The Red Menace

Oilers fans are, as has been noted here and myriad other places, in an interesting position. If the team loses, it does a better job of securing the second overall pick. If the team wins enough between now and the end of the season, they could conceivably slide out of the draft lottery entirely.

One thing that seems to be making it easier for fans is the so-called “Russian Factor.” The consensus top pick in this year’s draft is Nail Yakupov. The likely second pick – though there is some debate on this – is Mikhail Grigorenko. For many fans, that makes it easy to drop down – they want to see the Oilers pick a defenseman anyway, and they really would prefer the Oilers not draft a Russian.

This perspective is not unique to Oilers fans, or for that matter even to fans. The NHL has come a long way since the days when Sergei Fedorov and Pavel Bure were getting picked up for a song at the league’s annual Entry Draft. Of course, back then the fear was that the Russians couldn’t get out of the Soviet Union; today the fear is that they’d rather play for millions in the KHL than ride buses in the AHL or earn six figures on a three-year entry-level deal.

The KHL is a valid concern: Russia has poured money into the league, and done a good job of retaining their home-grown talent. Other concerns, however, are less valid.

For whatever reason, boasting a Russian name makes any player more vulnerable to accusations of being selfish or petulant or sporting a bad attitude. An alien, studying films of hockey broadcasts could be forgiven for thinking that an “Enigmaticrussian” is a human nationality.

And to be sure, there are examples. Alex Ovechkin is regarded by some as a partier; the pending UFA eligibility of Alexander Semin is openly talked about by some Caps fans as “addition by subtraction.” Ilya Kovalchuk was scratched by former Devils head coach John MacLean after supposedly being late for a team function. And of course, Alexander Radulov earned disdain for the way he walked away on his entry-level contract to earn many multiples of his salary more in the KHL.

There are two problems with this: first, in many cases the difficulties attached to Russian players in the NHL are overstated; second, when other players do these sorts of things it doesn’t automatically feed into perceptions about people of their nationality.

The second point is a big one. When Ray Emery gets exiled to Russia because of concerns about his professionalism, we don’t talk about those crazy partiers from Hamilton, Ontario. When an unflattering Dustin Penner picture turns up, or Kyle Wellwood fails a fitness test, or Dustin Byfuglien gets arrested at an interesting weight, we don’t hammer away on guys from Manitoba or Windsor or Minnesota. When Dany Heatley refuses to waive his no-trade clause to go to Edmonton, forcing the Senators to pay him a $4 million bonus, we don’t grumble on how intractable and money-hungry guys who grew up in Calgary are. There’s a long, long, long list of North American players with drug problems or alcohol problems or discipline problems or the problem of being born “Sean Avery.” Rightly, those problems don’t reflect on the person’s nationality; they reflect on the person.

It’s different with Russian players. If there’s a negative story about a Russian it reflects not just on the player but on Russian hockey players in general. Dany Heatley drops from 100 points to 50 points, and there’s a problem with Dany Heatley. Alexander Ovechkin drops from 100 points to 65 points, and there’s a problem with the Capitals’ Russian captain. Sidney Crosby sits out much of the season with concussion problems, and he’s playing it safe, setting a sterling example of how hockey players should behave after suffering a head injury. Andrei Markov sits out much of the season while recovering from multiple knee surgeries, and we hear barely veiled barbs about intestinal fortitude and ‘really, another setback? How surprising.’

It doesn’t matter that Evgeni Malkin is leading the league in scoring by a mile. It doesn’t matter that Pavel Datsyuk is arguably the best two-way player in the NHL, or that Sergei Fedorov was before him. It doesn’t matter that Dmitri Yushkevich played through everything – and begged to play through a life-threatening blood clot – in hockey’s largest media market.  The different standard remains.

In some ways, it’s hard to blame people who have this perception of Russian players – it isn’t like the hockey media doesn’t perpetuate it. Besides that, we don’t see Russian grinders – because they’re typically playing at home, for more money, in a country where they can speak their own language and live in a familiar culture. All we see is the top-end talent, and when that talent fails it’s perceived as a lack of will rather than something else.

There’s no evidence, of course, that Canadians would do any better on the whole if the situations were reversed. In fact, there’s evidence to the contrary – during the lockout Kazan Ak-Bars, one of the wealthiest KHL clubs, went out and recruited NHL stars. For their troubles they saw Vincent Lecavalier (30GP – 7G – 8A – 15PTS) outscored by Ruslan Salei and Jaroslav Hlinka and Dany Heatley (11GP – 3G – 1A – 4PTS) play the role of a poor man’s Alexei Simakov.

Regardless, Russian hockey players have a given reputation, among some fans, media, and probably the guys coaching and managing teams too. And that leads to regrettable situations where folks would rather not see their team take a chance on a given draft-eligible player, simply due to his nationality. Jason Bonsignore doesn’t work out and we’re still fine with seeing Americans drafted; Alexei Mikhnov doesn’t work out and the Oilers better stay clear of the Red Menace.

  • CCostall

    Nice column Jonathan.

    I certainly agree with the comments above in that we need to use this pick as trade bait. Everyone and their dog has addressed what this team is lacking, overall grit and some legit bodies on the blueline. These guys come at a high price as we all know and unless we are willing to give away the future offense of this team, we have nothing to offer.

    I think we are better left to trade for a proven d-man than wait another three years for Dumba or Murray to catch up. I’d rather take a gamble on Klefbom or Musil instead.

    Either way, I think we are still in a good position whether we finish strong in these last couple of weeks or crap the bed. You never know how the dice will roll as there is no guarantee the 30th place team gets the first pick anyway. We could gain some momentum going into next season and secure some enviable trade bait in the process.

    Maybe for once things are starting to look up….

    • You also never know if some teams would be willing to pass over the russian and the oilers may even be able to draft them lower down kinda like Couturier, at least i think it was him that slide last season.

  • Reg Dunlop

    If they sign a couple of free agent defencemen this will be the last shot at the lottery we have for hopefully 10 years.
    If the russians are BPA you take them.Radulov ran away but as you know he is back with Nashville and they will get most of his best years.
    I am sure the young Russians have noted this and will continue the commitment they already have shown for north American hockey.

  • vetinari

    I think the greater reason why Europeans are perceived as being “weaker” or more “tempermental” than their North American counterparts is because they are playing thousands of miles from home and there is less incentive for them to “suck it up” and “play nice” with teammates and coaches when there are European leagues closer to their homes which are attractive and viable alternative career paths.

    In other words, a Canadian player playing on a Canadian team making a playoff push is more likely to want to come back earlier into the lineup from an injury than a European player. It only stands to reason and it works both ways. Guys like Forsberg and Jagr accomplished what they wanted in the NHL (although Jagr is back for a another run) and then went on to play in the European leagues for a significant period.

    I would be interested to hear from someone like Struds who recently was playing in Europe to talk about how North Americans are viewed by European fans when playing in their leagues?

  • I was driving hard for a Gagner + Oilers 1st Rnd for Subban + Habs 1st Round back before the trade deadline when the Habs were still relevant and the Oil looked like a lock for bottom-two.

    Man I wish that’d happened now…and don’t tell me the Habs wouldn’t do it. Have you seen who they have in charge!?

  • RyanCoke

    @Willis

    I agree with your arguement that the character flaws of individuals has unfairly tarnished an entire region, but I do think that the existence of the KHL creates a strong deterrent to selecting a Russian-born player. If a player of any other nationality had the option to go home to play their sport, AND get paid much more (at the front end, anyway), most would do it. Think about it in terms of Canada – suppose that an olympic-level volleyball player could compete in Canada instead of Europe (where competitive volleyball is big), and get paid the same or more to do it – most would come home. It isn’t a critique of someone’s character – it’s just human nature to want to be at home, among the familiar, especially if you can make as much $$$.

    I’m against BPA in this draft (assuming the BPA would be on of the Russians when the Oilers are up), unless the due diligence has been done and there is a strong indication that these guys have the desire of Malkin/Ovechkin, and not that petulant little snot Radulov.

    • I completely agree that the KHL is a valid threat, and if you draft a guy you need to be sure he’s fixated on an NHL career. Reverse the situation (if the best league in the world was in Russia and the KHL was in North America) and the same concerns would be justified about a Canadian player. That’s absolutely something teams need to establish before drafting a guy.

      • RyanCoke

        I usually call bs on the Russian factor but then I look at it as if I were a Canadian player playing in Russia, if Russia were the best league in the world, would I play there as the number one draft pick or would I play closer to home for more money. It would be a tough call, I personally would probably play closer to home. The Russian factor is real. If the khl did not exist then it would be a different story.

  • Reg Dunlop

    Jonathan,

    You’re not wrong about the stereotyping of Russian players, and I imagine if there was a Steven Stamkos or John Tavares at the top of this draft rather than Yakupov, Grigorenko and Galchenyuk (even though he’s American), people would be for more excited for the Oilers to potentially draft one of these guys.

    That said, I think there is also some legitimacy to the fact that people now feel that the need for high-end offense has been addressed, and while you can never have too much of it, adding a player like Grigorenko is adding depth to what is considered by many to be the strongest place in the organization at the NHL level (top six forwards).

    Many people feel the need to add a Dman, but, as I’m sure you already know, just have one discussion with Derek Zona and he’ll give you a dozen reasons why that is not the ideal solution either.

    I tend to agree with Derek and think the best solution is to trade the pick outright. Not trade down 5 spots…just trade it. Shoot for the stars and try to land a young impat Dman in his early 20s from a team that is desperate to add young high-end offense. (Read: Phoenix and OEL)

    I don’t think the best move this year is to draft any of the Russians…or a Canadian or an American or a Swede for that matter. I think this is the year where it is time to get better now and that (potential) lottery pick is the best bargaining chip the Oilers have.

    That said, I completely agree there is a common belief that its okay to pass on these guys because they are Russian and that things would be different if this was the year of Taylor v. Tyler.

    • John Chambers

      Columbus’ reticence to draft a Russian will be exploited by a savvy GM. We don’t have a savvy GM, so we won’t do it. Some of the concerns about drafting Russians are legitimate, but players who’ve played in the OHL and have stated their outright desires to play in the NHL, as Yakupov has, are worth the risk.

      Plan B should be to do as you say – flip the pick for a top-pair defenseman who can add value to the lineup immediately.

      Plan C should just be to draft Dumba or Murray, give them a couple of more years outside the NHL to develop, and hopefully have them make an impact on the big club by 2015.

      In conclusion: Our 4th overall pick + Oscar Klefbom for Nail. Get ‘er done.*

      *it won’t get done

      • Rickfoon

        If the Oilers were able to do get CBJ to take a deal like Klefbom and #4 for #1 due to CBJ’s fearn of drafting a Russian (they won’t be able to) they should do so and then immediately call Montreal and ask them if they have interest in a 2nd lottery pick…price is Subban. Then call PHX and tell them price of OEL has just gone up if they want #1 overall. Price is now OEL and Gormley for #1, Omark and Teubert.

        • Craig1981

          Why trade Yakupov and Klefbom for Subban? Or even for Ekman-Larson, yes they are both good and we have some solid kids but Yakupov is great and Klefbom could be too. I would strive for much more if we were picking Yakupov. Better yet draft Yakupov and since your two LW are now Yakupov and Hall. I like Paajarvi and I think he will become a 2nd line LW or a very good 3rd line LW but he still has value so trade him and someone for Subban or OEL.

          • French Toast Mafia

            First, I’m just working off of someone else’s hypothetical. The deal was never Klefbom plus the number 1 overall. It was the #4 overall and Klefbom to get #1, then #1 for Subban or OEL. If the team decides they would rather have Yakupov then some of their current assets, then that is fine with me, but the point is you need to move some of the young offense for a young stud blueliner.

            The Oilers need to deal from strength and get an immediate impact player on the blueline. The easiest way is to deal the pick. If you would rather keep Yakupov and consider trading high on a guy like Eberle…that would work too, but good luck with the PR on that choice.

  • Reg Dunlop

    Ryan Murray fills our Draft a Ryan quota. NHL”ready” defenseman I have heard some say. Able to move the puck. Alternatively we have Filip Forsberg out there. MY overall preference would be to trade down or trade the pick outright for a prospect that is already at par withe group we currently have. I would be happy to trade for Ryan Johansen or Brett Connoly.

    If we do get a lottery pick the odds are looking more and more like it will be the 5th pick. The Canadians and Wild are awful. The Leafs are falling so fast it makes my head spin. I think we surpass those teams and the Hurricanes and the Islanders stay ahead of us.

    Who would have thought the Canadians would be this awful?

  • Reg Dunlop

    Willis wrote:

    “In some ways, it’s hard to blame people who have this perception of Russian players – it isn’t like the hockey media doesn’t perpetuate it. Besides that, we don’t see Russian grinders – because they’re typically playing at home, for more money, in a country where they can speak their own language and live in a familiar culture. All we see is the top-end talent, and when that talent fails it’s perceived as a lack of will rather than something else.”

    I think this is really insightful and goes right to the heart of the Don Cherryesque stereotype of Russian players (and euro players, generally).

    For me, the thing with drafting russians is simply that (1) they can make more money (at least initially) by playing in the KHL; and (2) they can make that money playing at home. It is an extremely appealing option for them, and you can’t fault them for making that choice.

    I’ve got nothing against Russian players per se. It’s just that there is an added element of risk when drafting them (although with Yakupov and Grigorenko, the fact that they’re currently playing in the CHL should be seen as considerably mitigating that risk, imo).

  • Reg Dunlop

    The Oilers should be too soFISTicated to go after Russians so high in the draft. You’ve got to go with the BPA, emphasis on the A for available. ELC vs big $$ back home??

    Too big a risk. Stick with who we know.
    Ryan Murray!