July 23, 2015

Andrei Zyuzin

Time and time again teams gave him a chance, despite his lack of physical play and lack of production. His superior skating and offensive instincts teased of a player like Brian Leetch, though he lacked the lateral movement along the blue line to truly put up great numbers. But he could rush the puck out of his own zone like few others.

Whether at top speed or while quarterbacking the power play, Zyuzin was a smart playmaker. He had a strong shot and, unlike many European defensemen even at that time, was not afraid to use it.

Yet he was always an awkward at every NHL stop. Despite good size he was not a physical player in any regard. But even at an early age he was not a defensive liability. If his team needed a goal he would turn on the jets and press for the extra offense. Otherwise he would stay back and play solid positionally and let his superior anticipation help him defend.

Despite that impressive breakdown of his ability, Andrei Zyuzin only scored 38 goals and 120 points in 496 regular season contests. His best season - 2003-04 with Minnesota - saw him set career highs with just 8 goals and 21 points.

Despite never putting up offensive statistics that rivaled his immense potential, Andrei Zyuzin was always labelled as an offensive defenseman.

The rushin' Russian was drafted 2nd overall by the San Jose Sharks in the weak 1996 NHL Draft.

"A young kid with that kind of ability, he's going to play in this league a long time," said Sharks coach Darryl Sutter.

Sutter would soon learn the ability was apparent but frustrating, as Zyuzin "had all the tools but not the tool box," as Harry Neale used to say. Sutter would mercilessly ride Zyuzin, destroying the young player's confidence and leading to a fractured relationship.

That fractured relationship extended to off the ice, too. In his sophomore year he bizarrely went AWOL on the Sharks. He packed up and went back to Russia, missing 12 games. This followed an earlier incident where he refused to report to the minor leagues.

He did return and all parties involved publicly said all the right things about no hard feelings. But the Sharks traded him to Tampa Bay in the summer.

Zyuzin welcomed the change in scenery but a shoulder injury cost him half of the 1999-2000 season. He never would get a full season in with the Lightning.

From there it was off to New Jersey and Minnesota, two unlikely fits given their defense-first systems. His best fit was probably with the Wild. After being a healthy scratch numerous times when he first arrived, he emerged as a regular for a short time.

He also would play briefly with Calgary and Chicago.

All in all Andrei Zyuzin earned a reputation as a solid if teasing NHL defenseman who just never quite seemed to find the right spot.

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