AP Images

PHT Time Machine: When the Red Wings’ Russian Five wasn’t celebrated


Throughout the season we will be taking an occasional look back at some significant moments in NHL history. This is the PHT Time Machine. Today we look back at the Detroit Red Wings’ Russian Five and the questions they initially faced.

History will remember the Detroit Red Wings from the mid-1990s to, let’s say, 2002, as one of the NHL’s all-time great teams.

That is how they should be remembered, anyway. During that run they boasted an extensive list of Hall of Famers, won more games than any team in the league, played in four Stanley Cup Finals in eight years, and won three of them, including one of the few sets of back-to-back titles in recent history.

But if we go back in time to 1995, before the team started its run of championships, the Red Wings were looked at in an entirely different light.

The Background

Even though the team had successfully emerged from the “Dead Wings” era and rebuilt itself into a contender, having played in the Stanley Cup Final during the 1994-95 season where they ultimately lost to the New Jersey Devils, the pressure (and criticism) was still beginning to mount on the core that was in place.

The franchise was riding a Stanley Cup drought that dated back to 1955, and there was serious doubt as to whether or not the team the Red Wings had built was the right team to end it.

Because the NHL at this time was becoming a “bigger is better” kind of game, where everyone thought Stanley Cups were won on the backs of rugged-looking North Americans from Ontario and Minnesota that could grind teams down, the Red Wings were thought to be too small.

They were thought to be too European.

They were thought to lack grit and toughness.

But it did not stop there. Even the players that weren’t “too small” or “too European” faced questions and criticism. Steve Yzerman’s leadership was doubted and there was substantial talk about possibly moving him, even into the 1995-96 season when trade buzz swirled around him, Dino Ciccarelli and Ray Sheppard.

Eventually, a trade did get made on Oct. 24, 1995 when the Red Wings sent Sheppard to the San Jose Sharks in exchange for veteran forward Igor Larionov.

This would prove to be a significant move and forever change the Red Wings, and to an extent, the NHL.

The addition of Larionov gave the Red Wings five prominent players from the former Central Red Army team as he was reunited with Sergei Fedorov, Slava Kozlov, Slava Fetisov, and Vladimir Konstantionov.

Eventually, Red Wings coach Scotty Bowman (whose vision and genius was obvious the moment the trade was made) started using all of them together as a five man unit that would be known as the Russian Five.

Today they are celebrated as a legendary unit that dazzled fans and helped make the Red Wings a championship team.

When they were first assembled, they were not celebrated quite as much.

The reaction

As mentioned above, the mindset that dominated the NHL during this time period was that teams had to be big and physical, and that it was impossible to win with a championship with a team that had too much of a European influence because, well, few teams had actually done it. Nobody stopped to think that it hadn’t been done because not many team actually tried it. The belief was that European hockey wasn’t right for the NHL, and that European players — specifically Russians — just did not care about winning the Stanley Cup.

You can call it a lot of things, but you should probably start with what it was: A very xenophobic way of looking at the sport and the league.

Bowman was having none of it.

Take this article from the Detroit Free Press the day after the Sheppard-for-Larionov trade was made, the “prejudicial question” about internal problems the number of non-North American players can cause, and Bowman’s response to a question about “how many Russians is too many?”

This was, again, at a time that critics of the Red Wings felt they need to get bigger and tougher, especially on defense, and instead opted to trade for another undersized Russian forward, one that was yet another center.

But Bowman had a vision for all of these players.

He saw Larionov as a valuable two-way player that was as good on the penalty kill as he was on the power play.

He saw Larionov, Fedorov, and Kozlov as interchangeable players that could play all three forward positions.

Eventually, at the urging of Larionov, he realized the success the former Soviet teams had using their best players as five-man units instead of a traditional line-rolling strategy that mixed up forward lines and defense pairs.

On Oct. 27, 1995, less than a month after Larionov was acquired, the Russian Five was officially born in a 3-0 win against the Calgary Flames, with that unit playing a major role in the win.

“You can bet your boots Calgary is going to come after them with all guns flaring.”

And that was the mindset … that you could push them around, and wear them down with the big, bad scary North American game. Never mind the fact that Fetisov and Konstantinov weren’t exactly “soft” players.

It did not work. At all.

After the unit scored the game’s opening goal 10 minutes into the first period, Larionov (with an assist from Fedorov) would score a shorthanded goal in the third period to put the game away.

The Red Wings would go on to win 62 games that season and reach the Western Conference Final, ultimately losing to the Colorado Avalanche and extending the Stanley Cup drought one more year.

They continued to win the following season, but the Stanley Cup question still lingered.

So let’s fast forward to May, 30, 1997, just before the start of the Red Wings’ Stanley Cup matchup with the Philadelphia Flyers.

A Sporting News article (published in the Ottawa Citizen) profiled the group and attempted to tackle the question about desire and determination to win the Stanley Cup questions.

Some excerpts as various members of the unit had to defend themselves and their desire to win, as well as continued questions about a team with a heavy Russian influence winning the Stanley Cup.

The Aftermath

The Red Wings ultimately ended any doubt as to whether or not their approach and style of play would work, obliterating the Flyers in four games and outscoring them by a 16-6 margin in the series to win the organization’s first Stanley Cup since 1955.

Unfortunately, their Cup-clinching Game 4 win would be the last time the five players would play together as Konstantinov had his career ended due to injuries suffered a limo accident in the days following the championship.

The Red Wings, with Fedorov, Larionov, Kozlov, and Fetisov all playing prominent roles, would go on to win another Stanley Cup the next season in yet another four-game sweep, this time against the Washington Capitals.

Their success would ultimately be a huge moment for the NHL.

For one, it silenced any criticism about teams built around non-North American players and how success was about skill and talent and not size and strength.

Second, it demonstrated the importance of puck possession, something that is still a dominant trend in the NHL today.

Ken Holland’s comments in that video: “You’d come to the rink knowing you were going to win, you just didn’t know what the score was going to be. We had the puck the whole night. If we had a good game we had the puck three quarters of the game, and if we had a bad game we had the puck two-thirds of the game. I can remember going on the road sometimes and beating teams 5-0, 5-1, and had the puck, the other team had no chance.”

Today the Russian Five is remembered as one of the most exciting units the NHL has ever seen and a key component to a dynasty. But it had to overcome a lot of questions and criticism to make people believers at the time.

Previous PHT Time Machines:
 Remembering the Jaromir Jagr Trade Nobody Won
• When the Blues skipped the NHL draft

 Expansion teams build Montreal dynasty
 The 1991 Dispersal Draft and Birth of the San Jose Sharks
• The Eric Lindros Trade That Did Not Happen
The Mighty Ducks and the most insane pregame introduction ever

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Lightning add size with dirt-cheap Maroon deal

Getty Images

After the Tampa Bay Lightning suffered a humiliating playoff sweep following a historically great regular season, some argued that they were pushed around. That narrative about size only, well, grew when the St. Louis Blues won their first-ever Stanley Cup during the same postseason.

A lot of those size-related arguments were worthy of an eyeroll, but the Lightning beefed up for such a cheap price that it really seems like a no-brainer.

How else would you describe signing Patrick Maroon for one year at the measly cost of $900K?

For Maroon, the decision must come with some mixed feelings.

On one hand, the 31-year-old now has a strong chance to win championships in back-to-back seasons. Even after that sweep at the hands of the Blue Jackets, the Lightning rank as one of the favorites going into 2019-20.

Yet, it has to be frustrating for Maroon. He accepted a cheap one-year, $1.75M contract with the Blues after experiencing a tepid market during the 2018 summer, only to see this happen again.

With just 10 goals and 28 points in 74 regular-season games and a modest seven points in 26 games during the Blues’ Stanley Cup run, it’s clear that Maroon didn’t set the world on fire. Perhaps the Micheal Ferlands of the world were enough for those seeking size?

Maroon is a fine player, mind you, but his struggles to find much free agent interest during the last two years show the limits of any size obsession. It seems like that’s a nice luxury to have, and now the Lightning added a bit of that element.

By landing Maroon for a dirt-cheap price and also bolstering their defense with Kevin Shattenkirk after his Rangers buyout, the Lightning have replaced some of what they’ve lost in saying goodbye to the likes of J.T. Miller and Anton Stralman. This also leaves a reasonable amount of space to work with to re-sign Brayden Point, although the star RFA might not appreciate how much he gets squeezed.

It’s tough not to feel a little bit bad for Maroon, although he’ll probably be happy enough if he’s spending another day with the Stanley Cup next summer — preferably with a little more term and/or money on his next contract.

• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Three fuzzy questions for the Sharks

Leave a comment

Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the San Jose Sharks.

Let’s bat around three questions for the Sharks in 2019-20.

1. What’s going on with Joe Thornton?

Every indication is that Thornton is coming back for next season, and that he’ll do so for the Sharks.

But … you know, it’s getting close to September, and he hasn’t signed yet. And Thornton is 40. So it’s fair to wonder until he actually signs on the dotted line for whatever total. Maybe that’s part of the holdup; Cap Friendly estimates the Sharks’ space at about $4.6M with 21 roster spots covered, while Thornton made $5M last season.

With the other Joe (Pavelski) now in Dallas, the Sharks have to hope that Thornton is indeed coming back.

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | Under Pressure | X-factor]

Thornton was impressive last season, managing 51 points in 73 games despite being limited (wisely) to an average ice time of 15:33 per game. His possession stats were outstanding for any age. It’s not only interesting to see if Thornton comes back (and for how much), but also how the Sharks use him. Do they need more from him, or do they keep him at a modified role to preserve the well-traveled veteran?

Actually, that transitions to our second question …

2. Will the veterans avoid the aging curve?

Thornton is the most extreme example of a veteran being asked to play at an advanced age, but with 30 being a point of no return for other players (see: Lucic, Milan), it’s worth wondering if other Sharks can maintain their high levels of play.

Erik Karlsson isn’t quite at that age, but close at 29, and carrying a lot of mileage and pressure. Brent Burns is 34, which is kind of staggering. Logan Couture is also older than some might expect at 30. Martin Jones is 29, Marc-Edouard Vlasic isn’t quite an Olympian any longer at 32, and even Evander Kane is 28.

The Sharks were wise enough to let Joe Pavelski go this summer, which was for the best with their cap constraints, and also he’s in the “somehow” group at 35. Even so, there are quite a few prominent Sharks who could start to decline (or, in some cases, see their abilities plummet … again, see: Milan Lucic). If enough do, this team may be scratching and clawing just to make the playoffs, or worse.

Unless …

3. Can the young guns step up?

Whether Thornton returns or not, Sharks will need more from younger players in a few positions. Pavelski’s gone, as are defensemen Justin Braun and Joakim Ryan.

In some cases, it’s actually easy to see the Sharks making seamless transitions. Timo Meier is a rising star, and he’s done most of his damage without power play time, so expect bigger things with more chances. Tomas Hertl took another step forward as a presence in his own right, while Kevin Labanc seems like a gem, and will have every bit of motivation to cash in after accepting a baffling one-year, $1M contract.

The Sharks will probably need more than just budding stars to confirm their star statuses. They may also need one or more of Dylan Gambrell, Alex True, and Antti Suomela to replace what’s been lost.

They’ll also need head coach Peter DeBoer to tie it all together. Can he integrate younger players, get veterans the right mix between reps and rest, and make it all work enough for the Sharks to remain at a high level, if not climb a bit more? On paper, this looks like a contending team once again, but things can change quickly in the NHL.

• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Erik Karlsson faces big pressure to live up to new contract

Getty Images

Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the San Jose Sharks.

In some ways, the pressure is off Erik Karlsson.

Certainly, he can breathe a sigh of relief after the roller coaster that was last season.

Karlsson had to slug through most of the 2018 offseason surveying the wreckage of the Ottawa Senators, only being traded to the San Jose Sharks in September before the 2018-19 training camp. From there, he had to get used to new teammates and new surroundings, settling into a culture that’s already been established.

Oh yeah, he also had to hope that his body would hold up during a crucial contract year, which was a pretty significant gamble.

Now Karlsson is settled in. His contract is mammoth: eight years, $92 million, which means his AAV is $11.5M. To start, Karlsson receives $11M in a signing bonus, plus another $3.5M in base salary. That money, combined with previous career earnings, means that his children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren, and so on should be taken care of. Karlsson even has a no-movement clause through the full extent of that contract, which runs through 2026-27.

So, from an existential standpoint, the heat is off.

But for a player whose critics have piled up along with his individual trophies, this contract also brings with it an exceptional portion of pressure.

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | Three questions | X-factor]

Karlsson, 29, is at an unclear fork in the road. Was 2018-19 a physical blip on the radar – did he just merely put off surgery, and he’ll be good as new? – or is his body breaking down after all of those years of carrying the Senators, not to mention after suffering injuries freakish enough that Eugene Melnyk wanted to order crime scene investigations? Will Karlsson be hobbled for the rest of his career, or will we at least be treated to a few more runs of Karlsson at his best, which ranks as some of the best work we’ve seen from a modern defenseman?

The Sharks are certainly paying him to play that role.

Karlsson carries the highest cap hit of any defenseman, easily outranking fellow Sharks star defenseman Brent Burns‘ $8M, which isn’t exactly cheap either. The closest comparable is Drew Doughty‘s, who received the same basic deal, only his kicked in a year earlier, at slightly lower rate of $11M.

The Doughty – Karlsson comparisons can be thorny, especially if you play into Doughty’s side, noting the two Stanley Cup rings and low-mistake peak, arguments Doughty hasn’t been shy to lean into himself. Conversely, you could use Doughty’s immense struggles in 2018-19, merely the first year of his current deal, and note that big defenseman contracts can become regrettable almost from day one.

As forward-thinking as the Sharks have been in letting an aging Joe Pavelski walk (and Patrick Marleau before him), San Jose still seems to be in something of a “win-now,” or at least soon, mode.

Burns is, somehow, 34 already. Marc-Edouard Vlasic‘s lost many steps at 32. Logan Couture is 30, and Erik Karlsson himself is 29. As fantastic and in-their-primes as Timo Meier and Tomas Hertl are, the majority of the Sharks’ core players are guys who could hit their aging curves, hard. And maybe soon.

A possibly closing window, and all that money, puts the pressure on Karlsson. If the Sharks fall short, people will probably blame Karlsson much like they blamed Marleau and Joe Thornton back during their peak years with San Jose. Even if it’s really about goaltending.

Karlsson isn’t a stranger to pressure. He was the top guy in Ottawa, and someone whose mistakes were amplified for those who wanted to elevate a Doughty-type Norris usurper. Yet, even during those times, expectations weren’t often all that high for Senators teams — how often were they labeled underdogs? — and Karlsson was a relative bargain at his previous $6.5M cap hit.

Now he’s the most expensive defenseman in the NHL, and only $1M cheaper than Connor McDavid, the highest-paid player in the entire league.

Combine all of those factors, and you’ll see that Karlsson is under serious pressure in 2019-20.

• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Sharks will sink or swim based on goaltending

Getty Images
1 Comment

Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the San Jose Sharks.

Sometimes, when you get a little time and separation from a narrative, you realize that maybe the thing people were obsessed about wasn’t really a big deal.

Well, Martin Jones‘ 2018-19 season doesn’t exactly age like fine wine. The output is far more vinegar.

With Aaron Dell not faring well either, and the Sharks losing a key piece like Joe Pavelski during the offseason, the Sharks’ goaltending is an X-factor for 2019-20. Simply put, as talented as this team is, they might not be able to lug a dismal duo of goalies in the same way once again.

Because, all things considered, it’s surprising that the Sharks got as far as the 2019 Western Conference Final with that goalie duo.

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | Under Pressure | Three questions]

Jones suffered through his first season below a 90 save percentage, managing a terrible .896 mark through 64 regular-season games. The 29-year-old had his moments during the playoffs; unfortunately, most of those moments were bad, as his save percentage barely climbed (.898) over 20 turbulent postseason contests.

The Sharks didn’t get much relief when they brought in their relief pitcher, either. Dell managed worse numbers during the regular season (.886) and playoffs (.861), making you wonder how barren the Sharks’ goalie prospect pipeline could be. After all, it must have been frightening to imagine it getting much worse than those two.

And, as much as people seem to strain to blame Erik Karlsson for any goalies’ woes, it’s pretty tough to pin this on the Sharks’ defense.

About the most generous thing you could say is that the Sharks were close to the middle of the pack when it came to giving up high-danger scoring chances. Otherwise, the Sharks were dominant by virtually all of Natural Stat Trick’s even-strength defensive metrics, allowing the fewest shots against and the fourth lowest scoring chances against, among other impressive numbers.

The Sharks managing to be so stingy while also being a dominant force on offense is a testament to the talent GM Doug Wilson assembled, but again, Pavelski’s departure stands as a reminder that there could be some growing pains, particularly at the start of 2019-20.

With that in mind, the Sharks would sure love to get a few more stops after dealing with the worst team save percentage of last season.

The bad news is that, frankly, Jones hasn’t really stood out (in a good way, at least) as a starting goalie for much of his career. Having $5.75 million per year through 2023-24 invested in Jones is downright alarming when you consider his unimpressive career .912 save percentage, even if you give him some kudos for strong playoff work before 2018-19.

It was easy to forget in the chaos of San Jose’s Game 7 rally against the Golden Knights, but Jones allowing soft goals like these often sank the Sharks as much as any opponent:

The better news is that last season was unusual for Jones.

Consider that, during his three previous seasons as the Sharks’ workhorse from 2015-16 through 2017-18, Jones went 102-68-16 with a far more palatable .915 save percentage. That merely tied Jones for 22nd place among goalies who played at least 50 games during that span, but it tied Jones with the likes of Carey Price and Henrik Lundqvist.

The Sharks had often been accustomed to better play from Dell, too, including a strong rookie year where Dell managed a .931 save percentage during 20 games in 2016-17.

It’s up to Jones and Dell to perform at a higher level in 2019-20, and for head coach Peter DeBoer to determine if there are any structural issues that need fixing.

As powerful as last year’s Sharks could be, next season’s version could have an even higher ceiling if they even get league-average goaltending, making Jones (and their goalies) a big X-factor.

• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.