Sunday, February 06, 2011

Alexei Zhamnov

One of the most talented players ever to skate in the National Hockey League has to be Alexei Zhamnov.

Zhamnov graduated from Moscow Dynamo to join the Winnipeg Jets for four years. He was best known as Teemu Selanne's centerman during the Finnish Flash's highest scoring days. Zhamnov, nicknamed "Archie" due to his uncanny resemblance to the famous cartoon character, moved on to Chicago in 1996 for 8 seasons. He rounded up his career with brief appearances with Philadelphia and Boston.

When he was on top of his game, he was an absolute joy to watch. He was a magnificent skater, blessed with one-step acceleration but more important incredible agility. He was a masterful stickhandler with an underrated (and often under-used) shot. A classic center from the Russian school of hockey, he was a great playmaker first and foremost, and a dependable defensive forward. Although he may never have thrown a body check in his life, he had solid size and was strong on his skates, making him hard to knock off the puck. His physical game was definitely understated.

Yet, it seemed, he had trouble finding his top game with any sort of consistency. Ah yes, the classic Russian centerman - skilled beyond belief but frustrating as hell.

Frustrating maybe, but misunderstood is perhaps more accurate. Russian centermen - and especially Zhamnov - were somewhat misunderstood in the North American game. Perhaps he was so talented and so understanding of the game of hockey and it's positioning that he gave the impression he was floating.

In many ways it was a case of buyer-beware by NHL teams and for fan expectations. The old Soviet school of hockey trained centermen differently than North Americans. The center is still arguably the most important player on the ice, but in Soviet hockey the wingers get the offensive chances more so than the center. .

Alexei Zhamnov's final line sounds like this: 807 NHL games played with 249 goals and 470 assists for 719 points. In the lockout shortened 1995 season he was a second team NHL All Star. Internationally he represented his country at three Olympics, winning gold in 1992, silver in 1998 and silver in 2002. A career ending ankle injury prevented him from playing in 2006.


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