Columbus Blue Jackets Reunite "Russian Line" And Find Immediate Success In Win Over San Jose Sharks

By Dan Dukart on February 19, 2024 at 10:15 am
Yegor Chinakhov shoots against the San Jose Sharks
Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

In Saturday's 4-3 win over the San Jose Sharks, the Columbus Blue Jackets coaching staff reunited the "Russian Line" of Yegor Chinakhov, Kirill Marchenko, and Dmitri Voronkov. The trio had been mostly separated since Jan 4, a span of 12 games, and the team went 3-7-2 in that period.  

The line responded in a big way, with Marchenko scoring his 16th goal of the season, Voronkov adding his 14th, and Chinakhov tallying two assists, his 11th and 12th. The trio ranks 2nd and T-3rd in goal scoring on the club, trailing only Boone Jenner. Marchenko, 23, is the line's elder statesman. 

It's fair to wonder why the line was separated at all, but Pascal Vincent's postgame comments shed plenty of light on what he expects from the line. From The Athletic's Aaron Portzline Sunday Gathering:

"When you have the puck, you want to keep the puck, and sometimes (east-west plays) are your only option. When you start forcing it … that was the problem. We tried to play a game that was slowing us down. If it works, it’s not going to work for a long period of time, just because of the way the game is being played in the NHL. Maybe in other leagues, maybe in Europe. Moving, playing north-south, is what we promote, and that’s what they were doing early on to get together. But then they were slowing down and the numbers were showing that they were not productive, either offensively or defensively.

“We’re going to put them (back) together, give them a chance again. I believe they can work really well together. There’s potential there to see a line that can be effective for a long period of time. But we have to play a style that’s successful in the NHL, not in other leagues.”

This direct approach that Vincent emphasized is clearly something that he is keying on with this roster. It's for a different article, but it's clear that he's frustrated with Kent Johnson (and perhaps Emil Bemstrom, and others) for their east-west style of hockey. Somewhat paradoxically, the team's most talented forwards - Johnny Gaudreau, Johnson, and the Russian trio - all tend to prefer this style of hockey.

I think two things can be true: (1) Today's NHL requires a certain amount of mandatory straight-ahead, go-north play. This is because team defense structures are more stifling and collapsing than ever. There is little room to go side-to-side except for on clear odd-man situations, and so the best play is often a lob/flip play and a hope that the other team will either fumble the puck or turn it over in a vulnerable position, or a dump in with the same objective in mind. However, (2) effective NHL players can blend a north-south game with deception and creativity.

Think of someone like Artemi Panarin, who integrates these two concepts perfectly. He's not a pure north-south player at all, and at times his play causes turnovers. But he is so gifted at putting defenders in compromising positions by making a delay play or a seam pass for a back-door play. 

Obviously, the coaching staff doesn't have the patience with three young 20-something Russian players to allow this style. I understand the coach's disapproval, to a point. The safe play is to go north and get the puck behind the opposing defense, and then go to work. For a young club learning how to compete in today's NHL, this direct play style makes sense. But, again, there needs to be room for creativity and east-west plays, too.

Last night's win showcased the best of both worlds. Each of the two goals scored by this line started on controlled defensive zone breakout passes from Erik Gudbranson, who found Chinakhov in the neutral zone. Chinakhov's speed makes him an ideal puck transporter between the blue lines. On the Marchenko goal, Chinakhov drew defenders in and slid the puck to Marchenko, who was able to beat Kappo Kähkönen cleanly with a wrist shot. 

On the Voronkov goal, Gudbranson again found Chinakhov (unfortunately not shown in the below video) for a zone entry. Chinakhov wasted no time by shooting the puck, which resulted in an offensive zone retrieval, and the five-man unit went to work from there. On the eventual goal, we can see the creativity that can flow after establishing that initial direct type of play, with a low to high, then east-west pass eventually landing on Chinakhov's stick for the one-timer. Voronkov pounced on the rebound for the putback.  

Both of these goals represent the best of this line. There was nothing exceedingly flashy and both goals were elementary-level hockey. That's the coaching staff's point. They can be effective with simple and direct plays. I just hope that the line is given the creative licensing to do more than just that. 

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