Friday

Sergei Zubov

Sergei Zubov may be the greatest "second tier" player in NHL history.

By "second tier" I mean he was an amazing hockey player that somehow always escaped the limelight and accolades that were always present for peers like Scott Niedermayer, Chris Pronger, Nicklas Lidstrom and one time teammate Brian Leetch.

Sergei Zubov played in 16 NHL seasons, putting up impressive totals: 1068 games played, 152 goals, 619 assists and 771 points. In doing so Zubov became the third European defenseman (Nicklas Lidstrom and Borje Salming) and the first Russian defenseman to record 700 career NHL points

He is also the only defenseman in NHL history to lead a first overall place team in scoring. Bobby Orr didn't even do that.
Zubov did that in 1994, the same year he played an instrumental role in helping the Rangers capture the Stanley Cup, giving Conn Smythe Trophy winner Brian Leetch a serious challenge for best defenseman on the team.

Right from Zubov's debut in the NHL he was recognized as one of hockey's smoothest and most intelligent defensemen. He was a brilliant skater, both in terms of speed and lateral ability, and puck handler. The right handed defenseman was a great power play quarterback, seeing the ice incredibly well. He had a good and accurate shot, when he was not reluctant to use it. Where he would get himself into trouble was when he would overhandle the puck at the point. Instead of just putting the puck on net or dumping the puck into the corner when he was pressured, Zubov often tried to make a play out of nothing, making for dangerous turnovers.

Zubov matured into a fantastic two way player, outgrowing rookie over-indulgance for offense at the expense of defense. Because of his skating he was tough to beat one-on-one. He had good size and did not shy away in physical games, although he would never himself play a mean game. He relied more on his reach and agility.

Forget about mean. Some people actually criticized Zubov for not showing enough emotion in games. This notion was rediculous, an absolute sign of misunderstanding hockey greatness. Zubov was raised in the old Soviet Union, and was trained to be a coldly analytical defenseman like Viacheslav Fetisov or Alexander Ragulin. Hockey was like chess to these guys. They dissected the game into mathematics and probabilities. They played the game with a computer's mindset rather than by raw instinct.

For all his obvious brilliance and his consistently impressive campaigns, only once was he a finalist for the Norris Trophy as the league's best defenseman. That was in 2005-06, an amazing thirteen years into his impressive career. The same year he made his only post-season All Star team.

At the height of his game was a masterful blue line catalyst, not unlike Mark Howe or boyhood idol Viacheslav Fetisov.

Part of the reason why he was never recognized as a truly elite defenseman was the fact that it took him a long time to shake his reputation as a high-risk defenseman. True, he made his fair share of bad breakout passes and pinches, but that has to be expected with offensive defensemen. He matured into less of a gambler upon his arrival in Dallas. Not everyone knew that though, because aside from the 1999 Stanley Cup championship run, the Stars were rarely in the national focus.

Another reason may have been his unceremonious departure from Pittsburgh. A year after the Rangers' Stanley Cup victory Zubov was moved with Petr Nedved to Pittsburgh in a blockbuster deal for Ulf Sameulsson and Luc Robitaille. Despite putting up 66 points in 64 regular season games and 15 points in a long 18 game playoff run, Zubov would be moved once again at the end of the season, this time Dallas where he is best remembered. A popular theory out there has Mario Lemieux chasing Zubov out of town because he was not happy with Zubov on the power play. Both players needed to be in control of the puck. Problem was there was only one puck on the ice!

Over the next decade in Dallas Zubov matured into a consistent defenseman at both ends of the ice. Zubov's point totals may have settled just a touch in Dallas, but he was every bit a key Dallas component towards success as Brett Hull or Mike Modano or Derian Hatcher were.

In the summer of 2009 Sergei Zubov returned home to Russia, signing with SKA St. Petersburg of the KHL. Many are suggesting Zubov, who spent much of his last two seasons in Dallas on the injured list, has played his last game in the NHL, a very real possibility given that he is now 40 years old.

Perhaps North American audiences will have one last chance to watch Zubov play. There have been some rumblings that, if healthy, Zubov might return to the national team and represent Russia at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver. Zubov has withheld his services from the national team since 1992, when he helped Russia win gold at the Olympics in Albertville. There have been rumblings that things are patching up between Zubov and the new powers that be with the Russian Olympic team.

It would be a great way to end a great career.

1 comments:

Anonymous,  2:50 PM  

A great defensemen who never got much recognition. A personal favorite of mine. Thats for sure.

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