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Oiler among top 10 Russian players

by Mike Morreale / Edmonton Oilers
Recent Edmonton acquisition Nikolai Khabibulin ranks among the top 10 Russian-born players in the NHL. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
No one really knew what to expect when the best Russian players started filtering into the NHL in the late 1980s. Alexander Mogilny provided the first real glimpse of what the fuss was all about when he defected from his native land to join the Buffalo Sabres two decades ago.

Scotty Bowman then made headlines in the mid-1990s in Detroit when he rolled out the "Russian Five," consisting of forwards Igor Larionov, Sergei Fedorov and Slava Kozlov and defensemen Vladimir Konstantinov and Slava Fetisov.

The Russian way is predicated on finesse, speed and passing, and while no one denied the incredible skill level of these lightning-quick players, that didn't mean their style fit the North American game. It took some time, but the excitement and popularity of today's Russian stars has reached an all-time high.

With so many Russians currently plucking at the heart strings of NHL fans, figured now would be as good a time as any to produce a list of the League's top 10.

1. Alex Ovechkin, F, Washington: Ovechkin is the third-youngest player to win consecutive Hart Trophies, behind Wayne Gretzky and Bobby Orr. He led the League with 56 goals, 1.39 points per game, 528 shots and 46 power-play points in 2008-09. He was second to Tampa Bay's Evgeny Artyukhin for most hits by a Russian player last season with 243, and he finished with a team-leading 11 goals, 21 points and plus-10 rating in 14 playoff games.

2. Pavel Datsyuk, F, Detroit: Datsyuk finished 2008-09 with 97 points (32 goals, 65 assists), matching his career high established one season earlier. He won the Frank J. Selke Trophy for the second straight season and the Lady Byng Memorial Trophy for the fourth straight time. He's recognized as the best two-way player in the League -- finishing last season with a plus-34 rating, 89 takeaways and a 56 percent faceoff winning percentage.

3. Evgeni Malkin, F, Pittsburgh: Malkin led the League in scoring in the regular season with 113 points and the Stanley Cup Playoffs with 35 points, becoming the first Russian-born player to earn the Conn Smythe Trophy. He topped the NHL with 94 takeaways and notched 30-plus goals for the third straight season.

4. Ilya Kovalchuk, F, Atlanta: Kovalchuk finished second in the League with 43 goals last season -- his fifth consecutive 40-goal campaign. Despite playing for a team that has qualified for the Stanley Cup Playoffs just once in his seven seasons, Kovalchuk has 297 goals and 557 points in 545 career games.

5. Sergei Gonchar, D, Pittsburgh:
Despite being slowed by a shoulder injury during the regular season and a knee injury in the playoffs, Gonchar persevered to equal a postseason career high with 14 points in 22 games.

6. Andrei Markov, D, Montreal: The steady and consistent Markov has seen his point totals increase each of the last four seasons (46 in 2005-06, 49 in 2006-07, 58 in 2007-08, 64 in 2008-09). He led the team in ice time (24:37) by a wide margin last season while averaging 28.2 shifts per game.

7. Nikolai Khabibulin, G, Edmonton: The first Russian goalie to win the Stanley Cup, in 2004 with the Tampa Bay Lightning, played in 42 games with Chicago last season, finishing 25-8-7 with a 2.33 GAA and .919 save percentage.

8. Alexander Semin, F, Washington: The Capitals' 2002 first-round pick (No. 13) finished with a career-high 79 points, eight game-winning goals and 73 takeaways. He also was a force in the playoffs, posting 5 goals and 14 points in 14 games.

9. Evgeni Nabokov, G, San Jose: The Kazakhstan-born Russian goalie was 41-12-8 last season, good for second in the NHL in wins. His 2.44 goals-against average was fourth in the League and .910 save percentage was 11th among goalies who played at least 50 games.

10. Alexei Kovalev, F, Ottawa: Kovalev, signed by the Ottawa Senators this offseason, already has 394 goals and 941 points in 1,151 career regular-season games. Kovalev was the first Russian-trained player drafted in the first round (by the Rangers in 1991), won a Stanley Cup with the Rangers in 1994 and was named All-Star Game MVP with Montreal in 2009.

Contact Mike Morreale at
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