Russians are insane hockey players. That’s all there is to it.
Okay, maybe there’s a bit more to it than that. Throughout history, Russia has produced athletes that eat, sleep, and breathe the sport, often shouldering the weight of their countrymen’s expectations and their politicians’ pressure. Players like Alexander Ovechkin, Pavel Bure, and Sergei Fedorov are just a few examples of Russian superstars who have found success and provided invaluable talent to their NHL teams over the last few decades. There’s no denying that many of the league’s top players come from the motherland. They don’t see hockey as a game, they see it as life.
However, there have been more than a few duds to come from the Russian leagues over the years. Some of them have had astonishing success at home, gaining fortune and fame as young athletes who make their nation sing with pride, only to fall flat when they make the jump overseas to the NHL. Many of them find it difficult to adjust to the variations of style between the leagues, some find the culture and lifestyle changes overwhelming, and others have suffered from injuries or abrasive and incompatible coaching that unfortunately affects their North American performance.
And some simply just don’t seem to have a reason for their NHL failures. There have been more than a few Russian skaters who just can’t get into a groove in this league, who we can’t count on to produce the points that they promised at draft time, and who crash and burn in record short periods of time. It’s downright baffling sometimes.
15 Nikita Alexeev
Alexeev only played 144 games in five seasons with the Bolts, scoring only 37 points. And two goals for 15 games with the Blackhawks. Seriously? After registering 72 points in his last season with the Eerie Otters before being drafted? For a first-round pick, those are really not the numbers Tampa (or anybody else) would have expected. What gives?
Part of it could be the shoulder injury he sustained early in the 2003-04 season, which meant he didn’t get to skate in the playoffs that year. And it happened to be the year Tampa won the Cup.
A native of Murmansk, Russia, Alexeev was 19 years old when he was drafted by Tampa Bay, and he was huge. At 6’5” and 194 lbs, everyone had huge hopes for him as a power forward, but his poor stick handling was just one of the reasons his offensive potential was never reached. When Chicago didn’t offer him a new contract in 2007, he headed back across the pond to join the Kontinental Hockey League. This guy was just one big disappointment.
14 Alexander Svitov
“Svitov is one of the worst picks of all time.” “…certainly not worth the third overall pick in 2001.” “ [he] can rot in the minors.” This is what has been said about Alexander Svitov. His name is found on just about ever “Worst Draft Picks,” “Biggest Let Downs,” and “Worst NHLers” list you can imagine. His 6’3” and 200 lbs may have made him seem intimidating, but it just didn’t pan out. When he played with Russia in the World Junior Championships, fans and critics alike were impressed with his physical presence and aggression but were sorely let down when he didn’t “wreak that havoc” as expected. The most positive thing you’ll read about him is that by trading Svitov, Tampa was able to get Darryl Sydor.
During his three seasons in the NHL he played 179 games, skated an average of 11:35 each game, and made a total of 37 points. Not at all what we expected from a fierce, aggressive forward who had 115 penalty minutes during his second season with the KHL, prior to coming Stateside. Since returning to the KHL for the 2007-08 season, Svitov has averaged 18.3 points per season, which is an improvement on his 12.33 average with the NHL. Maybe there’s something in the water over there?
13 Nikita Filatov
At first glance, Filatov looked like he had potential to be the next best thing; despite being one of the youngest players on Russia’s U20 squad in 2007-08, he was the top goal scorer that season. His lightning speed no doubt turned the heads of the Blue Jackets’ scouts and secured him as the sixth overall pick in 2008. Much to the general manager’s chagrin, I’m sure, Filatov turned out to be a total letdown.
However, over the next four seasons, he bounced from team to team more than an official NBA basketball. He started the 2008-09 season with the Syracuse Crunch in the AHL, played 8 games with Columbus, and played for Russian in the World Junior Championships. The next season saw him in Columbus and again in Russia, and despite his extra training and attention in 2010, ended up playing only 23 games with the Blue Jackets before being sent to the AHL again. Columbus traded him to Ottawa in 2011 and he played with the Sens and their Birmingham counterparts until December, and then was back in Russia again. Could he possibly have bounced around a bit more? Could he possibly have been given more chances? Nope. He just couldn’t cut it.
12 Alexandre Volchkov
Aptly described as a “fast flameout,” Vochkov played only three games in the NHL, and he left each one of them empty handed. He played an average of 10:07 on the ice, had a -2 rating, and attempted a single shot. That’s seriously all he did.
But he was pretty much a rock star on ice when he played for the Barrie Colts! 63 points in 47 games his first season, and then 82 points in 56 games his second. The numbers imply that his intensity petered off a bit when he was playing for the Portland Pirates and the Cincinnati Cyclones, but it’s still not hard to understand why the Capitals were lured by this Russian goal sniper. He was their fourth pick in the 1996 draft, but their high hopes left them open for a big fall. After those three disappointing, reality-checking games, he went back to the AHL and eventually back to Russia. There’s probably some kind of mathematical equation to show how a player with impressive stats can play only a few professional games before falling flat and resulting in negative numbers. Or something.
11 Stanislav Chistov
What can you say about Chistov, except that he most definitely did not put the “Might” in Mighty Ducks? He didn’t even have great numbers in his homeland, before he came to the USA; his best pre-NHL season ended with 12 points for 24 games. That was enough to intrigue the Ducks’ scouts, though, and his first season in Anaheim wasn’t terrible; 30 points in 79 games is decent. It seems like he just didn’t – or couldn’t – improve, though, and three points per game just wasn’t good enough. He couldn’t seem to make it to 20 points per season again, not even with Boston in 2006.
Now, Chistov did have to deal with the same military obligation speedbump that is former Omsk teammate Svitov encountered, so this may have contributed to his less than stellar performances on ice. But this excuse can only explain so much. If you’re not a great player before you serve your military time, you’re probably not going to magically improve after spending a year off the ice. But after training with the best of the best in the NHL, it’s wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect the guy to perk up a bit, right?
10 Nail Yakupov
Here we have another player who tops every “Worst Of” list, and this time the lists involve top draft picks. Edmonton may have been one of the worst teams in the league at the time – second worst, to be exact – but you’d think that a guy who achieved an insane 170 points in his previous two seasons with the OHL would make a mark. As a junior, this guy had confidence and determination that was beyond unusual for a teenager, and although he was blasted for it after his game-tying goal against LA in 2013, it was a huge part of his early success. And really, as the number one overall draft pick that year, he should have been able to come onto the team and make a long-term, consistent difference, but he just didn’t cut it.
His best season in Edmonton ended with only 33 points. Compare that to the aforementioned 170 for two seasons in the OHL. Did the team bring him down? Or did he just lose his edge? Either way, it shouldn’t have gone so wrong, so fast. And Russian or not, he should have been able to offer the Oilers more than he did. His time with the Blues hasn't been much better.
9 Sergei Mylnikov
He played 11 seasons of hockey in Russia before joining the NHL, and he wasn’t kidding when he said “Playing in the NHL is the last thing left for me to try.” By the time he joined the Nordiques in 1989, he already had some serious titles under his belt: two-time World Juniors champion, Olympic gold medalist, two-time World Champion gold medalist (he later achieved a third), Soviet All-Star title, and even an induction into the Russian and Soviet Hockey Hall of Fame. He was likely thinking that the only thing he hadn’t won was a Stanley Cup.
Well, he never did win it. Didn’t even come close. He only played one season with Quebec, only 10 games in total, and his dismal 1-7-2 record and cringe-worthy 4.96 goals-against average earned him a solid spot on this list. It just wasn’t a good fit. His style was different, his teammates less than stellar (the Nordiques actually had three disappointing goalies that year, landing them in a three-way tie for the title of “Most Goalies Used in a Season”), and his surroundings were overwhelmingly unfamiliar; he later admitted that he was uncomfortable in North America and had found the adjustment difficult. Too bad for him. Too bad for the Nordiques.
8 Andrei Trefilov
This guy has had a long, long hockey history. But he didn’t have as many years playing in his homeland under belt before he headed to the NHL as many of his fellow players and countrymen did; he really only played two professional seasons before joining the Flames. Now, he did eventually go back overseas to play puck for Germany, but not before he had disappointed several North American teams.
Over seven seasons he played for the Calgary Flames, the Buffalo Sabres, and the Chicago Blackhawks, but only once did he have a goals-against average that was under 3.40. It was during his second season with Calgary that he managed a 2.50 GAA in just 11 games, but other years it averaged at 4.03. Prior to the NHL, though, his GAA with the Moscow Dynamo was a whopping 2.01 for 20 games – not too shabby. And his stats with the DEG Metro Stars in Germany, from 2001 to 2006, didn’t seen his GAA go higher than 2.30 or his save percentage go below .900. What gives?
7 Vitaly Vishnevski
Looking at the numbers, Vishnevski wasn’t a solid or reliable player even from his beginner days in the Russian Super League. And yet in 1999 he played with Russia in the World Junior Championships and was the tournament’s top defenseman. He wasn’t a huge man, but was known to be determined and solid, “playing like a wrecking ball.” But strength will only get you so far.
His numbers are all over the place. His worst season was probably his last, when he played with New Jersey; in 69 games he made only 7 points, had an absurdly low rating of -12, and averaged 15:32 minutes of play. His best season, though, was arguably in 2003-04 when he rang in 16 points over 73 games, played an average of 17:01 per game, and had a neutral plus-minus rating. After moving back to play for the KHL in 2008, he had 21 points in 53 games, and then 19 points in 55 game the following year. After six seasons with the Mighty Ducks, a season split between the Trashers and the Predators, and another season with the Devils, Vishnevski was done.
6 Alexey Marchenko
So here we have our second list entry who is still playing. His first four professional seasons with the CSKA Moscow were decent, for a newbie, with his best season occurring in 2012-13 when he had 9 points in 44 games. It’s not hard to understand why Detroit chose him as their seventh round pick back in 2011.
His NHL career, though, has been less than stellar; the most games he’s played is 66 in a season, and he only managed two goals and nine points, while being on the ice for 16 minutes and 50 seconds. This past year Marchenko was traded from the Red Wings to the Maple Leafs, and it doesn’t seem that the fans are too pleased with this decision. The fans and the team were no doubt both hoping for an experienced defenseman who could offer a “shut down role,” but Marchenko has yet to deliver. He’s only averaged 14 minutes of play during his 11 games with Toronto. If we’re going to be honest, this is a player who’s been a career third pairing defenseman, yet has probably played his way out of the NHL at this point. Chances are we’ll see him back in the KHL pretty soon.
5 Valeri Bure
It’s got to be hard growing up in the shadow of your famous brother, and even harder when you play the same professional sport as that brother. Especially when your brother is a Calder Trophy winning NHL Hall of Famer. Maybe we shouldn’t compare them? Too late.
Valeri and his family actually moved to North America in 1991 when big brother Pavel was beginning his NHL career. The younger Bure boy was drafted 33rd overall by Montreal in 1992, and throughout that career he has played for five different teams: the Canadiens, the Flames, the Panthers, the Blues, and the Stars. This is not a good sign. Teams might not be so eager to trade him if he was putting up better numbers. He did do pretty well with the Flames, really, putting up 75 and 55 points in certain seasons. But that didn’t last, and the numbers kept dropping as the years went on. Frankly, he was just never a player who could change the dynamic of the game. He just wasn’t the Pavel that we wanted.
4 Roman Lyashenko
After participating in three World Junior championships where he won gold, silver, and bronze, Lyashenko was chosen as a 2nd round, 52nd overall draft pick in 1997 by the Dallas Stars. His pre-NHL days saw a high of 19 points in 42 games for one season, which was rather promising. Can’t blame Dallas for being interested. In 1999 he was an energetic NHL rookie who had his career-best season, scoring 6 goals, offering 6 assists, and averaging 10:56 on ice per game. After that, he played an average of less than 10 minutes per game in every season, with both Dallas and New York. The exception was his final season, but he only actually played two games that year. His energy and his numbers seemed to dwindle with each passing year.
It’s hard to speak badly about a player whose life ended so early and so tragically, though. In 2003 he was found dead in his hotel room while on vacation in Turkey, having committed suicide by hanging himself with his belt. He left a note in which he actually apologized for the suicide.
3 Alexei Smirnov
This skater played only two seasons in the NHL, and neither of them was a particularly good one. He averaged only eight minutes on ice per game and only managed six measly points in two years with the Ducks. Management must have been seething, especially considering he was their first round, 12th overall pick in the 2000 draft. First round! Smirnov didn’t even come close to producing the kind of numbers expected of a first round pick.
He didn’t head home to the motherland right away though. For the 2002-03 and 2004-05 seasons, he skated with the Ducks’ AHL counterpart, the Cincinnati Mighty Ducks, no doubt trying to hone his skills and earn back his spot on Anaheim ice. He ended up back in Russia for the 2005 season, returned to the ECHL in 2006, and went back to the KHL in 2008. All the flip-flopping around didn’t help much, though, and he never returned to NHL ice.
2 Viktor Tikhonov
No, I’m not talking about the coach who let the Russians during the famous “Miracle on Ice” Olympic hockey game in 1980. I’m talking about his grandson, who has some equally depressing memories of the sport, I’m sure. Officially, Viktor Jr is a Latvian-born Russian American; he was born in the Soviet Union but grew up in California and Kentucky. By the time he was drafted – a first round pick and 28th overall – by the Phoenix Coyotes in 2008, you’d think he’d have already learned a lot from his father, Vasily, who was an AHL coach. Not so much.
The Coyotes had hoped he would be an “above average third line forward who could move up into the top six when necessary,” but his measly 12 points in 61 games wasn’t exactly what they were thinking. He spent the next eight seasons between the AHL and KHL, and he put up some decent numbers in Russia. But when he returned in 2015 to play for the Blackhawks and Coyotes again, we only saw 6 points for 50 games. Seriously? Is American ice really that different?
1 Alexander Perezhogin
Another first-round pick who didn’t come close to panning out. Perezhogin was born in Kazakhstan but moved to the Russian leagues in 1998 (where he soon was given citizenship) and played for Omsk Avangard for several years. When Montreal finally put him on the ice in 2005, he was barely a decent fourth liner; 34 points over two seasons isn’t horrible, but not exactly what they were expecting from him. But don’t worry, he didn’t exactly offer A1 talent in the KHL either. In fact, he has barely averaged half a point per game for the last ten years.
It was impressive that Montreal let him play at all, given his stick-swinging actions against Garrett Stafford during the 2004 Calder Cup playoffs. Stafford was seriously wounded and Perezhogin was suspended for not just the rest of the playoffs but also for the entire following season, and also faced criminal charges for which he had to serve one year of community service, pay $5,000 to charity, and cover Stafford’s medical costs. This wasn’t typical behaviour from the young left winger, but still caused a lot of eyebrows to raise, mouths to gape, and heads to shake.