Thursday, June 28, 2012

The wrongful perception of European NHL players

(Warning: this is a senseless rant.  If you don't like to read strong opinions, do not read on.)


Oh, you like senseless rants?  Well then, I hope you enjoy this.

Consider the following situation.

A young, talented Russian defenseman just came over to North America, and he's ready to become an NHL player.  He's been drafted by a smaller market NHL team with a roster of players he's unfamiliar with, so he refuses to sign an entry-level contract with that team.  A year goes by and now he's demanded a trade or he'll become an unrestricted free agent.  He and his agent provide General Managers with a short list of teams he'd meet with, and his list is based on teams that have players he knows and teams that he'd be guaranteed to play a certain number of minutes for next season.

That's pretty selfish of him, isn't it?  He refuses to sign with the team that drafted him?  Who does he think he is, Eric Lindros?

Of course, this situation is playing itself out right now, except the player is not Russian.  He's Canadian.  His name, if you haven't figured it out already, is Justin Schultz.

Yet nobody questions Schultz's tactics.  He's been invited to meet with several NHL teams, and he actually refused to grant teams meetings with him.  Essentially, he'll only sign with a Canadian team or the Rangers, and Toronto might be the leading candidate because his buddy, Jake Gardiner, plays for them.  But Schultz is a good Canadian boy, so let's not dare call him selfish.

Flash back to the winter of 2009-2010.  Ilya Kovalchuk is miserable, playing for a bad Thrashers team for the eighth time in nine seasons.  He turns down a pair of massive contract offers from General Manager Don Waddell, suggesting that he would not re-sign with Atlanta in the summer of 2010.  Instead, his GM went out and found a trading partner, the New Jersey Devils.  Kovalchuk went on to sign a $100 million extension with the Devils later that summer.  Kovalchuk was tagged as a selfish individual.  Why?  For not wanting to commit to a terrible team for longer than he already had?

Fast forward to this past winter.  Rick Nash is miserable, playing for a bad Blue Jackets team for the eighth time in nine seasons.  He's reportedly asked his General Manager, Scott Howson, for a trade to a contending team because he's frustrated with his situation in Columbus and at this point in his career, he wants to move on and have a chance to win.

But Rick Nash isn't selfish.  He just wants a chance to win, and that's what it's all about, right?

So what's the difference?  Kovalchuk went to a better team where he has a chance to win every year.

Now today, Sidney Crosby apparently agreed to a 12-year/$104 million contract with the Penguins.  He's not selfish.  Why is Kovalchuk for signing a 15-year/$100 million deal?  Why is Alex Ovechkin selfish for signing a 13-year/$124 million deal in 2008?

Then again, what if European players are selfish?  What if they are enigmatic and lazy?  After all, the Penguins' 2009 Stanley Cup run belongs to Sidney Crosby, right?  It's not like Conn Smythe winner Evgeni Malkin actually led his team to victory.  After all, Malkin only had 36 points in 22 games.  How enigmatic.

And how about the 2008 Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings who had just 14 European players on the team?  And how about the most talented player in the NHL right now, Pavel Datsyuk?  He only has 3 Selke trophies and 4 Lady Byng awards.  The recently retired Swedish defenseman Nick Lidstrom wasn't too bad, either.

The European stereotypes go to unbelievable extremes, and quite honestly, it's ridiculous.  What about the New York Rangers this past spring?  They struggled to score goals in the playoffs, so the Slovakian-native Marian Gaborik took the blame.  Guess what?  He posted 11 points in the playoffs, which is one more than the American-born captain Ryan Callahan.  American-born Derek Stepan had just one goal in the playoffs.

There's nobody who demonstrates more European hatred than Don Cherry, who called Dainius Zubrus "lazy" during the playoffs.  What if Zubrus was Canadian?  Cherry would love him.  After all, Zubrus is a big, power forward who kills penalties and plays a two-way game...even though he's of Russian descent.

Want more?  Of course you do.  Alex Ovechkin has 59 points in 51 playoff games.  Kovalchuk has 25 points in 28 playoff games with the Devils.  Malkin has 81 points in 68 playoff games.  Only Malkin has won a Stanley Cup.  Somehow, all three players have been tagged as "lazy" or "selfish" as recently as this past season by fans and even the media (mostly Don Cherry).

So how did this bias against European players start?  Did people knock Stan Mikita in the 1960s, Jari Kurri in the 1980s or Slava Fetisov in the 1990s?  Was Jaromir Jagr simply the lazy guy that played next to Mario Lemieux?  You know who one of the first players was that I believe changed the perception of Europeans?  Alex Kovalev.

The bottom line is that Europeans can be awesome too.  Not all of them are as beloved as Teemu Selanne or Mats Sundin, but maybe it's time to take a step back and appreciate what they're doing.  Ovechkin, Datsyuk and Kovalchuk are legends developing right in front of us, and many people are going to completely miss out on what fantastic hockey players they are because of their native country.  Obviously, some people do appreciate them, and those people are watching some pretty special hockey players.

Then again, if his name was Justin Schultzov, he'd be viewed as a selfish...