Enigmatic. Soft. Lazy. Selfish. These are adjectives one hears bandied about quite often in reference to Russian hockey players. Think Alex Ovechkin. Think Alexander Semin. Think Mikhail Grabovsky (Belerusian, but still ex-Soviet bloc). Often what you imagine is a player who is described as a "sniper".
The stereotype that comes to mind is a player who is skilled with the puck, but who is offense-oriented and often lazy on the back check. Frankly, I'm not going to say that isn't true of any of those players. We all know the fuss that is being generated with Ovechkin, this year with his 50 goals-scored leading the league but his +/- rating at a -36 causing less level-headed people in Washington and elsewhere to call in the torches and pitchforks. Ovechkin is frequently NBC designated-blow-hard Mike Milbury's object of ridicule. The term "bad teammate" was mentioned a few times. Keep that in mind.
But here are some more names for your consideration: Shane Doan, Mark Recci, and Danny Briere. What are the narratives with those guys? Shane Doan is the hard-working, gritty captain of Pheonix Coyotes. A man anybody would want on their team. Mark Recci won the Cup in Carolina and Boston and finished his illustrious career as a respected veteran. The Flyers didn't think twice about asking Recci to play on their Alumni team before the 2012 Winter Classic. Danny Briere in the prime of his career was Mr. Playoffs. A glue-guy in the dressing room with a veteran presence who always elevated his game the further he got in the season. Yes, he was known to have occasional defensive lapses, but his "clutch" performances in the playoffs would make him a welcome addition in any dressing room in the league. Even after Briere outlived his usefulness here in Philly, the Flyers organization went out of their way to handle the situation with grace (unlike a few, other, examples) because Briere put in years of hard work and would always be welcome back as a coach or in the front-office. That's generally the narrative, right?
Where am I going with this? I mentioned 6 players. 3 Canadians and 3 ex-Soviets. If +/- is what is determines a good or bad teammate, guess which group is worse?
Career Regular Season+/-
Now, I know what you're going to say. Plus/minus is not the only measuring stick of a good teammate. Plus/minus is a bogus stat anyway, everybody knows that. There's no stat to measure hard work (although, you could argue Corsi does to a degree).
Of course plus/minus is not the stat best suited to measure what is a bad teammate. But when it comes to Russian forwards in the NHL, it is pretty much the only stat cited and that is not fair. Lots of talented goal-scorers finish seasons and even careers with negative plus/minus ratings. Usually it's with a shrug. Certainly a one-year rating of -36 is a cause for concern, but I'm guessing it could be addressed with better line-matching, line-mates that are not themselves defensive liabilities or perhaps a major system change rather than running a 50-goal-scorer out of town (and possibly the country) on a rail.
I am not trying to say Alex Ovechkin deserves consideration for the Selke trophy. He makes too many blind passes and is indeed not the most aggressive player on the back-check. What I have a problem with is the Mike Milbury-types cherry-picking video clips of him taking a line change before a goal or skating slowly on the back-check and citing it as an example of lazy play while equally sub-par play from North American players barely gets mentioned.
Line changes generally occur behind the play and are often a cumbersome affair. Hell, I could probably find clips of Patrice Bergeron looking "lazy" on a line-change if I really wanted to.
As for defensive-zone coverage, even though Danny Briere was an overtime hero in game 1 of the 2012 playoff series against the Devils, I could easily make a case that his colossal defensive lapses in subsequent games were a major contribution to the Flyers losing that series in 5 games. Major defensive lapses? Lazy back-checking? Isn't that what we don't like about Russians? I have a feeling if Briere were born in a town with a few more z's and v's in its name we would have seen that pointed rather out vehemently by the talking-heads. Instead the national media lauded him for finishing high on the list of playoff scorers that year despite only playing two rounds out of four. I didn't hear his -6 rating mentioned once.
I have nothing against Danny B. He was one of my favorite Flyers and I have autographed pictures of him in my house. My point is I think ex-Soviet Bloc players are held to a vastly different standard than Canadian ones and are often unfairly lambasted if they fail to live up to it, and I think it will gradually lead to more and more Russian players staying in the KHL. Radulov and Kovalchuk are gone already. New Jersey built their team around having Kovalchuk there to power the offense and is floundering in his absence. Losing a player overseas does not get a team draft picks or players in return like losing an offer-sheeted RFA or a trade would. A team gets nothing.
But losing a few big names stars can happen occasionally. It can happen just as easily by injury (Pronger) or unexpected retirement. Where the slope really gets slippery with the NHL/KHL dynamic is with young prospects. You already frequently hear analysts saying that a Russian player is more of a risk to draft because the threat of the KHL is there. How long until that threat becomes more of a reality? Think Nail Yakupov isn't watching what's going on with Ovie? Why would a young star submit himself to that type of ridicule if he can make as much at home without it?
It's a matter of time until Russian teams realize it would be cheaper and more effective to poach several young stars for the same price it would cost for one Kovalchuk or Ovechkin at the end of their careers. What happens then? If it gets to the point that 50% of Russian NHL draft picks "retire" and go home to the KHL, will NHL teams stop drafting them completely? If all Russian players then stay home and the KHL is able to attract a few more Swedes and Czechs, is the NHL really the best league in the world anymore?
The tepid Russian economy may keep that threshold from ever being crossed, as replacement-level players will still earn more here than there. Despite what Gary Bettman says about the best players wanting to play against the best competition, the pull of more money will keep players here more than anything. But with rumors of expansion flying again Mr. Bettman would be wise to consider whether the talent pool can be further diluted by the San Juan Fighting Cocks, or whatever team he bestows upon us this time. Goal scoring is down, and player careers aren't lasting as long as they once did. The talent pool needs to remain a global melting pot to remain big enough. Bettman's speedy brand of hockey needs speedy players, and I like seeing our Russian snipers playing it here.
You can disagree about how severely anti-Russian bias impacts the teams and players in the NHL, but I think we all acknowledge that it is there. It's about time the hockey media starts recognizing it for what it is: just another form of bigotry.