make their biggest move of the offseason and re-sign franchise player John Tavares before he hits the open market as a free agent on July 1.

If they can make that happen there is a lot to like about this job if you are Trotz. There is a lot of talent to work up with up front with (potentially) Tavares, NHL rookie of the year Mat Barzal, Anders Lee, and Jordan Eberle, while they also have a ton of early draft capital to potentially make a deal this weekend and add to that.

One addition you have to assume would be a goaltender where obvious candidate could be current Washington Capitals backup Philipp Grubauer.

No matter what they do this offseason regarding the roster, the additions of Lamoriello and Trotz certainly change the look of the organization.

During Trotz’s four-year run with the Capitals the team won more regular season games than any team in the NHL, won back-to-back Presidents’ Trophies in 2015-16 and 2016-17, and then finally won the Stanley Cup in 2017-18.

The Islanders home opener for this upcoming season will take place on Oct. 6 against the Nashville Predators … the very first team that Trotz coached in the NHL.

Related: Barry Trotz steps down as Capitals head coach

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Carolina Hurricanes might be busy this weekend

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The Carolina Hurricanes could look a whole lot more different in the coming days than they do right now.

The ‘Canes, who own the second overall pick in the 2018 NHL Entry Draft, are apparently open for business. They have a new head coach in Rod Brind’Amour, a new general manager in Don Wadell and they have a whole bunch of players they’re seemingly willing to move.

The team hasn’t made the postseason in nine years, which a lot for any kind of market but especially a non-traditional hockey one.

New owner Tom Dundon will want to get the ball rolling and the only way to do that is by making changes.

The team has two significant needs. First, they have to find a go-to guy that can shoulder the load offensively. Second, they need to find someone that can stop the puck consistently because Scott Darling‘s first year was mediocre at best.

Waddell has made it clear that winger Andrei Svechnikov will be the second pick in the draft unless they decide to ship the pick elsewhere for immediate help. The ‘Canes have some talented forwards like Sebastian Aho, Jeff Skinner, Teuvo Teravainen and Elias Lindholm, but, as we mentioned, they don’t have a game-breaker that can change the outcome of a game on a dime. Svechnikov can be that guy, or he can be used as a key piece in a trade for that kind of scorer.

If the Hurricanes absolutely want to keep the pick (they should), there’s other ways they can acquire a talented forward. Carolina has an abundance of quality defensemen, so there’s a deal that could be made around Justin Faulk or Noah Hanifin, too. Plenty of teams are looking for help on the back end, which means they could be interested in either player.

And of course, there’s the possibility that they could use some of their own forwards to fill their needs. Skinner’s name has come up more than once in trade circles. The 26-year-old is coming off a season that saw him score 24 goals and 49 points in 82 games. He’s also found the back of the net at least 24 times in four of his last five seasons.

The problem, is that Skinner only has one year remaining on his contract. He’ll make $5.725 million in 2018-19, but based on the numbers he’s put up over the last five years, he should get a raise. Are the Hurricanes comfortable giving him a long-term deal for that kind of cash? That’s a huge factor in the decision they have to make. The challenge is that Skinner has a full no-move clause in his current deal.

No matter what management decides to do, there’s no denying that this is a huge week for the Hurricanes. They’ve got cap space, assets to trade and some huge holes to fill. Getting that fan base excited again has to be a huge priority, and they have a good opportunity to make that happen with a couple of key transactions.

They can’t afford to whiff on this golden opportunity.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

PHT Morning Skate: On Sabres’ draft struggles; Chiarelli’s to-do list

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• With the draft just over a day away, Sportsnet’s Jeff Marek breaks down his mock draft. Where will the Habs go at number three? (Sportsnet)

• You can compare Marek’s mock draft to McKeen’s lead prospect writer Ryan Wagman’s mock draft. Both Marek and Wagman have the same top three prospects, but things change starting at number four. (Rotoworld)

• Hall of Famer Bob Gainey was named adviser of the OHL Peterborough. That’s where Gainey spent two years of his junior career back in the 1970s. (NHL.com)

• The Toronto Maple Leafs signed Connor Carrick to a one-year extension on Wednesday. He spent most of last season in the press box. (Pension Plan Puppets)

• This reddit user lost an in-game bet, so he had to write a 25-page essay on why Caps defenseman Brooks Orpik will be a hall of famer. (RMNB)

• The Detroit Red Wings won’t be extending a qualifying offer to free-agent forward Martin Frk. (Detroit Free Press)

• One of the reasons the Sabres have been so bad for so long, is because they’ve struggled to find steals in the later rounds of drafts. (Buffalo Hockey Beat)

• If the Canucks keep the seventh overall pick, should they take Noah Dobson or Evan Bouchard? Canucks Army explains why they’d take Dobson. (Canucks Army)

• The Golden Knights have become the envy of the NHL because they’re one of the better teams in the league and because they have a lot of cap space. (SinBin.Vegas)

• What should Oilers GM Peter Chiarelli be looking to accomplish in the next three days? Well, he can start by drafting a solid player at 10th overall and he can try to sign Darnell Nurse to a bridge deal. (Oilers Nation)

• Up top, check out the moment when Taylor Hall found out he won the Hart Trophy.

• And if you missed it, you’re going to want to see the Humboldt Broncos reunion at the NHL Awards:

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.