The next stop on our trip around the globe brings us to Russia. Of course, the current Rangers’ roster has one of the best group of Russian players in the league — if not the best. But, the Rangers had a rich history with players born in the USSR and Russia long before Igor Shesterkin, Artemiy Panarin, and Pavel Buchnevich made their debuts at Madison Square Garden.
At the top of that list are a clique of Russians who helped the Rangers win their last Stanley Cup in 1994. But, before we get to those names, let’s start with a pair of today’s Russian Rangers.
With 147 points in 247 games, Buchnevich is fourth all-time among Russian Rangers skaters in scoring.
He was having a career year this season before COVID-19 put hockey and the world on pause, but was well on his way to eclipsing the 50-point mark for the first time in his career after scoring 21 goals in 64 games in the 2018-19 season.
Like so many skilled wingers before him, Buchnevich operates under a constant cloud of criticism that stems from his lack of his consistency. With that being said, he’s slowly but surely carving out a role for himself as a key figure on this team. If all goes well, Buchnevich could be a fixture as a top-six winger with the Rangers for the foreseeable future.
Yes, he hasn’t even played a full 82-game season with the Rangers and yes, he absolutely belongs on this list.
In just 69 games with the Rangers, Panarin has scored 95 points, making him the seventh-highest scoring Russian skater in franchise history. Nice. Before COVID-19 postponed the 2019-20 season, Panarin was a legitimate Hart candidate to anyone who was paying attention to the impact he was having in New York.
To put Panarin’s year in context, there was a three-way tie — shared by Alex Kovalev, Sergei Nemchinov, and Nik Zherdev — for the highest-scoring season by a Russian forward in New York before the big money winger cashed his first check with the Rangers. That number? 58 points.
In 418 games with the Rangers, “Sarge” Nemchinov had 225 points and drank a lot of champagne out of the greatest trophy in sports in 1994. Not bad for a 12th round pick (244th overall) in the 1990 Draft.
Nemchinov was a 28-year-old rookie when he scored 30 goals and picked up 28 assists in 73 games in 1991-92 and eclipsed the 50-point mark again the following season. After piling up 49 points in 76 games in the 1993-94 season, the defensively-gifted forward’s production began to crash. On Mar. 8, 1997 the Rangers sent Sarge and Brian Noonan to the Vancouver Canucks to bring Esa Tikkanen back to New York and to add scoring winger Russ Courtnall.
He won a second Cup with the Devils in 2000, but Nemchinov’s best years in the NHL came with the team on the other side of the Battle of the Hudson. He was tied for fourth in goals on the Blueshirts in his rookie season and finished fifth on the team in scoring the following season. Nemchinov is the second-highest scoring Russian Ranger in history and actually averaged more even strength points per-game (0.476 vs. 0.475) than Kovalev.
Again, not bad for the 244th pick of the 1990 Draft. Not bad at all.
Ah, what might have been.
Zubov, who was recently inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, was the 85th pick of the 1990 Draft. In 165 games with the Blueshirts he had 156 points — 62 of which were power-play assists — and helped the team lift the Cup in 1994.
Zubov was the Rangers top-scorer in the 1993-94 regular season with 89 points in 78 games — which is 10 more points than Brian Leetch amassed in 84 games. He followed the regular season with 19 points in 22 postseason games on the way to the Rangers defeating the Vancouver Canucks to earn the Stanley Cup. He was fourth on the team in playoff scoring and second among all d-men in playoff scoring that year, behind only Brian Leetch who scorched the scoresheets with 34 points in 24 games.
The Rangers have had several Russian blueliners over the years, but none of them even came close to measuring up to Zubov’s skill and impact. For example, Alexander Karpovtsev, who was also on the ‘94 Cup team, is second among Rangers’ Russian d-men in scoring with 97 points in 280 regular season games. Again, Zubov piled up 156 in 165 games.
While it’s true that he enjoyed the most productive seasons of his NHL career away from Broadway, there’s no denying that Kovalev is the greatest Russian Ranger — at least for now.
The Rangers selected the big winger with one of the nastiest shots in hockey history with the 15th pick of the 1991 Draft. Like Zubov, Kovalev was a key member of the 1994 Cup team and, like Zubov, he was eventually traded to the Penguins. However, unlike his fellow countryman, he had a second stint in New York.
Kovalev had four 20-goal seasons and three 50-point seasons with the Blueshirts before he was dealt to the Penguins on Nov. 25, 1998 in a deal that brought Petr Nedved to New York. Two years after exploding for 95 points, the Rangers re-acquired a 30-year-old Kovalev from the Penguins — who needed to shed salary — in a nine-player trade. The Russian winger spent 90 games in New York before he was dealt to the Montreal Canadiens on March 2, 2004 for prospect Jozef Balej and a second round pick in the 2004 Draft. Neither asset amounted to much.
The Rangers simply weren’t able to catch magic in a bottle with Kovalev a second time. In the 90 games he played before he was sent to another Original Six team, he scored 23 goals and picked up 32 assists.
“I came in and I was happy, and I wish I could have done better with this organization,” Kovalev said after being dealt by the Rangers for the second time in his career. “But I guess it didn’t work for me ... Right now, I don’t want to hurt a team anymore and I guess it’s just time for me to move.”
All told, Kovalev played 492 of his 1,316 career NHL games with the team that drafted him. He leads all Russian-born Rangers in games played, goals (142), assists (188), penalty minutes (533), and shots (1,182).
Honorable Mentions: Artem Anisimov, Pavel Bure, Alexander Karpovtsev