Less then 24 hours separate us from the craziest hockey day of the off-season. Those of us who still care about hockey this time of the year all have lists of free agents we hope our general managers will sign on July 1st. I have that list too, and at the top of this list is a fellow Russian and a former Ottawa Senator Anton Volchenkov.
First, he's a Russian.
Second, he is the kind of a player that can solve many defensive problems for the Sharks and add more playoffs experience.
When July 1st is finally here, no doubt Anton and his agent Jay Grossman will get more than one phone call from around the league with a contract offer. Doug Wilson could be one of those calling. While we have our fears that Wilson's attempt to strengthen Sharks' defense will be limited to re-signing Niclas Wallin, he may not be done just yet. It's especially true seeing how the Sharks are fine with going with a cheaper and less experienced goalie than Evgeni Nabokov. Something has to compensate for that, and one way to do this would be to add more experience and skill to the Sharks' defense.
But back to Volchenkov. Since he's played his whole career with the Ottawa Senators, we have not see him as much as we have seen Dan Hamhuis, who's often mentioned here at Fear the Fin as a high priority signing for the Sharks and who played in Nashville. They are similar type of players, who are known firstly for their defensive skills. Volchenkov tends to be viewed as purely defense-only type of a guy, while Hamhuis can also play offense, however, this may be due to what kind of role he was asked to play in Ottawa, rather than who he is.
Let's not forget that Anton learned to play hockey in the famous CSKA hockey system that over the decades produced such stars as Slava Fetisov and Pavel Bure. That system does not teach defense-only type of hockey. Defenders that succeed in that system tend to play well on both sides of the puck. Growing up in Russia, Volchenkov did not show up out of nowhere quite the way such players as Datsyuk or Nabokov did, but was coached by some of the best minds in the Russian hockey program. On top of that, Anton's father Alexei was also a hockey player who played on USSR team in the 70s. As such, Anton is a fine product of the Soviet system of hockey and not surprisingly, played for Team Russia since he was 17 years old. Again, Russian teams never encouraged defense-only play from any of their d-men at any levels. Russian players grow up learning how to play puck possession system. As a proof of that, here is Volchenkov's first scouting report published in Sport Express in 2000, under a title "15 Hottest Prospects":
One of the highest rated European prospects in the most recent NHL draft, which was evidenced by him being selected by Ottawa Senators in the 1st round, 21st overall. Great skater and a smart passer, can also direct the power play. He has a good shot from the mid and long distance, but has to work on that. He's quite mobile, but not quick enough just yet. Despite his physical strength, he doesn't play physical all that often.
It's funny how things change over time. We certainly don't think of Volchenkov as a puck moving defenseman who can quarterback a power play - and he's no softie either, as many YouTube highlights can prove. Nicknamed Russian Bear, he's actually considered one of the more physical players in the NHL and a very atypical defenseman for less physical Eastern Conference. He loves throwing big hits, as people in the East know very well, and led all Senators players in that category during the last season, despite missing 18 games. Back in Russia he's the only Russian player who's is frequently compared to Vladimir Konstantinov (aka Vladinator), who you may remember as one of the hardest hitters in the league in the 90s for Detroit Red Wings and whose hockey career ended in a tragic car accident. When Volchenkov was just starting his career, they even called him Vladinator II. Just like Vlad, being a good skater, Anton doesn't get lost out of position as easily as Douglas Murray while attempting a big open ice hit or overcommitting on the offense. Also nicknamed the Iron Man, Volchenkov loves to block shots, and consistently has been one of the leaders in that category league-wide since NHL introduced blocked shots as a metric.
All these qualities would make Volchenkov no. 1 defensive defenseman in San Jose.
So why is it that we here at Fear the Fin don't talk more about Volchenkov?
For one, we may not all be Russian.
But it may also be because of the notion that Volchenkov can be too expensive for San Jose Sharks, as Plank mentioned in an earlier post. The reports out of Ottawa earlier this month indicated that Volchenkov rejected a 5-year offer of $20M from the Senators. But if 35 years old Wallin can earn $2.5M in San Jose, why can't Volchenkov, who is entering his prime, earn $5M?
Other similar UFA players that we usually mention include Dan Hamhuis of Nashville Predators (or actually, Pittsburgh Penguins who own his rights as of the time of writing this article), Paul Martin of New Jersey Devils and less mentioned older brother of Milan Michalek, Zbynek Michalek, who we know rather well from his days with Phoenix Coyotes.
In fact, all four joined NHL around the same time, and have similar regular season stats. The table below was compiled using stats found on Hockey Reference.
Notice two things here. First, Volchenkov's offensive numbers are almost twice lower than Martin's and Hamhuis'. The difference is explained by Martin and Hamhuis seeing power play time in their clubs, while Volchenkov tended to play mostly in even strength and penalty kill situations in Ottawa. In fact, none of his 16 career goals are power play goals. Second, notice +61 rating for Volchenkov and +55 for Martin vs +4 for Hamhuis or -22 for Michalek. Of course, some of it has to do with the fact that Volchenkov and Martin have played on much better teams during their career than Martin and Michalek. But still, +55 in his career is rather an impressive number, and that includes a stellar +37 in a single season in 2006/7.
It's also important to note here that while Volchenkov's offensive role was limited in Ottawa, some of it has to do with the coaches and the systems he was asked to play in. As I alluded to it earlier, when playing in Russia and for Russia, Volchenkov did see plenty of power play time and he did not look lost running the Russian power play at the most recent Olympics. Due to lack of resources, we saw Douglas Murray get a share of power play time for the Sharks last season. With a better shot and a skating ability, Volchenkov would be an improvement in that area, should he join the Sharks. He may never see as much power play time as would Martin or Hamhuis, but with Boyle, Demers, Vlasic and Pavelksi all loving to play the point, we don't lack power play specialists in San Jose.
What separates Volchenkov from the rest of his UFA peer group is his playoff experience. Take a look at playoffs stats for the same group.
Volchenkov never won the Cup, but he was one of the key players in Ottawa Senators run to the Stanley Cup final in 2007, often playing with an assignment to shut down the opposition's key players and doing it well, as Crosby in 2007 may testify. He was also one of the more visible players for the Senators in the most recent playoffs that included a performance of 11 blocked shots in Game 5 of that series. My body hurts just thinking about how 11 blocked shots in one night feel.
If the Sharks are thinking of adding playoffs experience to their squad, as Wilson likes to do with all his additions to the roster, then Volchenkov may get an edge here based on the numbers above. With the departure of Rob Blake, playoff experience is still relevant in San Jose. Volchenkov's playoffs history puts him above Hamhuis, who's never won a round of NHL playoffs, Martin, who only advanced past the first round twice in his career and never past the second round, and, of course, Michalek who only played in one round of playoffs total, and unsuccessfully so.
For all these reasons, I am hoping that when it's time to get on the phone tomorrow, Doug Wilson will make a call to Anton Volchenkov a first priority.
Besides, if he doesn't, this may turn out to be the first time in the San Jose Sharks history that no players out of the former USSR appear on its roster when the season starts. I'd rather not see that dark day happening.