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Is Alex Ovechkin the best Russian-born player in history?
@Real_ESPNLeBrun: Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals is in the history books (and not for the last time) after scoring his 484th career NHL goal Thursday night to pass Sergei Fedorov as the NHL's top Russian-born goal-scorer of all time. The question I have is where Ovechkin ranks all-time among Russian players. It's a compelling debate to be sure. Some Russian historians consider Anatoli Firsov, who played for the Soviet teams of the 1960s, as perhaps the greatest Russian in history. The great Valeri Kharlamov, inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame without ever having played an NHL game, is regarded by some as the greatest Russian player of all-time, a superstar in the 1970s who is remembered by Canadians of a certain generation for his all-world play in the 1972 Summit Series. Former NHLer Ilya Kovalchuk wears Kharlamov's No. 17 to pay homage to the great Russian winger's legacy. Others might point to goalie Vladislav Tretiak, another HOFer who never played in the NHL, but who can forget his career in the '70s and '80s. Boris Mikhailov is another from that generation who bears mentioning in this debate. Then you've got Igor Larionov and Sergei Makarov from the famed K-L-M line. Slava Fetisov was the rock on defense for those great Soviet national teams of the '80s, and then delivered in the NHL, too. More recent names to throw in the mix include Hall of Famer Pavel Bure, Sergei Zubov, Alexander Mogilny, Sergei Gonchar, Evgeni Malkin, Pavel Datsyuk and Kovalchuk. What say you, gang?
@ESPN_Burnside: Pierre, that's a great question. And so early in the morning, too. Good on you. Now in his 11th NHL season, there has been lots of discussion about Ovechkin's potential legacy in recent weeks, and more will come in the future. Hall of Fame? No question, at least in my mind. Start engraving the plaque now. Greatest Russian of all time? Interesting. For me, having covered Fetisov and Larionov during the Red Wings' back-to-back Stanley Cup runs in 1997 and 1998, as well as during their long international careers, I'd still put them ahead of Ovechkin, due in part to Ovechkin's relative youth. I'm sure the Caps' Great 8 would tell you he wants a Stanley Cup more than anything, and probably a World Cup of Hockey win next fall and Olympic gold in 2018, just for good measure. Those are team successes that have largely eluded Ovechkin in spite of his many individual honors. And until he gets that team success, there will be a rather large hole on Ovechkin's résumé.
@CraigCustance: When it's all said and done, I think Ovechkin will go down as the greatest Russian to play the game. Yes, team success has eluded him, but I certainly don't pin it on him. He has 36 goals in 72 career playoff games, and this season his team is in as good a position as any other to win the Cup. The Capitals were my preseason pick to win it all and I've seen nothing from them to make me nervous. (I can't say the same about my Western Conference pick, the Anaheim Ducks.) To me, the most impressive thing about Ovechkin is that he continues to score at a time when that seems to be a struggle for every other player in the league. I also remember there being concerns early in his career that his physical style would take a toll on his body by the time he started pushing 30. Well, here we are and he's still playing 80 games every season. He's a machine, and he'll go down as the best.
@DownGoesBrown: I'd agree that Ovechkin probably goes down as the greatest Russian in NHL history. Beyond that, it's just so hard to compare the modern day guys we see every night to the players from old Soviet era who, for fans in North America, were harder to appreciate because we only saw them at big tournaments. But while I can't make a case for him as best ever, there's one guy I want to highlight, because he was probably the most entertaining player I've ever seen: Pavel Bure. Five seasons with 50-plus goals, including three in the middle of the Dead Puck era, and he did things with the puck that we'd never seen before in the NHL. Injuries robbed him and us of a full career, and I really don't think he was appreciated enough at the time.
@ESPNJoeMac: I was once told a story about Ovechkin that involved former Bruins goaltender Tim Thomas. Apparently, when the two were participating in an All-Star game a few seasons ago, there was some sort of practice session during which Ovechkin came down on a breakaway. The always-aggressive Thomas came out to play the puck and wiped out the Russian star, sending Ovechkin crashing into the end wall. He remained on the ice for a moment, and Thomas thought he had injured Ovechkin. The goaltender nervously went over to check and asked Ovi if he was alright. "Russian machine never breaks," he responded. No doubt he's had an impressive career, and this latest milestone puts him in the category as one of the greatest Russian-born players ever to play in the NHL. And while individual accomplishments are impressive, will Ovechkin ever win a Stanley Cup?
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