Mike Smith did more than encourage Alexei Zhamnov to sign as a free agent this summer with the Bruins. Smith was the general manager in Winnipeg when Zhamnov first came to town as a rookie in the fall of 1992, and some 13 years later, Smith helped convince the 34-year-old center -- OK, fine, he told him -- that Boston would be the best fit. ''I know how good he is," Smith said yesterday, while on duty at his antique shop on Martha's Vineyard. ''He's even better than [Sergei] Fedorov, just maybe not as flashy. So nothing he'll do with the Bruins will surprise me.
''But I think some people are going to be absolutely stunned by how good this guy is."
One of the Bruins' top recruits this frenzied, post-lockout summer, Zhamnov in early August signed on for the next three years on Causeway Street for slightly more than $12 million. He is, until further notice, the club's No. 2 center, a job description that isn't likely to change unless he outplays the resident No. 1 pivot, Joe Thornton.
For virtually his entire career, beginning during his early days with the high-flying Jets, Zhamnov has been his club's go-to guy, or perhaps better put, the get-it-to guy. He matured quickly in that No. 1 setup role in his four years with Winnipeg, having a hand in a whole bunch of those 76 goals by fellow rookie Teemu Selanne in 1992-93, then he instantly became the in-house franchise pivot upon his trade to the Blackhawks in the summer of '96, just before the Jets began doing business as the Coyotes in Phoenix.
''In Winnipeg, it was all offense," Zhamnov recalled Monday, as the Bruins prepared to open their exhibition schedule last night against the Maple Leafs in Hamilton, Ontario. ''Then to Chicago, where it wasn't that much offense, and that was difficult." Without Zhamnov in the lineup, the Bruins were blanked, 5-0.
Making it harder in Chicago, too, was the fact that the quiet, understated, be-still-my-ego Zhamnov followed the one-man publicity and near-vaudeville show known as Jeremy Roenick. Just to succeed JR would have been difficult for anyone -- except for, say, Wayne Gretzky or Mario Lemieux -- given that Roenick was by far the Blackhawks' fan favorite.
But making it even more difficult, on a fan acceptance level, was that the Aug. 16, 1996 deal that brought in Zhamnov was the same deal that sent out Roenick. That unpopular little bit of out-with-the-old-and-in-with-the-new made Zhamnov the fans' top pinata for virtually everything that didn't go right with the Hawks. For the stumbling Hawks, that was virtually everything, up until the erudite Smith in the fall of 2000 began his attempt to try to drain the franchise's great lake of ineptitude. Some three-plus years into his attempt to revive the moribund franchise, Smith was shown the gate.
By that time, though, the consistent, hard-working Zhamnov had won over the little fandom that the Hawks had left, and also stood as team captain -- the second Russian in NHL history to ascend to the job. Alexei Yashin held the post for a season with the Senators in the 1990s and was named Islanders captain yesterday, and Alexander Mogilny was a fill-in with Buffalo when Pat LaFontaine was injured.
''My first five years in Chicago, it was a different system every year," said Zhamnov. ''In fact, it was like five coaches in five years. But it's where I really learned to play both ways. In Winnipeg, it was offense, all the time offense. But in Chicago, I recognized I had to play both ways. That was good for me."
Craig Hartsburg gave way to Dirk Graham, who gave way to Lorne Molleken (and yet another Bob Pulford visit from the front office), who gave way to Alpo Suhonen, who gave way to Brian Sutter. The Bruins have flipped through coaching stock at a rapid rate over the years, but the Blackhawks, with owner Bill Wirtz, have been league leaders in chasing out anyone who shows up to the bench in jacket and tie. The job, at least this week, is filled by Trent Yawney.
''Things got [messed] up in Winnipeg, and then they got [messed] up again in Chicago," recalled Smith. ''But look at what Zhamnov's done, wherever he's gone -- he's the same point-per-game player that he's been from the first day he came to the league. He was really among the last of the finished, sort of completed-work Russian players to come to the NHL. When they first started to come over, it was the older guys, and they all had that Russian, puck-possession game down. Then when the Soviet Union fell apart, the whole [hockey] system fell apart with it. Now the Russians show up here like everyone else, good players, but they have to be developed."
For his blend of size, strength, and talent, the 6-foot-1-inch, 205-pound Zhamnov is somewhat reminiscent of Bryan Trottier, the great Islander center who led Bill Torrey's franchise to four consecutive Stanley Cups. Trottier went on to score more than 1,400 points in fewer than 1,300 games, while Zhamnov has been less a prolific point-getter (783 games/709 points). Comparisons are difficult, in part because Zhamnov has spent the majority of his career in the NHL's trap era, with offense all but squeezed out of the game. He also has the size and game similar to Darryl Sittler, the former Maple Leaf great. In all cases, sturdy pivots, very difficult to separate from the puck, all first inclined to dish off to an open man rather than shoot.
Aggressiveness has not been a Zhamnov trademark, which was often a point of criticism in Chicago. But that can be part and parcel of the job, and even Thornton has heard some of that here. Truth is, very few high-end pivots have both soft hands and hair-trigger temperaments. Trottier and Mark Messier were two who qualified. Ditto Peter Forsberg.
''If I started everything over again," mulled Zhamnov, asked if, besides never winning the Cup, was there something about his career that felt unfinished, ''Oh, I don't know. I think when I'm done I'll be able to say that I always did what was best for the team. But I learned that sometimes that makes things worse. All I can be is who I am. What I've learned is you have to be yourself out there -- you can't be one thing, and also try to be Wayne Gretzky or Mario Lemieux. That doesn't work."
In Chicago, a constant theme was that Zhamnov didn't shoot enough. And of course, he wasn't tough enough.
But he sure found ways to dish it off, prompting ex-Hawks teammate Tony Amonte to say in the spring of 2004, when they were reunited prior to the playoffs in Philly, that Zhamnov ''is the kind of player a guy like me dreams about playing with -- he loves to pass."
And as Boston general manager Mike O'Connell has said numerous times in recent weeks, ''He just makes plays."
More than a dozen years gone by, Smith pointed out that Zhamnov, among the sensational Winnipeg rookie group that included Selanne and Keith Tkachuk, has been left standing, by his eye the most accomplished and consistent of the group. Selanne and Tkachuk, even today, likely would be identified as superstars, but Zhamnov remains the more refined, consistent, and perhaps effective product.
''Alex was great from the start, but he sort of fell to the background immediately," recalled Smith. ''There were a few reasons for that. Some of it was that there was still some resentment toward Russian players, all around North America. Teemu was this sensational scorer, 76 goals his rookie year. And Keith was this emerging skilled player, a power forward, talking tough. They got the acclaim, and it was deserved, no question. But here he is, still the same solid, consistent Alex, while the other two, for whatever the reasons, aren't as effective as they were back then."
Dishing it out
How this plays out here, in his new hockey home, Zhamnov will find out. He has repeatedly said how impressed he is with Boston's speed and skill. In some ways, he feels like he is in Winnipeg again, only without the perpetual deep freeze that turns all of Manitoba into an ice block most of the winter.
He is, at least on the exhibition roster, holding the best supporting actor's position behind Thornton's role as leading man.
''I think he's a great player, has all the tools," said Zhamnov, as polished a diplomat as he is a passer. ''Best in the league -- I hope he's going to have a great year."
Smith, for his part, is convinced that Zhamnov and Thornton will end up on the ice at the same time. In part, that's because Zhamnov in practice has been getting point duty at the power play, a role he played with the Jets, the Hawks, and even the Flyers, with whom he finished the 2003-04 season prior to becoming an unrestricted free agent. Smith figures, too, that the two could find themselves on the same line, a pairing that likely would see Thornton shift to the wing.
''I'm not sure Alex would move out of center -- or you'd want him to -- because he is such a great passer," said Smith. ''So few guys can do what he does with the puck. You tell skill by watching how a guy passes the puck through the neutral zone. I'm not talking the Bobby Orr give 'n' go. I'm talking make one pass before the blue line, get it back, and make that second pass in the neutral zone. It's that tic-tac-toe stuff. Whoever's with Alex, they're going to see a lot of doorstep feeds, be left with tap-ins right at the door."
The new guy in town has yet to play a shift -- at least one that counts -- with his new team. If they're anything like his old shifts, the No. 2 center sounds as if he could be one fine catch.