Over the years since Russian hockey players started coming over to the National Hockey League there have been some true enigmas.
Viktor Kozlov may have been the biggest.
Then there was the lofty draft expectations. The San Jose Sharks grabbed the native of Togliatti 6th overall in the 1993 NHL Draft. That was the draft where Alexandre Daigle went first overall and was followed by long time NHL players-to-be Chris Pronger, Chris Gratton, Paul Kariya and Rob Niedermayer.
Not that Kozlov did not turn into a long time NHL player himself. He played 897 NHL games and continued his career back in Russia after leaving the NHL in 2009.
Viktor Kozlov was a finesse player in a big man's body. When you are as big as Kozlov, there are certain expectations of physical dominance. There is a long list of giants who did not play as physically as the hockey world wanted them to play. But few were as talented as Viktor Kozlov.
Kozlov's best years came in Florida where he spent parts of 7 seasons. The Sharks, most notably new coach Darryl Sutter, grew impatient with their young phenom, the Sharks moved Kozlov to Florida in 1998. In 1999-2000 Kozlov scored his typical 17 goals but added a career high 53 assists for a career best 70 points. That was the year he played alongside countryman Pavel Bure, and his job was pretty much to get the puck to the Russian Rocket as quickly as possible.
Without Bure on his side Kozlov was a regular 15-18 goal guy and 40-50 points. Twice he topped 20 goals. He was streaky but too often there were long lapses between hot spells.
So why did he never emerge as the talent he was projected to be? Florida coach Terry Murray chimes in with this:
"He has wonderful skills, he's talented, he's a big horse who can play a lot of minutes," he said. "I think it's a matter of getting all the other stuff to work out. He's a player who wants control rather than maybe getting the puck deep or getting a forecheck going. He's got such great puck skills that we don't want to discourage that, but we don't want him to try and beat two or three guys, either."
I suspect Kozlov's approach to the game of hockey was something most NHL fans and coaches never understood. He was one of the last hockey players born and bred in the Soviet hockey era where the classic Russian centerman often played an understated possession game where the center was the chess-master. Think Igor Larionov or Sergei Fedorov.
But so many other Soviet trained Russian centers struggled to the point of the enigma status. They were creative artists at heart, and hockey was to be a beautiful game. When they came to North America they were asked to play a very foreign game in the NHL. Perhaps the enigmas responded with supposed indifference more because they were frustrated or almost suffocated rather than true disinterest. Their hockey training did not allow them to thrive in a NHL system, and maybe the players did not understand why any better than the NHL coaches.
Perhaps the NHL fraternity is partially at fault for the enigma status of players like Viktor Kozlov. Had they been better able to understand the classic training of Russian centermen - something Scotty Bowman did with Larionov and Fedorov in Detroit - they would have fulfilled our expectations.
I have been playing pick-up hockey with viktor for the last month or so, and he's such a nice guy on the ice, a gentle giant of sorts. But his hands are like butter! Our pickup game consists of several Russian pro players, as well as Darius Kasparitus playing with us regularly, and Viktor just squeezes through players with the puck like he's 5'5", not 6'5". Amazing to watch, and even more amazing to receive his lightening fast passes! He's not a brute on the ice like Darius, who still has that tough defenseman like attitude, even though it's just pick-up hockey, but he's humble yet he speaks volumes when he steps onto the ice. Great guy, and we down here are lucky to be able to play hockey with him. He seems to enjoy the pick-up game time as well.
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