Introducing The Hockey Writers’ Countdown to Puck Drop series. From now until the puck drops on the 2019-20 NHL’s regular season on Oct. 2 when the Toronto Maple Leafs host the Ottawa Senators, we’ll be producing content that’s connected to the number of days remaining on that particular day. Some posts may be associated with a player’s number, while others will be connected to a year or length of time. We’re really excited about this series as we take you through the remainder of summer in anticipation of the return of NHL hockey.
For the Senators, only one player has ever worn the number 79, that being Drake Batherson. As he has yet to play a full season though, 79 will remain connected to one of the most controversial figures in Senators’ history: Alexei Yashin and his rookie point total in 1993-94.
Yashin may be most remembered for his contract disputes and his infamous buyout in 2007, yet there’s no question that when he first began his career, there was no one better on the Senators. He almost single-handedly forced the Senators into playoff contention, and when he finally had some quality linemates, they ascended to the top of their division. It all began in 1992 when the Senators were preparing to make their first-ever draft selection in the NHL.
Senators’ First Draft Selection
In 1992, the Senators and Tampa Bay Lightning were brand new expansion teams and thus were given the first two selections at the Entry Draft. A coin flip determined the order: Tampa would select first at the Entry Draft, giving Ottawa the first selection at the expansion draft. The Lightning selected Roman Hamrlik, a big, powerful defender from Czechoslovakia, marking just the second time in NHL history that a European had been selected first overall; the first had been Mats Sundin in 1989.
Ottawa also made history when they selected the Russian Yashin second overall, becoming the first time two Europeans had gone in the first two picks. In total, 11 Europeans would be selected in the first round, many from Eastern European countries. NHL teams had historically been hesitant to draft Russians, Czechs, and Slovaks due to the power of the Soviet Union, but the dissolution of the USSR in late 1991 had opened the door for athletes to come freely to North America.
Yashin promised to be one of the best. The Central Scouting Bureau ranked him as the second-best European Skater in 1992 behind Darius Kasparaitis, who would be taken fifth overall by the New York Islanders. Playing in the top Soviet league, Yashin had seven goals and ten points, a respectable total for a teenager. At the 1992 World Juniors, however, he was much more impressive, ending the tournament third in team scoring and helping his team of former Soviets win the gold medal.
He did not join the Senators the following season, choosing instead to remain in Russia where he more than doubled his previous season’s point total and was selected to play on the Russian World Championship team, with whom he won another gold medal.
Yashin’s Rookie Season
Yashin arrived in Ottawa with much anticipation. The Senators’ inaugural season had been horrendous, with the team only managing to win ten games, including a historically long losing streak on the road. Along with 1993 first-round pick Alexandre Daigle, however, the pair offered a bright future for the franchise.
While Daigle struggled, Yashin excelled, scoring 36 points in his first 30 games. After 50 games, Yashin had 51 points, earning the 21-year-old a spot at the 1994 All-Star Game as the lone representative from Ottawa. He ended the season the Senators’ leading scorer with 79 points, tying fellow Russian Sergei Fedorov’s rookie total from 1990-91. Yashin’s 30 goals also was a team-high. Daigle, on the other hand, finished his first season with 20 goals and 51 points – second in team scoring, but far less than expected.
It was an incredible display for the talent-starved Senators. The previous season, no one had broken the 70 point barrier; Norm Maciver led the team with just 63 points, while Sylvain Turgeon scored the most goals with 25. Yashin also made a strong case for being one of the best young players in the NHL. He came in second in rookie scoring behind Mikael Renberg’s 82 points, but while Renberg played on the Philadelphia Flyers with future Hall-of-Famers Rod Brind’Amour, Eric Lindros, and Mark Recchi, Yashin played with Bob Kudelski and Troy Mallette.
Had the Senators been a better team, there’s little doubt that Yashin would have received more consideration for the Calder trophy. Instead, the Senators won just four more games than they had in 1992-93, and Yashin came in fourth in votes behind Renberg, Jason Arnott, and the eventual winner Martin Brodeur. It also didn’t help that management favoured Daigle, touting him for Calder consideration over his more talented teammate, which Yashin would take personally.
Yashin’s Senators Legacy
Yashin was truly the face of the franchise in the Senators’ early years. He
led the team in scoring every season he played for the team except in 1995-96, when he sat out half the season in a contract dispute. In 1998-99, he was named the sixth captain of the franchise, become the first Russian to serve as a full-time captain in the NHL. 1998-99 would also be his best season statistically, scoring 44 goals and 94 points, a total that wouldn’t be broke until 2005-06.
However, contract issues would eventually drive Yashin out of Ottawa. After signing Daigle to one of the richest rookie contracts in NHL history, they hesitated to do the same for the Russian star. Yashin was not pleased with this, leading to a holdout in 1995-96 and his demand that he be the highest-paid player on the team. Somewhat ironically, during Yashin’s holdout, rookie Daniel Alfredsson led the team with 61 points, which earned him the Calder Trophy – the only one won by an Ottawa Senator.
Eventually, further disputes led Yashin to sit out the entire 1999-00 season. His original contract would have ended in 2000, but the NHL ruled he owed the Senators one more year of service because he hadn’t fulfilled his contract. This only increased tensions between management and their star player, and at the 2001 Entry Draft, Yashin was traded to the Islanders for Zdeno Chara, Bill Muckalt, and the second-overall selection in 2001, which the Senators used on Jason Spezza.
The rest is now history. Yashin would go on to sign a massive contract worth $87.5 million over 10 years with the Islanders, then struggle to say healthy, leading to his buyout in 2007 that would remain on the Islanders’ payroll until 2015. He would return to Russia after that, where he finished his career in 2012. Spezza and Chara, on the other hand, would bloom into two of the greatest Senators to play for the franchise, nearly taking the team to it’s first Stanley Cup in 2007.
While other players like Spezza, Alfredsson and Dany Heatley would eventually surpass his goal and point totals, no one has bested his rookie numbers. In 2014-15, Mark Stone came the closest, scoring 64 points, coming in second in Calder voting, and current face-of-the-franchise Brady Tkachuk only managed 45. Yashin would return to Ottawa to play in the Centennial Classic Alumni game in 2017, holding no hard feelings towards the team.
No matter what you think of Yashin, there’s no denying his importance to the young Senators. He gave the franchise hope, propelling them towards success. So, until a rookie can break his totals, 79 will remain connected to Yashin.