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Steal of the Century // Star Telegram, Fort Worth, Texas
The best trade the team ever made was getting defenseman Sergei Zubov from Pittsburgh in 1996.
By JENNIFER FLOYD
"`Would you be interested in Sergei Zubov?"'
"`We'd want Hatcher."'
"Two minutes," is how long Stars coach Ken Hitchcock estimates the phone call between Stars general manager Bob Gainey and Pittsburgh GM Craig Patrick lasted. A 14-word conversation, give or take a few pleasantries, was all that was needed to convince Gainey to trade for defenseman Sergei Zubov on June 22, 1996.
Truth be told, the Stars were coming off a 66-point, no-playoffs kind of horrendous season and had been looking to get rid of defenseman Kevin Hatcher anyway. The Penguins took Hatcher off the Stars' hands and handed them a bona fide star.
"He has a perfect shot, he has good puck strength, he can read the game really well, and he's a great skater," New York Islanders center Alexei Yashin said. "So that's why he is one of the best."
Some of hockey's better names had been dangled to Gainey as trade bait before, only to have him politely decline. Gainey is not what one would call a willy-nilly dealmaker. Relatively few blockbusters have been executed under his watch in Dallas. But, in 1996, Gainey took the road less traveled, and it has made all the difference.
Not only did the Stars finish 26-42-14 in 1995-96, but they finished sixth in the Central Division that season - one spot worse than the season before and three spots worse than the season before that. That is the team Zubov joined. That isn't the team Zubov is on.
The Stars have won five consecutive divisional titles since acquiring Zubov, never finishing with fewer than 102 points in that span. He also played an integral role in bringing a Stanley Cup to Dallas in 1999.
"Winning," Stars assistant GM Doug Armstrong noted, "seems to follow Zubie around."
No NHL team Zubov has played for has failed to make the playoffs. He won a Stanley Cup with the New York Rangers in 1994. He reached an Eastern Conference Finals with the Penguins in 1995-96, his only season in Pittsburgh before Patrick unloaded him. Why Zubov was unloaded is a complicated matter. The short answer is that Penguins superstar Mario Lemieux did not like Zubov very much. Zubov's penchant for passing frustrated Lemieux, who wanted him to shoot the puck. And be better defensively.
"We disagreed at some point. I guess management decided to get a more defensive player. That's the way it is," Zubov said. "Maybe they did want me to shoot more. I always want to make a play, maybe even a fancy play. I think that's the beauty of hockey."
If playmaking is art, Zubov is Monet. He sees the game in a way few do. Or as Stars defenseman Richard Matvichuk explains, Zubov makes plays others would not think of attempting. Against Nashville in April, Zubov threaded a pass between Shaun Van Allen's skates to a wide-open Jamie Langenbrunner on the other side of the net for an easy goal.
Asked afterward why he did not touch it, Van Allen said: "The pass was from Zubie. And if it wasn't on my tape, it wasn't for me." "He finds the open guy when you don't think there is one there," Philadelphia forward Jeremy Roenick said. "He typifies grace and just absolute steady calmness. The guy doesn't seem to panic in any situation. He really is a treat to watch and a pain ... to play against."
Not only is Zubov a pain while scoring goals, but he's a pain at preventing them as well. Zubov brought offense to the Stars' defense in 1996, and the Stars have been bringing defense to Zubov's offense ever since. How else do you explain one of the best power-play quarterbacks saying he takes as much pride in killing power plays as he does directing them? Or why a supposedly "offensive defenseman" was paired with Matvichuk for most of last season in a shutdown role?
"I sense at times he feels like he has a responsibility to really help the team offensively. So, sometimes, it's natural for him, on a balance scale, to be a little more on that side," Stars assistant coach Rick Wilson said. "But, you know, with us, we ask him to do everything in equal amounts, and he does."
His ability to do both, and do both well, prompted Hitchcock to call Zubov "the most underrated player in the league" earlier this season. He might be right, too. Zubov has never gotten a sniff of Norris Trophy consideration despite being as good as the Brian Leetches, Nicklas Lidstroms and Ray Bourques offensively while being held to a higher standard defensively.
"If the coaches picked [the Norris], he'd be there every year because he does all the little things that you love as a coach," Hitchcock said. "He makes all the little plays that get you out of all kinds of hot water, every game."
He also makes a few that get them into it because Zubov is still Zubov. He attempts plays that leave Hitchcock, Wilson and Matvichuk muttering "What's he doing?" in one breath and saying, "Oh, yeah, that's pretty good" in another. Call that his Russian influence. Zubov was born, raised and played his formative hockey years in Mother Russia, and like many Eastern European
players, had to adjust to North American NHL hockey. "Sometimes the Russian guys, it's hard to adjust because there are many people around here who are looking for aggressive players, more physical hockey," Zubov said, "and you don't see that as much in Russian players."
Which is why New York, and even Pittsburgh with its wide-open style, seemed to be good fits for Zubov. "Seemed to be" are the operative words because Pittsburgh wasn't a good fit. Zubov said he knew a trade was coming after 1996. You don't clash with Lemieux and expect to stay. Zubov just didn't know where he'd end up.
"When the phone rang during the draft, I knew, but Dallas surprised me," Zubov said. "The team was, well, bad, a horrible year. I was coming off two pretty good teams, playing in the playoffs all the time, and, all of a sudden, I found myself on a team that pretty much was at that bottom."
He didn't want to come. He almost didn't. He's glad he did. "The feeling totally changed here, disappeared," Zubov said. "You've got to give credit to Bob. He did a great job of bringing in the right people." Including one Kevin Hatcher for Sergei Zubov deal.
15 сентября. Stars' Zubov may benefit from rules changes
- The Dallas Morning News
6 декабря. Сергей Зубов - "Так кто же отправил меня
в "Ак Барс" // "Спорт-Экспресс"
23 июня. Сергей Зубов: "В блокаде нахожусь уже два
года" - Спорт-Экспресс.
17 января. Сергей Зубов: Будет локаут – поеду на рыбалку
- Советский Спорт
15 октября. Русский ковбой. (Сергей Зубов) - "Советский
15 сентября. Stars' Zubov may benefit from rules changes - The Dallas Morning News
6 декабря. Сергей Зубов - "Так кто же отправил меня в "Ак Барс" // "Спорт-Экспресс"
23 июня. Сергей Зубов: "В блокаде нахожусь уже два года" - Спорт-Экспресс.
17 января. Сергей Зубов: Будет локаут – поеду на рыбалку - Советский Спорт
15 октября. Русский ковбой. (Сергей Зубов) - "Советский Спорт"