MONTREAL – While Andrei Markov and Alexei Emelin will bring two entirely different skill-sets to Sochi, former NHLer Igor Kravchuk believes they’ll both play equally important parts in helping Russia’s cause on home soil.
Charged with advising the Russian Hockey Federation on the country’s talent pool in North America for the upcoming Olympic Games, Kravchuk, who lives in Montreal, has long been sold on what the Canadiens duo can bring to a squad that is often known more for what it boasts up front than on the back end.
“Andrei has established himself as an elite defenseman. He’s done a tremendous job since coming back from his injury in 2011,” offered the former blue-liner, whose NHL career spanned 12 seasons and featured stops in Chicago, Edmonton, St. Louis, Ottawa, Calgary and Florida along the way. “What I like is his ability to find a passing lane and make very accurate passes on the tape. In this day and age, the game is so fast and accuracy is one thing that can really help you be effective. If you can’t move the puck fast and accurately, then you’re not going to be successful. That’s my vision.”
Kravchuk certainly speaks from experience. The 47-year-old has four Olympic medals to his credit, twice claiming gold as a member of the Soviet squad first in Calgary in 1988 and again as part of the Unified Team in Albertville in 1992. With plenty of international experience to call on, he knows what works on Olympic-sized rinks.
“The ability to move the puck fast on the bigger ice surface is going to be really important. Aside from skating, you’re also looking at the ability a player has to be a playmaker. How are you going to call a guy a playmaker if he cannot make a good first pass? That’s one of the biggest assets that Andrei has,” underlined Kravchuk, praising the 13-year NHL veteran’s impeccable vision, versatility and hockey IQ. “He is capable of making the long stretch pass and sending a guy on a breakaway. He can make a short, quick pass for a one-timer on a power play and diagonal passes for far-side post plays. That’s not something you see every day.”
At 35 years of age, Markov will also be relied upon to provide a measure of leadership not just as the elder statesman among Russian defenders, but also as the second oldest player on the team behind captain, Pavel Datsyuk.
“He’s got a lot of experience behind him. Two Olympic Games, tons of World Championships, games in the NHL and Russia. He’s well-respected around the league and back in our country,” noted Kravchuk, who believes Markov will be a calming influence on less seasoned Russian players in Sochi while patrolling the blue line alongside veterans like Fedor Tyutin and Ilya Nikulin. “We don’t have many defensemen with his kind of experience.”
Enter a player like Alexei Emelin, who will be making his Olympic debut in 2014. Adamant that physicality is one aspect of the Olympic game that cannot be disregarded come tournament time, there was no question in Kravchuk’s mind that the hard-hitting 27-year-old had earned his place on the Russian blue line despite having been sidelined for the early part of the 2013-14 campaign, rehabbing from off-season knee surgery.
“Alexei was brought to the NHL for his ability to hit, to make a good hit along the boards and for open-ice hits. He does that very well, and he makes it happen without injuring other guys, too,” cited Kravchuk. “He’s mobile and he’s a good skater, too. But toughness is his biggest asset. He can move people around the net. He can make a good hit at the blue line. He can hit in the corners. If you couple that with his ability to block shots, it’s something that makes him an even better player.”
While attempting to throw a punishing hit sometimes has the undesirable effect of drawing a player out of position and opening up space, Kravchuk insists that in Emelin’s case the risk is worth the reward.
“His style of play is going to work on the big ice. He’s obviously a stand-up guy on defense as opposed to being more offensively-minded. That’s what we’re looking for, and that’s the way any coach would build their team when it comes to defensemen,” confided Kravchuk. “We might be dealing with bigger ice, but we have enough forwards who can put the puck in the net. In this case, we need guys like Emelin who can take care of their own end.”
Among the Canadiens’ most reliable defenders, there’s little doubt both Markov and Emelin will make their respective marks on home soil when Russia begins their quest for Olympic supremacy.
Matt Cudzinowski is a writer for canadiens.com.
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