Sergei Mozyakin vs. the Record Books
He’s at it again, folks; Metallurg Magnitogorsk’s Sergei Valeryevich Mozyakin, having recently broken the records for goals in a single KHL regular season and in a Soviet/Russian domestic hockey career, has added another notch to his gun. His 81st point of 2016-17, achieved at home today against Severstal Cherepovets, surpassed the 80 that Alexander Radulov put up for Salavat Yulaev in 2010-11, and set a new KHL season mark in that category. Read on, for further discussion.
The most recent record-breaking tally had something of Alexander Ovechkin about it; encamped on the powerplay in the same face-off circle whence the Washington Capitals superstar does so much of his lethal work, Mozyakin accepted a splendid cross-ice pass from Danis Zaripov and whistled a typically laser-like one-timer past Roman Smiryagin and just inside the near post (video link is here, with the play beginning at 4:50 if the clip is not queued up). It was the second time that Mozyakin had put the puck behind Smiryagin in the game, en route to a 6-4 Metallurg victory. The Magnitogorsk side has already clinched the top seed in the East Conference, and will, once the trifling matter of three remaining regular season games is dealt with, look ahead to what should be a deep playoff run.
As for Mozyakin, there may well be more records broken in 2016-17. At 44 goals on the season, he is now threatening to break the mark for most in one campaign including the playoffs; that record he set himself, with 47 in 2013-14. Beyond that lies Veniamin Alexandrov’s all-time Soviet and Russian league record of 53 goals set in 1962-63. And all of this he is doing at the tender age of 35 (Mozyakin will turn 36 in late March).
Nice collection of Mozyakin’s best goals for Metallurg.
We now turn to questions, beginning with: what is it that makes Mozyakin so good? This pleasant topic has been discussed here before, but to recap: he combines an uncanny ability to predict the course of play with an equally eerie (and related) knack for evading the attention of opposing defencemen, and tops that off with a superb shot — very hard and very accurate. His Canadian team-mate Chris Lee, who drew the second assist on the record-breaking goal today, put it thus in an interview this past November:
“It seems to me that on a mental level the game moves at a very different speed for him. In his mind, [the game] is much slower than it is for others, [and] than it is in reality.”
That explanation tells us much about how Mozyakin has maintained his ferocious scoring pace even at an age when most offense-first players have seen their numbers decline precipitously.
Another question that inevitably crops up from time to time about Sergei Mozyakin is: why, with all his talent, did he never cross the sea to the NHL? Mozyakin does have North American experience, albeit brief; in 1998-99, at the age of 17, he and forward Igor Yemeleyev left the youth program at their hometown Torpedo Yaroslavl club (now Lokomotiv) and joined the Val d’Or Foreurs of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. The problem: neither Mozyakin nor Yemeleyev had obtained permission from Torpedo for the move, and in fact their youth coach Gennady Khaletskov was accused of taking a kickback from the QMJHL and was fired over the whole escapade (Mozyakin discussed the affair in a 2008 interview). After a mere four games in Quebec, and one assist for Mozyakin, the two were summoned back to Russia and dutifully obeyed. Torpedo subsequently shipped both youngsters off to CSKA Moscow and the tutelage of head coach Viktor Tikhonov. Mozyakin was then drafted by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the ninth round in 2002, but nothing much came of that, and there is no sign that he ever even attended an NHL training camp (hat-tip to Anne for that info). And that’s been about it for his connections to North American hockey, although there were rumours in 2013 that the Pittsburgh Penguins were trying to bring him over.
In the same 2008 interview linked above, Mozyakin said that “there never burned a special desire to go to America,” although he did admit to thinking a lot about the NHL in his younger days. In truth, there were some compelling circumstances to keep him in Russia. To begin with, by the time he was drafted in 2002 he had a young family to think about; he and his wife, his high-school sweetheart Yuliya, had welcomed their son Andrei into the world just a year prior. Furthermore, Russian hockey was beginning to emerge from the severe problems of the 1990s, and young Mozyakin was working with a coach in Tikhonov who — evil reputation aside — was one of very best in the history of the game. As for the Blue Jackets, they had invested only a late-round draft pick in Mozyakin, and so had little incentive to break the bank bringing him over.
There are other factors to consider as well. In 2002, the NHL was still mired in the deep darkness of the appalling “dead puck” era, when clutching and grabbing ruled the day and skill and imagination were given short shrift by many coaches. Mozyakin’s game, so exquisitely suited to the big ice surfaces of European hockey, might have been difficult to translate to the North American setting. Then there is the fact that Mozyakin was very much on the “small” side of the ledger, 5’11” and then weighing about 160 pounds (he is now officially listed at 185) — this in an era when size mattered to NHL general managers as much as or more than it does now.
None of that should be taken as meaning that Mozyakin would have failed in the NHL — he’s too good, and too smart, to make that even close to a certainty. However, success would have required in particular the sort of coach who could recognize what he had in Mozyakin, a Tikhonov-trained player whose gifts and whose style harken back to the finest traditions of hockey as it was developed in the USSR, and build a game-plan around that. The likes of Scotty Bowman or Roger Neilson would have known exactly what to do with a Sergei Mozyakin, and he likely would have thrived playing for them. However, to hand him over to the tender mercies of a “dump and chase, grind it out in the corners” bench boss, of which there were and are far too many, would have been to waste Mozyakin’s talent to a degree that borders on criminal. In short, while it is always fun to speculate over what might have been, there is also a good chance that things have worked out for the best the way they have.
The final question is the one that haunts the nightmares of KHL executives and fans alike: how much more Sergei Mozyakin will we get? He is, after all and as noted, 35 years old, and the day is coming (may it not be soon!), when time will catch up with him. Fortunately, it does not appear that he will be leaving the scene in the near future. Although his contract with Metallurg expires at the end of 2017-18, he has spoken in the past of his desire to stay in Magnitogorsk. Mozyakin has also said (and I apologize, but I could not find the link for this) that he wants to hang around long enough to play in the KHL alongside his son (Andrei is now 15, and showing some promise as a forward in Metallurg’s youth system). So for now it seems that we can happily just sit back and watch as Sergei Mozyakin puts together what is almost certainly the greatest season a player has ever had in the KHL!