Hockey Hall of Fame 2019: Two-time Stanley Cup defenseman Sergei Zubov 'was always a special player'

Sporting News

Where to begin on a player whose illustrious NHL career is only part of the story?

Sergei Zubov entered the league by storm, leading the New York Rangers in points during the 1993-94 season and playing a key role in the team's 1994 Stanley Cup championship — ending a 54-year drought. He would go on to hoist the Cup a second time with the Dallas Stars in 1999.

But it wasn't always clear whether the Hockey Hall of Famer would even journey across the Atlantic to play on North American ice. A Moscow native, Zubov was a member of the vaunted Red Army prior to being drafted in the fifth round by the Rangers in 1990.

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"I just think it's much more commonplace now and they know that they'll get the players," Neil Smith, general manager of the New York Rangers from 1989 to 2000, told Sporting News. "It's not a case of 'if,' it’s a case of 'when.' There was still an Iron Curtain when we drafted Sergei and Alex Kovalev and you're taking a chance that you might never get the player."

Zubov had played 118 games with CSKA Moscow in Russia prior to being drafted by Smith. He would stay in Russia for another season (36 games), winning a gold medal at the 1992 Olympics with the Unified Team before finally deciding to head to the Big Apple.

"He certainly had proven that he could play very, very well at that elite level in Russia so we knew the time was right to convert him over," Smith said. "We thought he would be a good player when we drafted him and then watching him in tournaments and things the next few years, we knew that he was ready to play."

Boy, was he ever.

In his first 49 NHL games Zubov scored 31 points, but it was in the Rangers' Stanley Cup season the following year that Zubov broke out — leading the team in points and averaging more than a point per game with 89 (12 goals, 77 assists) in 78 games.

"Sergei was more of a puck mover than a puck carrier," Smith noted. "I think the instinct that he had, you either have or you don't have, which is to see the ice the way he did. I think that he just saw everything very quickly and he could slow things down. Also, we used to say he had ice in his veins because he would take chances that you had to be very, very confident in yourself to do."

Smith did trade Zubov to Pittsburgh after the defenseman's third year in the NHL. Following what the former Rangers GM called "a not very happy year in Pittsburgh," Zubov found himself down south in Dallas. The fifth-year player was less than thrilled about his new assignment, according to Smith; in fact, it took some convincing before Zubov was fully on-board with the Stars and eventually, head coach Ken Hitchcock was able to win him over.

"He had to get talked into it," Smith said of Zubov's move to Dallas. "I think the fact that Ken Hitchcock put a lot of confidence into him and gave him a big role on the team, probably really helped him."

Zubov went on to play more than 11 seasons with the Stars, including the 1998-99 Stanley Cup season where he scored 13 points — 12 of which were assists — in 23 postseason games.

If you look at the stats — two Stanley Cups, 1,068 games played, third in Stars' history for assists (438) and 16th in NHL history for assists by a defenseman (619) — Zubov should have been a shoo-in for the HHOF.

So why, then, did it take him seven tries to crack the ballot?

"There's so many players that go into the mix every year that get talked about and you really have to have an advocate," Smith explained. "I'm not sure who it was that was on that committee that advocated for him but you look at his numbers and also the playoff success that he had and that was really astounding.

"I think probably one of the reasons why was because he never won the Norris Trophy and I think that when you're thought of as an offensive defenseman and you don't win the Norris Trophy, then your name doesn't come to light quickly."

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Although he never won the Norris, Zubov did receive votes in 12 out of the more than 15 seasons he played in the NHL with his highest finish in 2006 when he came in third. It probably didn't help the smooth-skating defenseman that he played in the era of Ray Bourque, Al MacInnis, former teammate Brian Leetch, Chris Chelios and Nicklas Lidstrom (who won the award in 2006).

Regardless of how he got there, he's there now. His name is already etched on Stanley Cup bands and now his legacy will live forever in Toronto at the Hockey Hall of Fame.

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