Torts And The Dearth Of Russian Rangers

Bruce Bennett

A look at why the Rangers find themselves without a Russian player for the first time since 1998 and why it really isn't a big deal.

When Artem Anisimov was traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets in the deal to bring Rick Nash to Broadway, the Rangers lost their only Russian-born player. This means that the Rangers will be without a Russian player on the roster for the first time since the team traded Kovalev away to the Penguins in the 1998-1999 season. To most of us this really doesn't mean much, we don't really care where or players come from so long as they perform, produce, and play in a fashion that we can embrace as fans.

Perhaps it is simply an insignificant streak to break even if Russian-born Rangers hold a special place in hockey history. The first four Russians to have their names engraved on the Stanley Cup played for the Rangers in 1994 (Kovalev, Nemchinov, Zubov, and Karpovtsev). That is a pretty nifty fact to bring up at a bar but does it really mean anything that the Rangers are Russianless for the first time in almost fifteen years?

I am quite convinced that it means absolutely nothing but there are plenty of Ranger fans who will tell you that the reason there are no more Russian players on the roster is because: "Torts hates Russians." I am aware that this isn't the majority of Ranger fans and I also know that everyone is entitled to their opinion but let's take a closer look at this theory and try to explain why the Rangers only have four players on the team who aren't North American and why none of them happen to be Russian-born.

Last year only thirty Russian-born players played at least one game in the NHL, so the fact that the Rangers don't happen to have one slated to play this year isn't all that shocking. With the emergence of the KHL there are fewer Russian players in the NHL and those that do make it to the NHL are almost always the cream of the crop that come here to make big money and chase the dream of winning a Stanley Cup. It can also be debated that up until very recently the talent pool in Russia hasn't been what it used to be which is yet another reason why the league finds itself with such a notable minority of Russian players. In short, there just aren't that many Russians to go around.

We all know that John Tortorella won the Stanley Cup in 2004 as the head coach of the Tampa Bay Lightning. He accomplished this with Dmitry Afanasenkov and Nikolai Khabibulin on the roster, they happen to be Russian-born. The team also had five other European players on the roster, including former Ranger Ruslan Fedotenko. It seems to me that Torts is more inclined to use players that will help his team win and doesn't really concern himself with where they were born or what language they speak.

So where did the theory of John Tortorella's alleged mistrust and aversion to Russian and European players come from? One can look to the short stays of several one-dimensional European players in recent Rangers history including Alex Frolov, Nikolai Zherdev, Wojtek Wolski (technically Canadian), and Enver Lisin as the origin of this theory. These players had brief careers as Rangers for a good reason; they didn't fit into the system and with the exception of Zherdev they didn't produce when given important minutes. I am sure some of you will ask why and how Brad Richards, Rick Nash, and Marian Gaborik "fit into the system". It is too early to speak for Nash but both Richards and Gabby have underrated defensive games and are clearly here to produce and so far they have proven that they can.

Imagine for a second if the Rangers could somehow acquire Pavel Datsyuk, Evgeni Malkin, Alex Ovechkin or a shut-down Russian blueliner... would they hesitate because they are Russian? Of course they wouldn't. Any player with truly elite skill or any player that handsomely fits into the team's current system, style of play, and the chemistry and balance of the team will be embraced with open arms by both the fans and the coaching staff. John Tortorella doesn't have an aversion to Russian and European players, he is drawn to two-way players that he can trust with important ice time. Players like Ryan Callahan and Artem Anisimov.

So is it safe to say that this theory of Torts' aversion to European (especially Russian) players is more than a bit unfair or might the theory still hold some water? Have at it in the comments.

Let's go Rangers.

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