Top 20 Dallas Stars, #3: Sergei Zubov

Overview: Sergei Zubov came to the Stars as part of the one of the most lopsided trades in team (and possibly league) history when the Pittsburgh Penguins traded him straight-up for Kevin Hatcher on June 22, 1996. During his 12 seasons in Dallas, he scored 119 goals and dished out 461 assists while playing as the Stars top offensive defenseman and power-play quarterback. He struggled with a hip issue in his final seasons, playing just 67 games over his final two seasons combined, and eventually made the move to the KHL, where he played one season with St. Petersburg SKA before retiring for good in 2011.

Why He's On The List: Simply put, he's the best defenseman in franchise history. While he didn't have imposing size or top-flight speed, his soft hands and remarkable on-ice vision made him an incredible asset on both offense and defense. He always knew exactly where to be or who was open for a quick one timer, and he was a master at the subtle head and shoulder fake to buy those crucial extra seconds. While he never matched his blistering production from his rookie season with the New York Rangers, he was the engine that made a dominant Stars defense go for the late 1990s and much of the 2000s.

Zubov was famously a player of few words, so I'll let one of his teammates do the talking for him.

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."

That quote, from this 2001 Fort Worth Star-Telegram column, is Zubov in a nutshell.

His strength was the combination of off-the-charts vision and exacting precision, from taking the correct angle to push the forward to the outside to being able to throw a no-look backhand saucer pass to a wide open man on the power play. And when the shootout came into play in 2005-06, Zubov proved he was pretty good with a little stick fake/pop-the-water-bottle combination too.

What's more, he made it all look ridiculously simple. Take this goal, against the Anaheim Ducks from 2007, and remember this was against a team that went on to win the Stanley Cup that year.

Zubov became the first and thus-far only defenseman in NHL history to lead a first-place team in scoring when he put up an incredible 89 points, 77 of those assists, in his sophomore year with the Stanley Cup Champion New York Rangers. He became one of the first Russians to have his name engraved on the Cup because of that championship run, where he put up 19 points in 22 playoff games.

But despite that, he was traded after the next, lockout-shortened season where he averaged nearly a point per game to the Pittsburgh Penguins. He was supposed to form a dynamic combination with Mario Lemieux, but the big center and Zubov didn't have any chemistry, especially on the power play, so he was sent to Dallas in the off-season Kevin Hatcher.

What a trade that turned out to be. While Hatcher scored 140 points in three seasons with the Pens, close to Zubov's 152 with Dallas, the Russian continued to grow into one of the best defensemen in the NHL. While Loui Eriksson and Jamie Benn have taken over the mantle of "most underrated player in the NHL," Zubov was the king of that title for almost his entire career.

Some of that was a reputation for not being stellar in his own end, but that was based primarily in the fact that he did not throw big, body-crunching hits, that he scored so many points and that he made some high-risk, high-reward passes early in his career. While Zubov was not a prototypical shutdown defenseman, he was dominant in his own way, picking off passes and shutting down lanes like few others could because of his anticipation. In fact, while most people remember the glorious pairings of Richard Matvichuck-Derian Hatcher and Zubov-Darryl Sydor, there was a long stretch just after the Cup win where Zubov and Hatcher played together on the top pairing and were absolutely dominant.

And he was always cool and calculating, which didn't exactly make for great reaction clips to get his face on more highlight reels.

Forget about mean. Some people actually criticized Zubov for not showing enough emotion in games. This notion was ridiculous, an absolute sign of misunderstanding hockey greatness. Zubov was raised in the old Soviet Union, and was trained to be a coldly analytical defenseman like Viacheslav Fetisov or Alexander Ragulin. Hockey was like chess to these guys. They dissected the game into mathematics and probabilities. They played the game with a computer's mindset rather than by raw instinct.

The underrated thing also stuck because he made things that were incredibly different look so easy that people didn't, and sometimes still don't, realize the skill they took. And that type of efficiency may have been his greatest curse in terms of larger recognition. He was only nominated for the Norris once in his career (while someone like Rob Blake won the award despite being a minus player that season), and he was named to three NHL All-Star games and one post-season All-Star team. Those of us who watched him year after year understandably find that a little ridiculous.

But the lack of attention seemed to be okay with Zubov, who eschewed the spotlight in much the same manner as another Stars great of his era - Jere Lehtinen. Perhaps neither felt entirely comfortable in public with English, though Zubov especially gave good quotes for print stories. Perhaps Zubov was unavailable for between-periods interviews because of his cigarette habit - it was rumored he would step out between periods of games for a smoke break. Or perhaps he preferred just to let his play do the talking.

Whatever the case, his two Stanley Cups, sparkling career numbers and handful of international titles with the USSR/Russian/Unified teams, he makes a very interesting case for the Hockey Hall of Fame voters. And he will almost certainly have his No. 56 hanging from the rafters in Dallas at some point in the near future.

The current version of the team has been searching for some sort of replacement for Zubov ever since he left the team in 2009. But whatever they find will likely be a poor-man's version, because Zubov was an incredibly gifted player that doesn't come along very often.


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