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Rambler's Top100

23 2003 . 
What's Wrong With Yashin? - Newsday

Friends, teammates, coaches all have their theories

By Alan Hahn

Statistics always had a way of protecting Alexei Yashin. The numbers were so fat and round, no one could find fault with him. Statistics proved he was a producer, a performer, an impact player. Statistics won him an unprecedented 10-year, $90-million contract with the Islanders.

"He's an offensive threat," said Tampa Bay All-Star goalie Nikolai Khabibulin, who grew up with Yashin in Russia and knows him well. "You always have to be aware of him."

When critics pounded other aspects of his game, Yashin and his supporters could always point to the statistics. But not this season. Yashin's sagging point production has shifted the focus from statistics to intangibles, and the questions about his defense and effort suddenly are difficult to deflect.

Entering this season, his ninth in the NHL, Yashin had 250 goals and 566 points in 582 games. This season, he has 14 goals in 60 games and a glaring minus-18 rating. His critics now include some of his Islanders teammates, who see an underachieving star on an overachieving team.

"We're not talking about money. It doesn't matter how much you make," veteran grinder Claude Lapointe said. "You battle; you do your job ... You do things to win hockey games. And he's got to learn that."

The Islanders are trying to answer a crucial question as the trade deadline nears with a second straight playoff berth in sight:

Is Yashin's slump because of a lack of effort or just bad chemistry? Could it be a brief crisis in confidence or has his power game become obsolete?

"I don't want to force anything to happen," Yashin said last week in Los Angeles, where trade rumors became a hot topic of conversation. "From my perspective, I will play with anybody and try to play as hard as I can."

"I think he's got more to offer," general manager Mike Milbury said. "He can play better."

A BAD START

The season started slowly for Yashin and the Islanders, who played without injured captain Michael Peca for the first six weeks. But though Yashin's goal total was down, his point production was at his usual pace, with 10 goals and 35 points after 38 games. Yashin, with a shooting percentage well below his average early in the season, looked to pass more and racked up assists at a career-best rate.

But then an early January slump turned into a second-half swoon. Since Jan. 3, Yashin has just four goals and nine points in 22 games. Many scoring chances that would have been buried by Yashin earlier in his career missed badly. As his failures mounted, so did his tendency to take bad shots.

Perhaps more troubling, opponents began to bump Yashin off the puck, which had been virtually impossible to do to the 6-3, 220-pound Yashin earlier in his career.

"I think he's second-guessing himself," Milbury said. "He's clearly got the same skill level, same talent level. It didn't go in for him early and he lost a lot of his confidence."

His teammates might be losing confidence in him as well.

"If Yash isn't going to score, then he's got to play good defense," goalie Chris Osgood said earlier this season. "He has to do other things. It's tough to score in this league, so if Alexei Yashin doesn't score, that doesn't mean he can't have a good game."

Islanders coach Peter Laviolette made efforts to handle the situation this season as delicately and internally as possible. But after a 2-0 loss in Nashville on Feb. 13 in which Yashin was practically invisible, Laviolette made matters public. After what one person with knowledge of the situation called "a kick in the pants" from Laviolette after the game, Yashin was demoted to the fourth line.

Yashin, 29, who after years of negative press in Ottawa remains guarded when talking to the media, reacted stoically and accepted his punishment.

When he told girlfriend Carol Alt about it over the phone, Yashin's tone never changed.

"He said to me, 'It's what's best for the team,"' Alt said.

Todd Diamond, an agent who represents Yashin, said the demotion came as a shock because Yashin has never had a slump like this in his career.

"No question it's been difficult for him," Diamond said. "He's used to success and he's proud of it."

Though the team has been winning despite Yashin's lack of production, the players know he's essential if the Islanders are going to go far in the playoffs. When he does score, the entire bench gets a lift. But that does not ease doubts about him.

"Yash is a great player when he wants to go out there and give it his all," forward Arron Asham said after Yashin's demotion. "This [the demotion] might be good for him. It should get him back on track. I sure hope so because we need him for the playoffs."

'A QUESTION OF CHEMISTRY'

Earlier in the season, Oleg Kvasha was flying up the ice with the puck on his stick. As he headed into the offensive zone, he looked around as the defense converged on him and was astonished when he realized he was alone.

"Where is he?" Kvasha remembered wondering as he dumped the puck deep into the zone. Lagging behind the play was Yashin. Never one to join in a rush, Yashin prefers to hang back and scan a play as it develops, then look for the open shot. Unfortunately, that might be part of the problem.

Yashin, whose grinding approach works well on a team predicated on a power game, sometimes is left behind by the Islanders' emphasis on speed and tenacity.

Yashin still is apt to get his scoring chances, bulling around the ice and showing his dazzling puck skills in a confined space. But there are times his shifts seem to be made up of figure eights in the neutral zone while the rest of the skaters whiz from one end of the ice to the other.

Compounding the problem has been the difficulty of finding players who mesh with his style. More than a dozen different wingers have skated alongside Yashin in his season-plus with the Islanders, and the team recently looked at possible trades in a desperate effort to find a player who can help Yashin get his groove back.

"There are some pretty good wingers on the Island," Diamond said. "I guess it's a question of chemistry."

Names such as Ziggy Palffy, Ray Whitney and Miroslav Satan have been considered as solutions to the Yashin problem as the March 11 trade deadline nears.

"Ideally, you'd like a guy who can finish, because he's a great passer and has great vision," Ottawa Senators coach Jacques Martin said of Yashin, whom he coached. "But he's a shooter, too, so you have to have someone to get him the puck."

Martin primarily used speedster Shawn McEachern and smart, defensive-minded Andreas Dackell as Yashin's linemates with the Senators. Yashin twice had 40-goal seasons with Ottawa. In 1998-99, he had a career-best 44 goals and 94 points and was runner-up for the Hart Trophy as league MVP.

"It was a pretty consistent line," Martin said. "In general terms, you could say that you'd like some speed and defense with Yashin. A lot of the time, McEachern was the first in the zone, forechecking or taking shots. That [line] was ideal for us because of the chemistry."

McEachern, whom the Islanders decided against trading for last summer and who now plays for the Atlanta Thrashers, said there wasn't much strategy to his success with Yashin.

"I just kept every game simple," said McEachern, who once scored more than 30 goals as Yashin's wingman. "I tried to use my speed a lot and forechecked. He's one of the most talented players in the league, so you just play off him. You get him the puck in the offensive zone."

One of Yashin's friends in the NHL, Florida Panthers forward Viktor Kozlov, said Yashin's struggles probably are a combination of factors. "Maybe he doesn't have the right partner, maybe he's not confident enough or maybe he's tired or something," Kozlov said. "But something is wrong."

Kozlov, another player the Islanders considered acquiring to boost Yashin, was asked if he thinks it is indeed a lack of chemistry with his wingers. "Ohhhh," replied Kozlov, a former teammate of Yashin in Russia, "no comment."

KEEP SHOOTING

There was no question about Yashin's effort last week against the Mighty Ducks in Anaheim, where he showed the explosive touch that can dominate a game. Late in the third period, he skated hard up the ice, picked up a drop-pass from Asham on a rush and shot a trademark bullet from the top of the left circle. The puck tucked under the crossbar and inside the far post, a place not many shooters in the NHL could hit in 10 tries. Yashin did it on the move through a screen with a goalie in the way. It brought his teammates to their feet.

It was a big goal that not only ended his seven-game drought but tied the score and earned the Islanders a crucial point. If Laviolette and the Islanders were looking for a reaction to his demotion, Yashin provided one at the perfect moment.

"The best answer is what he did against Anaheim," Diamond said. "Come down and fire a laser."

After the goal celebration, Yashin picked up the puck and tossed it to an equipment manager for safekeeping. Pucks usually are retrieved for a memorable goal or when a milestone is reached. Perhaps this situation was both. It depends on what the statistics say from that moment on.

Mystery Man

Crunching Alexei Yahsin's key stats:

Goals/Game

Last Season: 0.41

This Season: 0.23

Point/Game

Last Season: 0.96

This Season: 0.73

+/-:

Last Season: -3

This Season: -18 

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16 . .

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5 . No cash for Yashin, either - The Ottawa Citizen
 

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"¨ " @ c 1997