In recent years, more complete records for Soviet league scoring, World Championship scoring and awards voting, and Soviet MVP voting have emerged, allowing hockey historians to more accurately judge Soviet hockey players that were rarely seen on a regular basis by North American audiences while in their prime. Some did have careers in North America after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but almost all of the transplanted Soviet hockey players were past their prime.
Most started their professional careers at the age of 18, and as a result, by the time they were 30 were well past their prime with 12 professional years under their belt. In an effort to pay homage to the greatest Soviet players of all time, here are the 5 greatest defensemen from the Soviet Union. To be considered, a player must have played at least half of his professional career in the Soviet Union.
1. Viacheslav Fetisov
This one is a no brainer. By basically every metric, Fetisov laps the competition when talking about the greatest Soviet defensemen of all time. Standing at a stout 6’1″, 220 lbs, Fetisov was an excellent skater and remarkably mobile. He was a fantastic two-way defenseman that could play the body, move the puck, and possessed a hockey IQ that was off the charts. There was nothing that he could not do.
Fetisov was a nine time World Championships All Star, five time World Championships Best Defenseman, and nine time Soviet 1st Team All Star, which is the most or tied for the most among all Soviet defensemen. The next closest defenseman in each of those categories had 5, 3, and 9, respectively. However, the statistic that shows just how dominant Fetisov was is Soviet MVP voting. Seven times, Fetisov was voted in the top 3 of Soviet MVP voting, winning the award twice. Only one other defenseman in Soviet hockey history, Valeri Vasiliev, was named in the top three once.
Fans in North America may remember Fetisov more as a member of the New Jersey Devils and Detroit Red Wings. There, he was a solid defenseman, but not world class. That’s because he was 31 by the time he arrived in North America, having played 13 seasons in the Soviet Union already. In addition, Fetisov was in a completely foreign world with a completely different culture, and style of playing hockey. Viacheslav Fetisov in his prime was probably the best defenseman in the world.
Still need more proof? In 1983, Wayne Gretzky called Fetisov the best defenseman he’s ever played against.
2. Valeri Vasiliev
Vasiliev did not play a traditional Soviet style, but was still a remarkably effective player. Perhaps the most physical Soviet player of all time, Vasiliev was a master of the hip check and loved to play a North American style of hockey. He was not an offensive dynamo, but was a very adept passer, and a good skater despite his unorthodox stride.
Throughout the entire 1970s, Vasiliev was the key cog in the Soviet defense. He was a Soviet 1st Team All Star eight times, a World Championship All Star five times, and was named the Best Defenseman at the World Championships on three occasions. Although Vasiliev never played in the NHL, and was not at his peak during the 1972 Summit Series, he deserves to be remembered as an all-time great.
Vasiliev was particularly effective playing against NHLers and North American competition due to his physical, in-your-face style.
3. Alexei Kasatonov
The longtime partner of Viacheslav Fetisov, Kasatonov was the other defenseman that formed the famed Green Unit. While Kasatonov was not the best defenseman on that pairing, he is certainly no bum. He played a fairly similar style to Fetisov in that he could do it all as a defenseman. He possessed good offensive abilities, but did not have the elite offensive abilities that Fetisov possessed.
At 6’1″, 215 lbs, he was a big, strong player that was also very mobile. He played physically, but was more subtle than Vasiliev. Vasiliev dished out bone-crunching hits, whereas Kasatonov used his size to effectively position himself and rub forwards out. If Fetisov was the Bobby Orr of the Soviet Union, Kasatonov was Denis Potvin.
Kasatonov was a Soviet 1st Team All Star nine times, a World Championship All Star five times, and was named the Best Defenseman at the World Championships on one occasion. Kasatonov spent seven seasons in the NHL, where his physicality was a useful asset. When he and Fetisov first joined the New Jersey Devils in 1989-90, Kasatonov actually outplayed Fetisov for a few years because his style was more suited to the North American game. However, when both were at their best in the Soviet league, Fetisov was the superior player.
4. Alexander Ragulin
“Alexander Ragulin personified the Russian bear. He was the kind of player that no forward really wanted to confront in the corner or in front of the Soviet net. Ragulin was probably the most dominating international defenseman in the ’60s.”
That quote is courtesy of IIHF President, Rene Fasel. During the 1972 Summit Series, Ragulin was the man tasked with handling Phil Esposito in front of the Canadian net. At 6’1″, 220 lbs, Ragulin was the only Soviet defenseman on the team that was larger than Esposito (6’1″, 205), and possessed the acumen in front of the net to handle Phil.
Patrolling the blueline for the Soviets throughout the 1960s, Ragulin was a very physical player that was a menace in his defensive end. He could make a good outlet pass and had a good shot, but did not jump into the offensive play very often. In terms of accolades, Ragulin was a nine time Soviet First Team All Star, two time Soviet Third Team All Star, five time World Championships All Star, and was named the Best Defenseman at the World Championships once.
At face value, that resume appears to be slightly more impressive than Kasatonov’s. In addition, Ragulin was the best Soviet defender of his era; Kasatonov was second best, and usually the second best player on his pairing.
However, Kasatonov is a clear step above Ragulin because of questions about the quality of Ragulin’s competition. For example, in 1961, Ragulin’s first season as a Soviet First Team All Star, the Soviet team lost 5-1 to Canada in the World Championships. On that Canadian team, their best player was Jackie McLeod, who had an NHL career of just 106 games.
During Ragulin’s career, Soviet hockey advanced at a light speed, considering that by 1972, just 11 years later, they were just as good as a team of NHL all stars. It is possible that Ragulin was head and shoulders better than his teammates in 1961, and Ragulin did not have the supporting cast to beat a team that consisted of Canadians that for the most part could not make the NHL.
5. Vladimir Lutchenko
Lutchenko, alongside Valeri Vasiliev, was one of the strongest defensemen in Soviet hockey in the 1970s. Possessing good all-around ability, Lutchenko was equally adept in the offensive and defensive zones. He had a strong slapshot from the point, and played a physical, yet clean game in his own end.
During his career, Lutchenko was named a Soviet First Team All Star on seven occasions. However, he never received the honor of being on a World Championships All Star team or being named the Best Defenseman in the World Championships. Remarkably, the four defensemen above were the only Soviet rearguards to be named to either distinction from 1961 to 1989.
Greatest Defensemen of Soviet Hockey, Honorable Mention:
- Nikolai Sologubov: Playing in the 1950s, Sologubov is referred to as the Soviet Bobby Orr by some. He loved to jump into the offensive attack, and put up some crooked offensive numbers. He was a seven time Soviet First Team All Star, and was a three time World Championships Best Defenseman. However, his teams regularly lost by large margins to teams of Canadian amateurs that could not even make the NHL, raising serious questions about the quality of his competition.
- Vladimir Konstantinov: Known as Vlad the Impaler due to the devastating bodychecks he used to throw, Konstantinov had his career cut tragically short due to a car accident at age 29. Konstantinov seemed to just be hitting his stride in the NHL at that point, finishing second and fourth in Norris Trophy voting the two seasons before the accident.
Bill Schoeninger is a Philadelphia Flyers writer and current Boston University student studying business. Coming to THW from Hometown Hockey, Bill follows and writes about the Flyers, Boston University Terriers, and NHL Draft prospects. Follow him on twitter @BSchoeninger17