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Larionov goes right to the head of the class

by John McGourty
The recent induction of Igor Larionov into the Hockey Hall of Fame has spurred discussion about the best Russian players to have played in the NHL. Everyone has an opinion about the relative merits of various players. Here is one writer's list of the Top 10 Russians in NHL History.

Arguments can surely be made on behalf of players like Vladimir Konstantinov, Slava Kozlov, Vladimir Krutov, Nikolai Khabibulin, Alexei Kasatonov, Alexei Zhamnov, Valeri Kamensky, Evgeni Malkin, Vladimir Malakhov, Sergei Brylin, Nikolai Borschevsky, Andrei Markov, Evgeni Nabokov, Boris Mironov, Igor Kravchuk and others.

But these 10 players all have significant achievements in the NHL, in addition to their international accomplishments.

Pavel Datsyuk was born in Sverdlovsk in 1978 when it was a part of the Soviet Union. Sverdlovsk in now an important city in southeast Ukraine. Khabibulin was also born in Sverdlovsk, while Nabokov is from Ust, Kamenogorski, now part of Kazakhstan. All three have represented Russia in international tournaments.

1. Igor Larionov -- Inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame this year after retiring in 2004 with 169 goals and 475 assists for 644 points in 921 NHL games. But Larionov didn't enter the NHL until he was 29, after a 12-year career with Voskresensk and the Central Red Army in the Soviet League.

Larionov won three Stanley Cups with the Detroit Red Wings. He also won two Olympic gold medals, four World Championships and a World Junior Championship with the Soviet Union.

Larionov was not only a winner, but he made a major impact on hockey as an innovator of offensive attacks and as a rebel against the Soviet domination of players. It was Larionov's dangerous work within the system that led to Russian players joining the NHL in 1989. He suffered many personal setbacks, with no guarantee of success, but his insistence on change made hockey better worldwide.

2. Slava Fetisov --
The first of the Soviet Union's "Green Unit" to be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2001. Fetisov was paired with defenseman Alexei Kasatonov behind the line of Igor Larionov, Sergei Makarov and Vladimir Krutov for eight seasons. Fetisov was the captain of the Soviet national team and the Central Red Army team. Fetisov was the top defenseman at the 1978 World Juniors and made the All-Star Team. He was named to the All-Star Team nine times at World Championships and was Best Defensemen five times. He played on nine Olympic or World Championship teams.

Fetisov joined the New Jersey Devils in 1989 and played five seasons with them before being traded to the Detroit Red Wings in 1995. He won two Stanley Cups with Detroit in 1997 and 1998 and another as an assistant coach with the Devils in 2000. Fetisov had 36 goals and 192 assists in 546 NHL regular-season games and two goals and 26 assists in 116 Stanley Cup Playoff games.

3. Sergei Fedorov -- Played four years for the Central Red Army team before defecting to the United States at the 1990 Goodwill Games in Seattle. He scored 31 goals for Detroit in 1990-91 and was the runner-up to Eddie Belfour for the Calder Trophy. The next season, he was the runner-up to Guy Carbonneau for the  Selke Trophy as best defensive forward. He won the Selke in 1994 and 1996. He also won the 1994 Hart and Pearson Trophies after posting 56 goals and 64 assists and a plus-48 rating. Fedorov was nearly a point-a-game producer when the Red Wings won the 1997 and 1998 Stanley Cups, putting up 20 points both years. He had 5 goals and 14 assists in 23 Stanley Cup Playoff games when Detroit won again in 2002.

Fedorov played 13 seasons in Detroit, two in Anaheim, three in Columbus and the past two in Washington. He has 476 goals and 679 assists in 1,208 NHL regular-season games and is plus-263. He also has 91 game-winning goals. In 169 Stanley Cup Playoff games, Fedorov has 51 goals and 117 assists, 11 game-winning goals and is plus-37.

4. Alexander Ovechkin -- Currently the best hockey player in the world, tough if you disagree. Ovechkin has a better argument because he is the reigning holder of the Art Ross Trophy for most points in the 2007-08 season, the Rocket Richard Trophy for the most goals last season, the Hart Trophy as best regular-season player, the Lester B. Pearson Trophy as MVP in player balloting and the Valery Kharlamov Trophy holder as best Russian player selected by Russian NHL players. He was the rookie of the year three years ago after being taken first overall in the 2004 Entry Draft. Ovechkin was the Top Forward at the 2005 World Junior Championship and led Russia to the World Championship last spring, where he was named to the All-Star Team.

5. Alexander Mogilny -- The first European to captain an NHL team when the Buffalo Sabres honored him during the 1993-94 season. Mogilny was the first Russian player to defect to North America. He had been drafted by the Sabres and the Soviets refused to let him leave with the exodus of older players. He was to be the leader of their next generation (the line of Pavel Bure, Sergei Fedorov and Mogilny led the Soviets to the 1989 World Junior Championship) but he didn't want that. He wanted freedom and the opportunity to play against the world's best.

Mogilny had six good years in Buffalo, highlighted by his 76-goal, 51-assist, 127-point 1992-93 season when he teamed on a line with center Pat LaFontaine. He was reunited with Bure in Vancouver in 1995-96 and had his second-best season with 55 goals and 52 assists for 107 points. He played five seasons with the Canucks before being traded in 2000 to the New Jersey Devils, whom he helped to the Stanley Cup. He played one more year for the Devils before joining the Toronto Maple Leafs for three seasons. He played his final season between the Devils and their AHL affiliate, the Albany River Rats.

Mogilny had 473 goals and 559 assists in 990 NHL regular-season games. He had 39 goals and 47 assists in 124 Stanley Cup Playoff games.

6. Pavel Datsyuk -- This Red Wing is reigning most gentlemanly player in the NHL, having won the Lady Byng Trophy the past three years. He is also the reigning Frank J. Selke Trophy winner as the NHL's best defensive forward. This from a player coming off a season in which he led the Detroit Red Wings to the Stanley Cup as their leading scorer during the regular season with 31 goals and 66 assists. Only Datsyuk, Ted Lindsay, Gordie Howe and Steve Yzerman have led Detroit in scoring for three-straight seasons.

Datsyuk was the second-leading scorer in the 2008 Stanley Cup Playoffs with 10 goals and 13 assists in 22 games, four points behind teammate Henrik Zetterberg, the Conn Smythe Trophy winner. Datsyuk was a rookie in 2001-02 when he won his first Stanley Cup with the Red Wings.

7. Pavel Bure -- "The Russian Rocket" was one of the fastest and most creative skaters in NHL history and one of the best goal scorers. The Top Forward at the 1989 World Juniors, Bure defected to North America in 1991 and joined the Vancouver Canucks, where he played on a line centered by his Russian idol, Igor Larionov. Bure had 34 goals and 26 assists as a rookie, winning the Calder Trophy. He won the Richard Trophy as the NHL's leading goal-scorer twice, in 2000 and 2001. He also led the NHL in goals in 1994, before the Richard award was created.

Bure played in six NHL All-Star Games and was named to the NHL First All-Star Team in 1994 and the Second Team in 2000 and 2001. Bure was named Top Forward at the 1998 Winter Olympics, leading Russia to the silver medal.

Bure is one of only eight players in NHL history with two or more seasons of 60 goals. He had 60 in both 1993 and 1994, when he led the Canucks to the Stanley Cup Final. He was traded to the Florida Panthers in 1998 and had seasons of 58 and 59 goals in his four years there. Bure was traded to the New York Rangers in 2002 and finished his career there the next year.

Bure had 437 goals and 342 assists in 702 NHL regular-season games and 35 goals and 35 assists in 64 Stanley Cup Playoff games.

8. Sergei Makarov -- The third-leading scorer at the 1977 World Junior Championship, behind Wayne Gretzky, Makarov went on to lead the Soviet league in scoring nine times. The right winger was the finisher on the great KLM kine of the 1980s with Igor Larionov and Vladimir Krutov. Makarov represented the USSR in two World Juniors, 11 World Championships, three Olympics, four tours against the NHL, the 1981, 1984 and 1987 Canada Cups and RendezVous '87.

He moved to the NHL for the 1989-90 season and won the Calder Trophy after a season in which he scored 24 goals and had 62 assists and was plus-33.

After four seasons with the Flames, he moved to the San Jose Sharks where he was reunited with Larionov and produced a 30-goal, 38-assist season. More importantly, the Sharks jumped from 24 points to 82 points that season, the biggest one-year improvement in NHL history. Makarov played two years with the Sharks, retired and came back to play four games with the Dallas Stars in 1996.

He had 134 goals and 250 assists in 424 NHL regular-season games. He had 12 goals and 11 assists for 23 points in 34 Stanley Cup Playoff games.

9. Sergei Zubov -- Considered one of the best offensive defensemen in NHL history and the only current NHL defenseman with 10-straight seasons of 40 or more points. He is the highest-scoring Russian-born defenseman in NHL history and the only defenseman with 30-plus assists over the past 12 seasons.

Zubov won the Stanley Cup with the 1994 New York Rangers and the 1999 Dallas Stars. He won a gold medal at the 1992 Winter Olympics and was one of the best players in the tournament. Zubov played four years, 1988-92 with the Central Red Army team and won gold and silver, respectively, at the 1989 and 1990 World Junior Championships. He was the best player on the gold-medal Commonwealth of Independent States team at the 1992 Winter Olympics.

Zubov had his best NHL season in his first full season, 1993-94, when he had 12 goals and 77 assists in the regular season and 5 goals and 14 assists in 22 games while helping lead the Rangers to the Stanley Cup. He had 10 goals and 51 points when the Dallas Stars won the 1999 Stanley Cup and 9 goals and 42 points the next year when the Stars went to the Final and lost to New Jersey.

10. Alex Kovalev -- Became the first Russian ever selected in the first round of the Entry Draft when the Rangers selected him with the 15th pick in 1991. Three years later, he joined fellow Rangers Alexander Karpovtsev, Sergei Nemchinov, and Sergei Zubov as the first Russians to get their names on the Stanley Cup. Kovalev was the Rangers' third-leading scorer in the 1994 Stanley Cup Playoffs with nine goals and 12 assists.

He played six seasons with the Rangers before being traded in 1999 to the Pittsburgh Penguins. He was the franchise's best player after the retirement of Mario Lemieux and the trade of Jaromir Jagr. Kovalev had his best season with Pittsburgh in 2000-01 when he finished fourth in league scoring with 44 goals and 51 assists.

He was traded back to the Rangers in 2003 and played one more season there before he was traded to the Montreal Canadiens, where he has played the past three NHL seasons. Kovalev is coming off the second-best year of his career. Teamed with Andrei Kostitsyn and Tomas Plekanec, Kovalev had 35 goals and 49 assists and was named to the NHL Second All-Star Team.

Kovalev won an Olympic gold medal in 1992 and a bronze in 2002. He also led the Commonwealth of Independent States to the 1992 World Junior Championship and was named to the All-Star Team.
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