Why are so many Russian goalies excelling in the NHL?

ByRyan S. Clark ESPN logo
Friday, February 10, 2023

One of the first things Evgeni Nabokov did after retiring from the NHL in 2015 was to fly back to Moscow so he could visit friends and watch hockey with them.

There was a night when Nabokov and his friends were joined by Vladislav Tretiak -- yes, the man considered to be one of the greatest goaltenders of all time -- and they went to watch a game where the focal point was the opposing young goalies.

"Who do you think those young kids were? It was [Igor] Shesterkin and [Ilya] Sorokin. I had no idea who they were," said Nabokov, whose 353 career victories are the most by a Russian goalie in NHL history. "I watched five minutes and everyone starts asking me what I think of them. I said I'd hate to make any judgments five minutes into the game. That's when everybody said, 'Watch, that is the next generation of kids coming.'"

Little did Nabokov know the statement made by his friends cosplaying as soothsayers about the future of Russian goaltending would be both correct and applicable to more up-and-comers than just Shesterkin and Sorokin.

The NHL has had Russian goaltenders before. But what's being done by the current group -- and what is expected to lie ahead -- has many considering this to be a golden age of Russian goaltending in the league.

Shesterkin is the reigning Vezina Trophy winner, and he and Sorokin, who are longtime friends, became first-time NHL All-Stars this season while playing for the rival New York Rangers and New York Islanders, respectively. Then there's Tampa Bay Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy, who became a five-time All-Star this season to go with his two Stanley Cups, his Conn Smythe Award and his Vezina, accomplishing all that before turning 29.

"Shesterkin, I have played against him since we were 6 years old. ... He was on such a bad team," Calgary Flames defenseman Nikita Zadorov said. "My team would beat them 16-0. Even when we were 13, 14 years old. It was kind of a surprise for me where he ended up. Sorokin, he was from a small city. He was my age too, but he had never been to national teams or anything like that. So I had never heard of him, but then he became good.

"Vasilevskiy has always been great. Everyone's been talking about Vasilevskiy since he was 10, probably."

Florida Panthers goalie Sergei Bobrovsky became the first Russian to win the Vezina in 2012-13, won a second Vezina in 2016-17 and is six wins away from surpassing Nabokov's record for most wins by a Russian goalie. Sorokin's partner with the Islanders, Semyon Varlamov, who in 2006 was the first Russian goaltender to be a first-round NHL draft pick, was a longtime starter who is closing in on being only the fourth Russian goalie with 300 wins.

Shesterkin's former Rangers partner, the Bulgarian-born Alexandar Georgiev, is a dual Russian citizen who has emerged as a No. 1 goaltender with the defending Cup champion Colorado Avalanche. The Toronto Maple Leafs have watched Ilya Samsonov regain the consistency that led to a successful start to his career but eluded him toward the end of his time with the Washington Capitals, the team that drafted him with a first-round pick in 2015.

Among Bobrovsky, Shesterkin and Vasilevskiy, a Russian has won the Vezina four times in the last 10 seasons. That's the most of any nation in that time, with Canada having three winners, Finland having two and the United States having one.

And then there are those awaiting their turn. The Carolina Hurricanes have made it clear that Pyotr Kochetkov is their goalie of the future, having signed him to a four-year extension. The Columbus Blue Jackets have seen glimpses of a bright future with Daniil Tarasov, whereas the Nashville Predators used a first-round pick in 2020 to select Yaroslav Askarov, who already played one game with the Preds in what is his first full campaign in North America.

In all, 10 Russian goaltenders have played in the NHL this year. That is tied with Sweden for the third most of all nationalities, per QuantHockey. Yet the most telling part about that statistic is there have been only 23 goalies who have identified as Russian in NHL history, so nearly half of them have played this season.

"When you look at how [Ilya] Bryzgalov, [Nikolai] Khabibulin and Nabokov played, it gave us a chance that we could do it," Shesterkin said. "They helped so much. We didn't have a lot of goalies before from Russia. But right now, you can see we have a lot of Russian goalies. Old ones, young ones, we have a lot more in Russia too. I think they helped us a lot. I think they showed us what we had to do."

ANY DISCUSSION ABOUT the foundation of the current wave of Russian goaltenders in the NHL has to begin with Tretiak, who retired in 1984 at age 32 while still a top-level goalie. His performances for the Soviet Union were legendary and his training methods have had a lasting impact.

Old footage throughout the years revealed how Tretiak concentrated on details such as his agility, flexibility, lateral movement and positioning. Tretiak once showed Wayne Gretzky a few of those drills. There was one in which Tretiak squatted and kicked out his legs, which was said to have drawn inspiration from a Cossack dance troupe. He then continued with the drill while simultaneously juggling tennis balls.

But as Shesterkin, among others, has said, the group of goalies that included Bryzgalov, Khabibulin and Nabokov was also rather important. They became critical role models for a younger generation back home who would wake up at bizarre hours to watch their games or find YouTube clips of them and draw inspiration.

There had been only three Russian goalies in NHL history prior to Bryzgalov, Khabibulin and Nabokov. Sergei Mylnikov was the first in league history. He came to North America at 31 and played 10 games with the Quebec Nordiques in the 1989-90 season. He was followed by Andrei Trefilov and Mikhail Shtalenkov. Trefilov played 58 career games spread out over eight seasons in the 1990s, while Shtalenkov played 190 games in seven seasons from 1993 to 2000.

Khabibulin was a five-time All-Star who became the first Russian goaltender to win a Stanley Cup in 2004 with the Tampa Bay Lightning. Bryzgalov became the second, winning the Cup with Anaheim in 2007, while Nabokov won a Calder Trophy in addition to becoming a two-time All-Star. Each of them had long careers, with Khabibulin playing 799 games, Nabokov 697 and Bryzgalov 465.

"Obviously now, we have social media and have access to all this stuff," said Nabokov, who grew up in what is now known as Kazakhstan. "Back in the day, we did not have that access. We didn't know what they thought or if they were watching our games. If a game is at 7 p.m. in California, it is 5 a.m. or 6 a.m. in Moscow or Kazakhstan. You never think about stuff like that."

Bryzgalov and Nabokov both said they never really thought about whether their success was having an impact back home in Russia. Nor did they sit around and have those conversations among the three of them. Bryzgalov said the only times he was in the same place as Khabibulin and Nabokov were international tournaments that were so quick, there was not really time to get into deep, philosophical conversations.

"You have to ask the younger generation who came after us and if they looked at us or if we had any impact on their game or their maturity while they were growing up," Bryzgalov said. "For us, it is like history. It is only the future generations who can really judge the history, not the people who made that history."

How impactful was that group of goaltenders to the younger generation?

"We've been watching them since we were kids," said Vasilevskiy, whose father was a goalie and played against Nabokov back home. "We were watching them and imagining ourselves in the net. It was a great example for us that anything's possible and if you work hard, one day, you can be like them. I had a chance to play with Nabokov my rookie year here and it was such a great experience. You've been watching that guy on TV for so many years and now you're in the locker room talking to him. It was unbelievable."

HOW BRYZGALOV AND Nabokov each reached the NHL shows that the Russian development model back then was not monolithic. Nabokov, now the director of goaltending and goalie coach for the San Jose Sharks, is the son of a goaltender who also played professionally. When he was coming up, they worked on technical aspects of the position, but it was never classified as "goalie sessions or goalie practices," Nabokov said.

Nabokov said the goalies played 3-on-3 cross-ice games while wearing their full equipment. Playing those games taught them how to be better stickhandlers while feeling more comfortable with their skating. They would also have lessons about the natural way to hold a stick and the natural way to slide.

Bryzgalov said he never had a goalie coach until he arrived in North America after being drafted by the Anaheim Ducks in 2000.

"I was like a wildflower just growing in the field," Bryzgalov said. "Sometimes, it is the most beautiful flowers that grow in the field. In the spring, you go in the mountains and are like, 'What is on the field?' and you see flowers just blossom everywhere. That is how I was growing up."

Bryzgalov said goalie coaches were not common in Russia at that time. He would receive instructions from the forward coach about basic ideas on how to position his stick to prevent goals, mostly things he already had figured out on his own.

He said the mentality was direct: A far-side goal is just a great shot. A five-hole goal is an accident. He'd ask about backdoor goals and was told to not worry about it because that was a defenseman's responsibility.

Nabokov said the approach to goaltending in the 1980s and '90s was nowhere near as technical as it is today. He said being a goaltender was more about using your athletic ability and having great hands. Having great hands usually meant a goaltender would have good reactions.

It was more about agility and flexibility than anything else. Nabokov said they shied away from heavy weightlifting while concentrating more on exercises that strengthened their legs while also keeping them quick.

"Tennis balls were involved all the time," Nabokov said. "When you are a kid, as soon as you get to the locker room, the coaches tell you that you should sleep with a tennis ball and bounce the tennis ball against the wall and do certain drills. They'd tell you to even sleep with a tennis ball so you could get used to it with your eyes. Now, they call that tracking."

A number of those drills that Nabokov and others used were inspired by Tretiak. They were passed down through the generations that included Vasilevskiy, who said he still uses quite a bit of what he learned as a child and applies it to his daily routine.

Vasilevskiy said he was around 6 or 7 when he started doing lunges while simultaneously juggling two or three balls at a time. That way, he could improve his agility and strengthen his core and legs while sharpening his hand-eye coordination.

He smiles while openly admitting some of what he does may look bizarre. But it gets results.

"Even now, I am still doing some stuff on the Swiss ball that still looks weird. Like if another player sees this, he's like, 'What the f--- are you doing?'" Vasilevskiy said. "It looks weird, but it helps. But goalies are also weird. I've been doing those drills in the gym for a long time."

Goalie coaches in Russia are starting to implement more of the technical aspects of the game, Vasilevskiy said.

Shesterkin said there are a number of good goalie coaches in Russia, but sees Rashit Davydov as one of the most influential figures. A former goalie himself, Davydov has been a fixture in Russian hockey for nearly 20 years, having worked for clubs such as Dynamo Moscow and SKA St. Petersburg. Davydov also worked for the Russian Hockey Federation for eight seasons.

Shesterkin said Davydov has also worked with Bobrovsky, Sorokin and Vasilevskiy.

"He always looked at the small things," Shesterkin said. "Rashit, he sees what different people cannot see. He worked with me mentally. We worked every day 30 minutes before practice with my goalie drills like skating. If I did a bad angle on a reverse, he'd say, 'What are you doing?'"

WHILE THE TECHNICAL aspects are being taught, the trait that was discussed the most when it came to Russian goalies was their overall physical profile, which emphasizes agility, lateral movements, quickness, size and speed.

Hurricanes goalie coach Paul Schonfelder has been impressed by how practically every Russian goalie in the NHL has those attributes in great supply. His fascination stems from an Ottawa summer goalie camp that he worked at that was run by current Arizona Coyotes goaltending development coach Charlie McTavish.

McTavish and Schonfelder had a connection with a Russian agent who lived in Ottawa, himself a former goalie. He'd send his clients who were playing in Russia to Ottawa for these summer camps so they could work with North American goalie coaches to help further their development.

Vasilevskiy was one of the goalies that McTavish and Schonfelder worked with during those camps. Schonfelder said Vasilevskiy attended the camp for around five years. Seeing Vasilevskiy and the rest of the Russian goalies who came to Ottawa forced Schonfelder to take a deeper look at what made them so dynamic.

"One of the reasons they wanted to come over here is the way we train goalies in North America is a more structured approach," Schonfelder said. "They had the athletic base, but now they were older and they needed a structure to round out the technical game. When we saw these guys, they did certain things technically that made you say, 'Wow, that's not right. That does not really look great.' But they found a way to make the save and get it done."

Schonfelder deduced that those goaltenders were allowed to make and learn from mistakes while incorporating a strong athletic base before adding the needed structure to become more complete. He said that differs from the North American approach, in which there are children as young as 7 with private goalie coaches who gain so much structure early on that they trust that instead of their athleticism.

In the 2017-18 season, Schonfelder was hired by the Hurricanes as a goaltending consultant before his current role as the team's goalie coach. Part of his job was scouting prospects, and there was one who checked every box in terms of being that athletic Russian goalie who offered quite a bit of promise.

That goalie was Kochetkov.

Hurricanes assistant general manager Darren Yorke said Kochetkov was a classic example of a late bloomer. Yorke said Kochetkov's first international exposure came at the 2019 IIHF World Junior Championships, where he helped guide Russia to a gold medal. From there, the Canes were able to get footage of Kochetkov from earlier games while also monitoring what he did the rest of his season.

"I think it was the athleticism first and foremost for me," Yorke said of Kochetkov, whom the Canes chose in the second round (No. 36 overall) in the 2019 draft. "It was just the explosiveness. He can go from one side of the crease to the other. It's really breathtaking to say the least. I remember sitting there live and watching the World Juniors and watching him move side to side in the crease. It almost seemed routine with that athleticism because of how he used it to play."

Yorke said there is never that one moment when a team is sure someone is the player for them. He said the decision to draft a player for the Canes comes back to how the team evaluates the player while remaining grounded with each piece of information it receives.

Schonfelder and Yorke speak about Kochetkov with a measured tone. On one hand, maybe he can follow the path of his countrymen and be the next bona fide No. 1 goaltender from Russia. On the other, they want him to be his own player and not weigh him down with expectations at a time when Russian goalies are making their mark.

"I want to say he could be the next guy," Schonfelder said. "I don't want to say he is the next Vasilevskiy because there is only one. It's a very young stage in his NHL career. But I will be honest with you, I thought that in my head when I first watched him play and I first scouted him, that this guy has what you see with the Russian goalies in the NHL. You take a goalie in the second round, you have expectations that this guy is going to be a really good goaltender for your NHL team."

Lightning goalie coach Frantz Jean, who has worked with Vasilevskiy since he came to the NHL, was asked what stood out about the current crop of Russian goalies.

His answer? Some of what we are seeing seems rather familiar.

"I think there's a cycle to it," Jean said. "There's been that Quebec farm system for a long time during the '80s and '90s. Then it was the Finns and then it was the Swedes. Now for the past six, seven, eight years -- probably close to a decade -- it has been the Russian goaltenders."

Jean continued by saying another attribute that makes Russian goaltenders different -- beyond their physical traits -- is their skating. He said they can quickly move and pivot, which places them ahead of goalies from other nations when it comes to the power they can generate and the precision that comes with it.

"I think all the countries are on the same page with how the goalies should play now," Jean said. "You can have the same technique for all the goalies, but if you are able to identify the best athletes and teach that technique -- and it's like this in any sport -- now you've got something really special."

All the talk about Russian goalies has led to another question: What could have happened if NHL players had been allowed to go to the most recent Olympics?

Every nation would have faced a number of fascinating roster possibilities if NHL players had been allowed to participate. Figuring out which three goalies would have made the Russian Olympic Committee team was one of them. Vasilevskiy already had a spot because he was part of the first three players named to the ROC's initial roster along with Lightning teammate Nikita Kucherov and Capitals left wingerAlexander Ovechkin.

"At some point I looked and asked myself, 'How do I make a choice here?'" said Nabokov, who would have been the ROC's goalie coach. "It's almost like you can dream of having that many good goaltenders. But I have to pick three. Then, I have to pick the one who is going to play. ... It's just unreal. You can probably say three of them are among the five best goalies in the world."