One for the Ages: Sergei Zubov’s 1993-94 NHL Season

There were numerous moments that made the ending of a 54-year-old Stanley Cup drought by the 1993-94 New York Rangers unforgettable. When people think back on that particular team and what it was comprised of, certain players and moments come to mind more than others.

The captain – “The Messiah” – Mark Messier and his bold prediction that the “Blueshirts” would win Game Six of semifinal against New Jersey. The Conn Smythe-winning performance of Hall of Fame defenseman Brian Leetch. The Game Seven OT-winner by Stephane Matteau to send New York to the Stanley Cup Final. The bell-weathered goaltending of Mike Richter. The structure and on-task mentality of “Iron Mike” Keenan who would win his first Cup as an NHL coach.

What sometimes drops down on the radar for how remarkable those particular Rangers truly were was the individual performance of defenseman Sergei Zubov. Not only was he one of the first four Russians in NHL history to win the Stanley Cup that year, but how many people recall that Zubov was the Rangers’ leading scorer during the regular season too?

Having the disadvantage of time gone by, most fans these days might have thought it was Messier, Leetch or maybe even 52-goal scorer Adam Graves. Nope – it was Zubov.

Sergei Zubov of the New York Rangers
Sergei Zubov was the leading point scorer for the New York Rangers during the 1993-94 season and accumulated a remarkable 77 assists in his first full season. (Mandatory Credit: Robert Laberge /Allsport).

Throughout a 16-year NHL career that included two Stanley Cups and four nods to the All-Star Game, the Moscow native was more often than not left out of the limelight when it came to overall recognition. Maybe because Zubov always appeared as a quieter, softer-spoken player.

Yes, he is still recognized as a great offensive-defenseman, but more focus has long been given to his contemporaries. Fellow blueliners such as Leetch, Nicklas Lidstrom, Chris Chelios, Paul Coffey, Scott Stevens, Chris Pronger, Rob Blake, Raymond Bourque, Zdeno Chara, Scott Niedermayer, and Al MacInnis all ha overshadowed the career of Zubov – fairly or unfairly.

All of these aforementioned defensemen won the James Norris Memorial Trophy as the league’s Best Defenseman between Zubov’s first season in the league and his last – Zubov didn’t.

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But during the 1993-94 season, Zubov was arguably the best out of them all. Bourque may have won the Norris Trophy that year – Zubov surprisingly came in fourth in the voting – but the Rangers’ blueliner provided more assists (77) than any other NHL defender. His 89 points during the regular season were the second most to Bourque for defensemen, and he was only short of first place by a mere two points.

In the grand scheme of things, Zubov was a very talented, unique ingredient that accentuated the slew of previous Stanley Cup winners on the Rangers into one last hurrah. Zubov’s individual heroics culminated into a Stanley Cup for the Rangers, and are what make his first full NHL season one for the ages.

Getting Zubov to Manhattan

The Rangers drafted Zubov in the fifth round of the 1990 NHL Draft – the 85th overall selection that year. This was the same draft which saw Jaromir Jagr, Petr Nedved, Owen Nolan, Keith Primeau and numerous other longtime NHLers be taken. Unlike most of those players – who were all chosen at the top of the draft – Zubov did not immediately make his NHL debut following the selection.

From the 1988-89 season through the 1991-92 campaign Zubov played in his native Russia for CSKA Moscow, also known as Red Army due to its prior affiliation with the Soviet Army military forces. He was routinely among the team’s leading scorers for defensemen.

With the eventual dissolve of the Soviet Union, Zubov made the jump to North America. He would split his first professional season – 1992-93 – between the parent club Rangers and their AHL minor league affiliate the Binghamton Rangers. Zubov was better than a point-per-game player in Binghamton, scoring seven goals and 29 assists for 36 points in 30 games. In that season’s AHL playoffs he continued his strong offensive play with five goals and five assists for 10 total points in 11 postseason contests.

Zubov’s play was equally impressive in his 49 NHL games in New York that year. Though the Rangers failed to make the playoffs during the 1992-93 season, their young Russian defenseman put forth eight goals and 23 assists for 31 points. It was a solid enough showing for any blueliner, but one that solidified Zubov to be a full-time skater on the club for the 1993-94 season.

The Opportunity to Be Creative With the Rangers

While there is no doubt that first-year Rangers Head Coach Mike Keenan maintained his status as proverbial taskmaster – something he garnered during his prior seasons coaching in the minors, and then with the NHL’s Philadelphia Flyers and Chicago Blackhawks – there was a plenitude of veteran leadership among the New York players themselves that could keep the team tight and on focus. Looking back, it was a perfectly shaped roster that could allow a talent like Zubov to be himself.

The young Russian had the finest support cast around him that one could imagine. The main workload among the defenders rested upon the shoulders of Leetch. The defender from Texas potted 23 regular season goals that year, and previously had a 100-point season.

Rugged, stay-at-home defenseman Jay Wells already had 14 prior NHL seasons under his belt, and would end up having a career of 18 seasons total. Eight different Rangers – Messier, Graves, Glenn Anderson, Craig MacTavish, Greg Gilbert, Kevin Lowe, Esa Tikkanen, and Jeff Beukeboom – had all won at least one Stanley Cup prior in their respective careers. Tough guys like Wells, Beukeboom, Mike Hartman, Joey Kocur and Nick Kypreos provided all of the protection and enforcement a young, high-flying Russian could need.

Yes, one of the benefits of having a team sculpted the way in which the 1993-94 New York Rangers were was that players like Zubov could fly and truly orchestrate plays, and be unencumbered. While there is no question that expectations were placed upon him, the pressure that oftentimes comes with such expectations was naturally alleviated because of who he was surrounded by.

In the end, the 23-year-old Zubov assembled a regular season of 12 goals, 77 assists, and 89 points in just 78 games. Messier was the only other Ranger to average more than a point per game with his 26 goals and 58 assists through 76 games.

A Closer Look at Zubov’s 89-Point Campaign

The 89 points and 77 assists would both be career highs for Zubov. In his years ahead he would have two more seasons in which he scored 12 goals, just shy of his career high of 13 tallies which he accomplished in both the 1996-97 and the 2005-06 seasons.

There is no question however that the 1993-94 season was by far Zubov’s best offensively. It exceeded his next highest total – 71 points in 78 games during the 2005-06 season – by 18 total points. 1993-94 was also one of just two seasons in which Zubov scored more than a point per game. Here is a look at some of his more memorable moments during the Rangers Cup-winning season:

Oct. 28, 1993: In Zubov’s fifth game of the season, he scored his first goal of the year against the visiting Montreal Canadiens. The Rangers peppered the defending Stanley Cup Champions and their goalie Patrick Roy for 42 shots total. Zubov beat Roy on the power play with less than six minutes to go in the game to make it 3-2. With only 10 seconds remaining in the game, he set up Adam Graves to knot the score at 3-3. After an overtime session was played, the game ended as a 3-3 tie much in thanks to Zubov’s efforts.

Oct. 30, 1993: The Rangers next game was played on the road in Hartford. New York would skate away with a decisive 4-1 win, and Zubov set up three of the goals that beat Whalers netminder Frank Pietrangelo. The first assist came from Graves’ seventh of the season. Zubov would add a secondary assist on Sergei Nemchinov’s goal to followup Graves in the opening frame, and then another tally from Graves in the third period on the power play.

Oct. 31, 1993: New York was back in Madison Square Garden for Halloween to face one of their arch rivals, the New Jersey Devils. With 37 shots on goal the Rangers pulled off a back-to-back 4-1 victory. This time Zubov set up sniper Mike Gartner – who would be traded during the season and was not part of the Cup victory – in the first period, and then once more in the third. The two assists gave Zubov six points within three games.

Nov. 23, 1993: Once again facing Montreal in a tight showdown, the Rangers came away with a 5-4 victory on home ice. In what would seem like the norm, Zubov set up Graves for the first goal of the game from either team with Leetch getting the secondary assist. Then in the second Zubov would score one himself off of a feed from Mike Hudson and Lowe. By the time the game was over, five different Rangers had scored with tallies from Messier, Gartner, and Eddie Olczyk as well.

Nov. 24, 1993: The very next day Zubov would again score a goal and an assist. Playing in Ottawa, the Rangers dispelled the lowly Senators 7-1. Ottawa managed a mere 15 shots on goal in the entire game. Zubov scored the first goal of the game – his third of the season – coming from Graves and Leetch. He and Tikkanen then assisted on Tony Amonte’s goal in the third to make it 5-1 before all was said and done.

Dec. 15, 1993: This would begin the finest stretch of Zubov’s play all season. He was about to unload with eight points in just three games. Facing the Whalers at home, the Rangers sent 41 shots at the Hartford net. Zubov and Graves set up Messier at 9:58 into the first period. Then the Russian blueliner scored the second goal of the game in the second period off of Messier’s 22nd assist of the season and an additional helper from Steve Larmer.  The Rangers came away with a 5-2 win.

Dec. 17, 1993: The next game was played on the road in Detroit against the Red Wings. 10 goals were scored in total, as the Rangers lost this one 6-4. However, Zubov himself would have three points on the night. Six goals were scored in the opening period alone, with four of them from Red Wings. Leetch scored both of the Rangers opening period goals, with Zubov assisting on the second one. Zubov scored in the second period on a pass from Leetch, and then assisted on Lowe’s goal in the third. The Red Wings’ Russians were mightier than the Rangers’ ones this night, as Vyacheslav Kozlov, Sergei Fedorov, and Vladimir Konstantinov each scored for Detroit.

Dec. 19, 1993: Back home to face the Senators once more, Zubov would have another three-point night with a followup goal and two assists. The Rangers would defeat Ottawa 6-3, with Zubov scoring their first goal of the game from Leetch and Messier to tie the score at 1-1. He would then earn his 24th and 25th assists of the season off of goals by Amonte and Gartner. The New York Russians certainly rebounded, as fellow countrymen Rangers Alexei Kovalev and Sergei Nemchinov each had three-point nights too.

Dec. 26, 1993: On the day after Christmas the Rangers crushed the Devils 8-3. New Jersey netminders Martin Brodeur and Chris Terreri each gave up four goals to the “Blueshirts” this game. Eight goals were scored in the first period alone, with five of them going to New York. Zubov earned three assists in that opening period alone, setting up two goals by Nemchinov and one by Gartner.

Jan. 25, 1994: Crushing the San Jose Sharks 8-3, Zubov assembled his highest point total on the season. Even though the Rangers were on the road, they dominated the game by beating Sharks goalie Arturs Irbe seven times on only 19 shots, and scoring one on Jimmy Waite while taking only two shots on him. Zubov had four assists on the night – setting up goals by Messier, Nemchinov, Larmer and finally Graves’ 30th goal of the season.

Feb. 14, 1994: Valentine’s Day in Quebec City, the Rangers defeated the Nordiques 4-2. Zubov earned assists on three of New York’s four goals. He picked up assists 49 and 50 from Larmer goals in the opening period, and then grabbed his 51st on Messier’s 23rd goal of the season in the second.

Feb. 24, 1994: Beating the Devils 3-1 in the Meadowlands, Zubov had a point on every Rangers goal. He would score the first one himself just 57 seconds into the game. Messier and Leetch picked up the helpers. Zubov then proceeded to set up goals by both Graves and Gilbert. The score by Graves was the game-winner and was his 43rd of the season.

Apr. 10, 1994: This contest would be Zubov’s sixth game of the season in which he recorded at least three assists. Playing against their most hated rival – the New York Islanders – on the road at Nassau Coliseum, the Rangers would lose a very close contest by a score of 5-4. Zubov set up Messier’s 25th and 26th goals of the season, and also assisted on Larmer’s 20th. As the game ended Zubov had 75 assists on the season.

Life After Zubov’s First Cup

Zubov’s heroics continued into the posteason for the Rangers. He played in 22 of the team’s 23 playoff games en route to the Cup, missing only Game Three of the Stanley Cup Final against the Vancouver Canucks on Jun. 4, 1994.

During the pivotal Game Seven at Madison Square Garden, Zubov assisted on Leetch’s opening score of the game and Graves’ power play goal – both in the first period. The Rangers would go on to win the game by a score of 3-2, with Messier eventually netting the game-winner and ending the 54-year drought.

Looking back however, Zubov’s time with the Rangers was rather brief. He played only one more season in New York after winning the Cup, albeit the lockout shortened 1994-95 season. In a trade that ultimately meant little to either team, the Rangers shipped Zubov and Petr Nedved to the Pittsburgh Penguins on Aug. 31, 1995 in exchange for Luc Robitaille and Ulf Samuelsson.

Zubov played all of one season with the Penguins. During the 1995-96 season, he posted his only other year of having more points in a season than games played. In a hampered season of 64 games, Zubov scored 11 goals and 55 assists for 66 points.

Where Zubov ended up having his longest stay and arguably his most success was with the Dallas Stars.

Shortly after his lone season in Pittsburgh came to a close, he was swapped with giant-sized offensive-defender Kevin Hatcher on Jun. 22, 1996 and ended up in the “Lone Star State”. Of his 16 NHL seasons, Zubov played 12 of them with the Stars. During the 1998-99 season, the now veteran Russian defender was again pivotal in helping Dallas to their first and thus far only Stanley Cup when they defeated the Buffalo Sabres four games to two.

After winning his second Cup Zubov played nine more seasons in the league. His final campaign was an abbreviated 2008-09 season when he played all of 10 games for the Stars and tallied four assists in the process. Zubov’s final regular season totals amounted to 152 goals, 619 assists and 771 points in 1,068 career games.

Eventual Hall of Fame Induction

In 2019, Zubov received one final moment in the sun. The quieter Russian was bestowed with a well-deserved enshrinement into the Hockey Hall of Fame. It was a decade in the making, but at least Zubov was given his due.

Underrated and somewhat overlooked for many years, the numbers themselves make the validity of his induction so much more obvious.

Consider the list of Norris Trophy-winning defensemen who spanned from his rookie season of 1992-93 through his final year of 2008-09. Zubov won more Stanley Cups than Leetch, Chara, Blake, MacInnis, Bourque, and Pronger.

Zubov’s high of 77 assists in a season is more helpers than Lidstrom, Niedermayer, MacInnis, Pronger, Chelios, Chara, Bourque, Stevens, or Blake had in a single season – only Leetch and Coffey ever had more.

Zubov’s 771 regular season tallies are more career points than either Neidermayer, Pronger, and Chara, and are shy of Blake’s total by a measly six points, while all of them played roughly at least 200 more games than the Russian.

What makes Zubov’s 1993-94 campaign so remarkable – a one for the ages – is that it happened in his first complete NHL season. And from there, he still managed to play 14 more seasons in the NHL, win another Stanley Cup, and forge a career that landed him in the Hockey Hall of Fame. The 1993-94 season – in retrospect – is the cherry on top of a remarkable career.