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Sergei Zubov is an enigma. // The Dallas Morning News
By Mike Heika / The Dallas Morning News
The 30-year-old defenseman has one of the best slap shots on the Stars, yet he doesn't shoot often enough. He's one of the quickest players on the team, yet he usually tries to slow the pace of a game. He's one of the sport's most intelligent players, but he rarely shares his vision of the game.
And while the Stars are often confused by the things they don't understand about Sergei Zubov, they're more than happy to look at their Rubik's Cube and realize it can be just as pretty when the rows aren't all lined up.
"He's a special talent,'' said former Stars director of player personnel Craig Button. "He really sees the game differently than anyone else on the team, and he has the skill to be able to make the vision in his mind happen on the ice.''
Button, now general manager of the Calgary Flames, used to rank players' individual talents on the Stars. He gave Zubov top marks for best hockey sense, best passer, best backhanded shot and put him second behind Mike Modano for best slap shot. In short, there is very little that Zubov can't do on the ice.
And maybe that's one reason it's so difficult to understand Zubov's special way of looking at the game. What seems obvious to fans – and even sometimes coaches – is not so obvious to a mind raised in the patient system of Soviet hockey.
"He sees the game a different way, and we try to encourage that as much as possible,'' said Stars assistant coach Rick Wilson, who handles the defensemen. "At the same time, I think he's seen over the years that what we do can fit in very well with what he does.''
Zubov instinctively knows the offensive game, but has been taught to understand positional defense. He lives a game of puck possession, yet has learned the value of dump and chase. He aches to complete a perfect pass on every play, but now realizes that sometimes a straight-on slap shot will get the job done just as well.
And in getting Zubov to this point, both sides have learned a great deal.
"The hardest thing these days is to find the place between where you want to play and where the coach wants you to play,'' Zubov said. "You have to keep your coaches happy and keep yourself satisfied. There are times when you really want to try some high-risk things – that's why you play the game, to make that one play that nobody thinks you can make. But at the same time, you've got to do your job and do what's best for the team.
"We're trying to find the spot that's somewhere in between,'' Zubov added. • When Zubov first joined the Stars in a trade from the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1996, Wilson let his talented defenseman find his own way, gently pushing and pulling until Zubov understood the reasons the Stars ran the offense they did. In Europe, possession is considered the key to a successful offense.
In the Stars' system, defensemen often give up possession, dump the puck into the offensive zone and let the forwards retrieve the loose rubber as a way of getting around the defensive traps. In Europe, defensemen believe the best way to cross up a goalie is to make pretty cross-ice passes to change the point of attack.
The differences are notable, and the culture shock was great for Zubov when he first came to Dallas. So Wilson decided early on that the give and take would have to be mostly give.
"Basically, after five or six weeks, we decided that we needed to be the ones to adapt to him rather than him adapt to us,'' Wilson said. "And I think, after a while, we really started to understand better how Zubie sees the game.''
In Zubov's second full season, the Stars won the Presidents' Trophy for the best regular-season record in the NHL. They also had the top power play and one of the best penalty-killing teams – elements of the game in which Zubov was key.
The melding was strangely perfect. Zubov learned to give up the puck when there was no other option, and the Stars learned that they had to wait just an extra second when they were moving into the offensive zone because Zubov could change his mind in a moment.
Eventually, Zubov turned into a wily point guard of sorts, slowly working his way up ice, skates spread wide, listing back and forth like a sailboat as he pulled opposing players out of position. And the Stars fed off that patience.
But just as the Stars have changed personnel this season, they must also change tactics, so the coaching staff has given Zubov a new challenge this season: Step up the pace, attack more, shoot more, put the pressure on the opposing team with the Stars' new mix of youth, speed and aggressive play.
"It's something that we have complete faith in him to do,'' Stars coach Ken Hitchcock said. "We need to push the play more.''
And so you will see Zubov change his game, acquiesce a little more to the coaches' wishes. You will see the puzzle fall into its ordered spaces just a little more often.
Just not too often, teammates say.
After all, you don't want to stifle Zubov's creativity.
"When you get out on the ice with the guy, you're just amazed at everything he can do,'' Modano said. "Whenever we're out there, I can tell you that we usually find a way to have some fun with the puck.''
So much so that Wilson said it's time to consider Zubov one of the top defenseman in the NHL. Zubov, who usually finishes with 20 fewer points than the highest-scoring defenseman, hasn't ranked higher than ninth in voting for the Norris Trophy over the past six seasons. But Wilson said voters aren't seeing all of the intricacies that make Zubov one of the Stars' most valuable players.
"I think it's time that people started looking at him on the same level with, say, a Nick Lidstrom,'' Wilson said of the Red Wings defenseman, who has been a three-time finalist for the Norris Trophy.
"I don't think enough is made of how we use him. We're known as one of the top defensive teams in the league, and he is certainly one of the top defensive players. He's the leader of the power play, he's a key part of the penalty kill, he's becoming a big part of shutting down other team's top line, he's becoming a key part of shutting down games in the final 10 minutes. He's very reliable in every aspect of the game.''
And, when you get right down to it, there's no puzzle to that.
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