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Bigger, smaller or just different?

06.11.2012

As a lifelong fan of the National Hockey League, the smaller North American ice surface is what I know best. I have been watching the North American game since I was a child, and I have covered it as a young professional for several years now. Because of this, I did not think I would like the Kontinental Hockey League and its brand of European hockey.

The more KHL hockey I watch however, the more I am starting to realize that I can respect European hockey and North American hockey as two almost entirely different brands. They share the same interchangeable skills in many respects, but the bigger ice surface demands a very different mindset and strategy for the game.

Knowing this, I find myself looking at players I know from the NHL who are now in the overseas asking, “Which ones are even better?”

Here is what I hope will be one of a series of articles looking at players, some already in the KHL and some that aren't, and judging whether or not they are (or would be) better KHL players than they are NHL players.

Evgeni Malkin – I have to say Malkin is on the same level in Europe as he is in North America. As good as Malkin has been in the KHL (8+20=28 in 18 GP), I can't say he is an even better KHL player. To say Malkin is a better KHL player would be to deny his unreal NHL pedigree. He won the Hart Trophy as the NHL's MVP in 2011-12, the Art Ross Trophy as the NHL's top point-scorer in 2008-09 and 2011-12, and became the first Russian to ever win the Conn Smythe Trophy as the NHL's playoff MVP en route to a Stanley Cup title in 2009.

Malkin does something that only a small class of truly great players can really do – he makes his teammates better. In the NHL, he helped make James Neal an All-Star. Leafs fans may be happy to learn that Malkin has also helped Nikolai Kulemin recover from a snake-bitten 2011-12 season in Toronto. Kulemin already has six goals in 17 games after scoring just seven in 70 games last season. Even Enver Lisin, who New York Rangers and Phoenix Coyotes fans may remember for never being a great offensive player, already has three more goals than he did in all of last season, many of which were absolutely beautiful.

The fact of the matter is, Malkin is one of the top three hockey players on planet earth on a bad day no matter what ice surface he's on.

Alex Ovechkin – I firmly believe Alexander Ovechkin is a better North American player than a European one. This isn't to say he is bad in the KHL (6+8=14 in 14 GP), but when he is at his best, Ovechkin is almost unstoppable on smaller ice. More emphasis on his defensive game has dampened Ovechkin's elite offensive skills over the last two seasons, if you can really call 70 goals over two seasons “slowing down,” but he is still one of hockey's best goal-scorers. His “disappointing” 38 goals last season was still the 5th-best mark in the NHL.

What also makes Ovechkin such a dominant force in North America, offensive production aside, is his physical game. Ovechkin plays like the Tasmanian Devil, running into and bowling over pretty much every player in his path. Since entering the NHL as a rookie in 2005-06, here is where Ovechkin has ranked among NHL forwards in hits:

2011-12: 14th with 215
2010-11: 8th with 241
2009-10: 18th with 185
2008-09: 8th with 243
2007-08: 6th with 220
2006-07: 9th with 184
2005-06: 7th with 172

This isn't to say there is no hitting in the KHL. There is less hitting, I would say, but what many don't realize is that the big ice allows for more players to get absolutely crushed in open ice. The reason there is less hitting in the KHL is that if you miss the hit, you're even more out of position than you would be on smaller ice, so it causes you to pick your spots more cautiously. So it's no disrespect to Ovechkin's admirable performance in the KHL, I just think that when he is at his best, Ovechkin is a better player on smaller ice.

Steven Stamkos – For Stamkos I'm going to have to say probably not, but the reasoning is pretty legitimate. Malkin was a dominant European player before ever coming to North America, then he conquered the NHL, and now he has returned home to reclaim his crown. Steven Stamkos on the other hand, despite being a first overall pick, has surpassed almost everyone's expectations by not just dominating, but becoming undeniably the best goal-scorer in hockey. Period. After an up-and-down rookie season, in which Stamkos still scored a very respectable 23 goals, he has gone on to score 51 goals in 2009-10, 45 goals in 2010-11, and he even reached the elusive 60-goal mark last season. That's 156 goals over the last three seasons.

While I believe Stamkos is at his best on the familiar smaller ice of North America, I could still see him being even more dominant in the KHL somehow. I say this for Stamkos over 99% of North American players because his conditioning is astonishingly elite. While Stamkos is a clever and dynamic player, training with Gary Roberts has made him almost the perfect specimen. With his conditioning, Stamkos should have no trouble blowing by players on bigger ice without getting tired. Watching Stamkos hit the ice at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, or earlier if he decides to sign overseas, is going to be fascinating.

Steve Dangle, in Toronto, special to khl.ru

See also

20.11.2012 Bigger, smaller or just different? - Part 2

16.11.2012 Locked out and over here