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Compared with Krutov's, Larionov's play has been satisfactory. "Everything different," he says. "Different life, different style on ice. Play is much more physical, much more difficult every night." He grins. "Everybody wants to hit the Russians."
The reason Larionov is playing better than Krutov and some other Soviets may lie in his better adjustment to life in North America. Unlike Krutov, who considered playing in Europe until Larionov persuaded him last summer to accompany him to Vancouver, Larionov, who has an easy smile and a growing command of English, campaigned for years for the opportunity to play in the NHL. His wife, Lena, a former figure skater who had traveled extensively outside the Soviet Union, is embracing all aspects of North American life. "It will be most difficult for me to go back to Russia," says Larionov when asked what he'll do when his three-year contract expires. "Here, there are no problems. There, there are many problems."
But here, in fact, most of the Soviets are finding problems in the style of play in the NHL. Europeans play a precise passing game, designed to keep players constantly circling in the offensive zone until one gets open in front of the net for a tap-in. The NHL features more banging, screening, shooting and up-and-down skating. The NHL way can be learned, but except for the 20-year-old Mogilny and 26-year-old right wing Sergei Priakin of the Calgary Flames, all the Soviet players are 28 or older.
At least three of them—Priakin; goaltender Sergei Mylnikov, 31, of the Quebec Nordiques; and right wing Helmut Balderis, 37, of the Minnesota North Stars—were never expected to make a big splash in the league. Priakin, the first player to enter the NHL with the blessing of the Soviet federation, skated for Calgary late last season to test the climate for others. A trial balloon without much air, he has dressed for only six games this season. Give him a D for his performance so far. Mylnikov, who has looked ordinary in international competition in recent years, plays a backed-up-in-the-net style that figured to back him right into Quebec coach Michel Bergeron's doghouse. It has; at week's end, Mylnikov was winless in five appearances for the defensively inept Nordiques and refusing attempts to send him to the minors. He too rates a D. Balderis, retired for four years when he joined the NHL, is a part-timer in Minnesota. He gets a C—.
Five other Soviets—Krutov, 29, Larionov, 29, Calgary right wing Sergei Makarov, 31, and New Jersey defensemen Viacheslav Fetisov, 31, and Alexei Kasatonov, 30—have long been considered among the top 15 talents in the world, but it may have been too much to expect them to become premier NHL players overnight. They performed together on practically every shift for the Red Army and national teams but now find themselves isolated, with new teammates. "We saw they could play well against NHL players," says New Jersey coach John Cunniff, "but how they would play with NHL players we just didn't know."
One thing the Soviets have to learn is how to chase the puck. When one of their plays is broken up in the attacking zone, their instinct is not to go after the puck but to drop back into the neutral zone and try to clog the lanes and intercept a pass. NHL teams approach the attacking blue line with the idea that unless a teammate is clearly open, the best ploy is to dump the puck deep into the opposition's zone and attempt to bang out turnovers and scoring chances. In short, the NHL is a more difficult school for the Soviets than they or anyone else had imagined. Here are the midterm grades for the Soviets who were expected to make the biggest impact.
•Makarov: B—. "He has to shoot more," says Flames coach Terry Crisp. "He'll back-pass three times on a breakaway." Calgary defensemen have learned that Makarov is rarely to be found in the standard North American outlet position along the boards. Makarov has shaken his head at his teammates when they make him reach a little ahead or behind for a pass. Still, Makarov has been among the league's scoring leaders all season, and his passes are often spectacular, which explains why grinding left wing Gary Roberts has become a goal scorer.
•Krutov: D. He'll make a good tip pass and can still blister his shot, but on most shifts he looks bewildered. Almost every time he gets to the blue line with the puck, he slows up. Is he thinking about making a drop pass or having another hot dog? After years of living under 11-month training-camp conditions, Krutov is having trouble with self-discipline. Opponents, however, are having no problem rendering him useless.
•Larionov: C+. After playing for the perennial champion Red Army team for eight years, he's learning what it's like to get hammered night after night on a last-place club. "Many easy games in the Soviet Union," says Larionov. "No easy games here." The Canucks, who showed remarkable defensive improvement a year ago, thought they would move up in class by adding a couple of Soviets. That hasn't happened, although the fumbling of Larionov's inventive setups by his slumping, uptight teammates suggests that the fault does not lie only with him. Larionov's biggest difficulty may be that he has to play on the same line with Krutov.
•Fetisov: C—. As he holds on to the puck, waiting to begin the attack with a drop pass, the rest of the Devils head up-ice, leaving him alone to get creamed by a forechecker. Fetisov, who was not intimidated by a fistic beating administered by the Toronto Maple Leafs' Wendel Clark earlier in the season, rolls off checks nicely and threads outlet passes that 90% of NHL players make only in their dreams. But it may take more years than he has left as a player to get him to jump up into the play and put his wonderful offensive skills to work. On the power play, in which he figured to be deadly, he looks like a mannequin, standing idly by while his roommate, Bruce Driver, runs the offense from the point.