Remembering Alexander Vasyunov & His First NHL Goal

In yesterday's tragic airplane accident in Yaroslavl, Russia; the majority of Lokomotiv Yaroslavl were killed.  In total, 43 perished and only one player, Alexander Galimov, survived the horrific event.   The KHL has delayed the beginning of the 2011-12 season and are still trying to figure out what to do with the now decimated club.  From that last link by Dmitry Chesnokov, who wrote the previous linked stories, it's heartening in a way that there have been many players who have already informed the league that they would play for Lokomotiv Yaroslavl.  According to Bruce Peter at Puck Worlds, there will be a memorial service at Lokomotiv's arena in Yaroslavl this Saturday.

While the league is starting to consider how to pick up the pieces, many others are just in pieces. Hockey fans, players (e.g. as evidenced in this post by Tom Gulitti for an example; as well as in this post by Rich Chere for another), and management around the world have offered their condolences and are mourning in their own ways. Tributes to former NHL players have surfaced, such as this one at Defending Big D about defenseman Karlis Skrastins, this post at Silver Seven about defenseman and former Devil Karel Rachunek, and this collection by Joe Pelletier at Greatest Hockey Legends for several players.   The airplane crash truly affected many.  A tie may seem as tenuous as someone "just" being a former-NHL player; but they were personal connections made between teams and the personnel and those cam endure even if the player goes elsewhere.

Lou Lamoriello's comments about the horrible news were striking, reported here by Tom Gulitti.  Lou specifically mentioned Alexander Vasyunov, and what he had to say about him just made this sad news even sadder when I read it yesterday.

"I had the pleasure of knowing several members of the team, plus the entire coaching staff. In particular, Alexander Vasyunov, who played for us last season, was an outstanding young man and a gifted athlete. Captain Karel Rachunek skated for us in 2007-08. Both were members of the Devils’ family. On behalf of the entire Devils organization, our thoughts and prayers go out to the families and loved ones of the entire Lokomotiv club."

...

"I can’t say enough about him [Vasyunov]. He was going there (to the KHL) just to improve [his] game. He was looking forward to coming back to play here in the NHL. He was just a fantastic kid. Respectful. You can’t say enough about him. He spent the summer here last year. He just wanted to go and play a lot and come back here. I had a long conversation with him before he left."'

The bold is my own and this just got to me.  Normally, when a young player who hasn't made the team signs in Europe, they're not going to come back unless there's some kind of breakthrough.  Yet, as Lou said, that wasn't necessarily the plan.  Vasyunov just wanted to play in a different league to get better, figuring he wouldn't get called up and, per this Times Union article, go abroad since the Devils didn't offer a one-way deal.  Sadly, that will not happen.

For the unaware, Vasyunov was drafted by the Devils in the second round in 2006 from Lokomotiv Yaroslavl.  Vasyunov remained with his Russian club until he came over to America to play in the AHL in 2008-09. His production didn't blow anyone away in Albany, but he seemed serviceable enough. I can't say I know much of him from his time in the AHL; but he couldn't have been poor since in his third season of North American professional hockey, Vasyunov was called up to New Jersey. At first it was just for one night - to fill in for Ilya Kovalchuk, who was scratched on October 23.  Vasyunov made his NHL debut, went back to Albany the next day, but was recalled for October 29 in place of Travis Zajac. Vasyunov picked up his first NHL point with an assist on Patrik Elias' game winning goal against Anaheim.  With Zach Parise's injury occurring on the next night and amid other roster issues, Vasyunov stayed on the roster until mid-December.   He was sent back down on December 12, briefly called up only once more on January 23 - his only game under Jacques Lemaire - which would tragically turn out to be his final NHL game.

Per his game log at NHL.com, Vasyunov's usage fluctuated based on the situation.  On some nights, he played a solid 14+ minutes.  On others, he was highly limited in use, getting less than 10.   Given that he was called up from the AHL to fill in a spot, the flux isn't particularly surprising.  It was his first taste of NHL hockey and it wasn't like he was bulldozing through the AHL prior; it would be unreasonable to expect him to play like a monster.  Especially on a team that was floundering under John MacLean at best.   Still, he wasn't so horrid; he just wasn't ready to be a regular yet. 

Unfortunately, we will never know. 

To that end, I want to focus on one of the bright spots of his 18-game tenure as a New Jersey Devil.  While 1 goal and 4 assists in 18 games isn't much; just playing in 1 game is more than most drafted players ever get to experience, much less scoring a goal or getting an assist.  From that perspective, Vasyunov could at least claim he "made it" even if it was only a little bit.   After the jump, I breakdown his first - and sadly, only - NHL goal to highlight one of his achievements in professional hockey.

The Goal

From NHL.com, here's the video of Alexander Vasyunov's first NHL goal.  It comes against the Edmonton Oilers, who were leading 2-0 in the first period at the time.  You'll notice that Vasyunov is actually out there with Travis Zajac and Patrik Elias.  He was on the first line for that night (usually with Kovalchuk instead of Elias), and so he got more ice time (18:16) and more shifts (24) than he would in any of his other NHL appearances.   He had a good night.

Vasyunov's first NHL goal was a one-timer right in front of Devan Dubnyk's crease, stretching through the slot.  He wasn't in the right place at the right time, he got to the right place at the right time.  There is a difference.  Let's break it down and see how it all happened.

The Breakdown

Note: The following stills are from the video. The poorly drawn arrows, circles, and other stuff in MS Paint are mine.

Vas_first_pass

The play begins with Vasyunov with the puck on his own blueline. As the video begins, Vasyunov sees Travis Zajac pushing forward and will pass him the puck to start the attack.   Patrik Elias either just came onto the ice or he decides to cut into the play in between the two Oilers in frame.   Those two would be defenseman Theo Peckham, who's near the bottom, and center Jordan Eberle, who is in the center circle.  The Devils aren't so fortunate to have caught the Oilers short a defenseman; Tom Gilbert is off-frame and also coming onto the ice.    Anyway, the two Oilers are going to drop back while these three Devils forwards will drive through the neutral zone.

Zajac_neutral_zone

Here's where it starts to get interesting.  Elias cut all the way down to the left side where the left winger usually would be on a rush like this. Vasyunov is trailing both Elias and Zajac and he's heading towards the right side of the ice. 

Zajac's in the center of the neutral zone, but he won't be for long.  He's protecting the puck with Eberle in view.  The rookie center is going to engage Zajac and force him to choose a direction.   As it turns it out, it'll be to Zajac's right.  This makes sense for Eberle since he'll be forcing the puck carrier wide.  This makes sense for Zajac because he will have support from Elias along the boards.

By the way, the final two skaters that matter in this play are now in frame and in the picture.  Taylor Hall is hustling back to help out, and Gilbert is steady in position - holding a line with Peckham on defense.

Zajac_carries_in

Zajac carries the puck in and gets around Eberle in the process.  This is important since he maintains possession of the puck and has support from Elias on the boards. By no means is Eberle out of the play, Zajac just has a little more room to move at this moment.  

Now, pay attention to the dashed lines (they'll become thin later).  I drew them because Peckham and Hall are focused on Zajac, and Zajac only.  Eberle is too, but he should be since he tried to stop Zajac at the blueline.  It's understandable that they focus on the puck carrier.  However, this focus just makes Elias stand out even more as an open winger.   It also helps Vasyunov to go around all of these bodies.

Zajac_pass_to_elias

Zajac pressed on for a few more feed and then recognized that he doesn't have many options.  With Gilbert and Peckham holding steady and knowing Eberle was just on him, he knows he doesn't have much room to work with.  Therefore, he dumps the puck off the boards to allow Elias to continue the attack.  Going at the defense with the puck likely ends in failure; but without it, Zajac can maneuver through the defensive pairing.   He'll head towards the slot, which Gilbert is about to slip into on defense.

Meanhile, there is Vasyunov at the high point.  He's all by himself and no one's noticing him right now.  Since he doesn't have the puck and Zajac doesn't have much of a passing lane to his left, there's not much of a reason to worry about him.  This will ultimately cost the Oilers on this play.

Elias_along_boards

Elias has the puck in what appears to be an awkward position on the boards.  It only looks awkward, Elias maintains control of this puck and has been moving up the boards.   As noted in the prior picture, Zajac's heading towards the slot in between Peckham and Gilbert; and Vasyunov remains unnoticed.  

Pay attention to those thin lines.  As Elias moves up, he's got the attention of Eberle, Hall, and Peckham.  He possibly has Gilbert's too; but now that he's in the slot, he's not going to leave it.   With all of this attention, one would think that the Oilers could simply converge on Elias.  Sure, it'll leave other Devils open, but if it's done right, they can stop this attack before it even begins to look threatening for goaltender Devan Dubnyk.   

Elias_dodges_poke

Of course, the Oilers don't converge.  With all four Oilers focused on the puck carrier, Eberle shifts away from Hall (which isn't too bad, he shouldn't be bunched up with the winger here anyway), Peckham backs up, and only Hall attempts to get at Elias defensively.  Here, he attempts a pokecheck that Elias easily dodged. That may not seem like a big deal.  Hall was behind Elias and at most, he would just jar it away from him. However, it leads to Elias pushing further into the corner. 

Since all four Oilers are looking at Elias, this means no one's really focused on Zajac or Vasyunov.  Given Elias' angle (and Peckham's position), a shot wouldn't be a good idea.  Zajac sees this and he's going to keep moving past Gilbert and get behind the goal line.  Vasyunov stops in the high slot and remains wide open.  Keep the latter in the back of your mind for the next few pictures.

Elias_sees_zajac_open

With the pokecheck dodged, Elias makes his move into the corner.  Hall's stick is out, but it's essentially meaningless. For all intents and purposes, he's out of this play.  Given his momentum, how he's carrying the puck, and Peckham starting to head towards the corner himself, Elias knows he needs to make a play.  Fortunately, he does recognize Zajac heading behind the net.  As long as Peckham goes after Elias, the Devils legend can fire a pass towards the boards or off of them to get it to Zajac.  He has a lane and he's going to use it.

Gilbert is still manning the slot.  With Eberle still looking at the puck carrier and not the slot itself, where Vasyunov is hanging out, Gilbert can't leave his spot just yet.  He can't do anything about Zajac without opening up a prime part of the ice. 

Elias_to_zajac

Elias gets the pass off, Gilbert goes in for a check on Elias, and Zajac is about to get the puck behind the net.  Gilbert now has to react. The puck is behind the net and he's got to make a play; so he's turning around with the intent to get after Zajac.   This will leave the center Eberle as the man responsible for the slot.    Unfortunately for the Oilers, he's looking at the puck.  Eberle isn't at all aware about Vasyunov, who's out of frame but not out of the picture.

As for Zajac, he's got to corral this puck and turn around so he can see what's happening in the offensive zone.  It looks like Gilbert is going to get to him real quickly, but that's just a trick of the camera perspective.  Gilbert isn't as close as he may look. Throw in the fact that he's just starting to get behind the goal line himself, and Zajac doesn't have to rush this puck - he just can't hesitate either.

Zajac_looks_for_vas

Zajac is successful in receiving the pass and turning around quickly enough to have a view of the zone and have the puck on his forehand. Gilbert is doing his best to get in Zajac's way, knowing that he's got to stop him from making a pass.  Since Zajac is still carrying momentum from his turn, he's got a wide enough angle to look around the defender. Gilbert's tight turn works against him here, despite whatever desire he may have to get into Zajac's grill.  

What Zajac sees is an opportunity in front of the net. Since Eberle has been puck watching this whole time, he doesn't see Alexander Vasyunov in the slot. Vasyunov knows this and starts heading towards the net behind Eberle. This is a subtlety that pays off big.  Even if Eberle is aware, he really can't do anything specific to Vasyunov; by the time he turns to do anything to the Devils forward, the opportunity for a stop may pass him by.  Vasyunov has been unnoticed by most of the Oilers and this movement behind Eberle will get him free in the slot, with the stick in position to receive a pass. 

Zajac sees this go on and takes a bit of a risk in attempting a pass to the slot.  He's got to get it past Gilbert - the big space under his stick would suffice - and have it be out of reach enough for Eberle but in a spot that Vasyunov can get to it.  If Vasyunov is composed and quick (but not too quick), he'll get this puck right in front of the net on Dubnyk's right flank.

Vasyunov_pre_one_timer

Vasyunov kept his composure, he was fast enough, and Zajac's pass was just about perfect.   Zajac threaded it under Gilbert's stick and kept it away from Eberle.  For all his puck watching, that seems ironic that the one time the puck comes near him he's too late in doing anything about it.   As seen above, Vasyunov will get this pass and has a glorious one-timer opportunity.  Only bad luck or an out-of-this-world desparate move by Dubnyk can stop this from being a goal.

Vasyunov_scored

Vasyunov one-times it with aplomb, the light goes off, the referee points to the net, the fans get up to cheer, and Vasyunov deservedly celebrates his first NHL goal.

Summary & Conclusion

From the defense's standpoint, the failure on this play has to be attributed to puck watching. Before the Devils actually attacked on this play, the Oilers were able to limit the Devils to a part of the ice.  However, as many as four Oiler skaters focusing on the puckcarrier instead of being aware of their surroundings.  It would be one thing if multiple players converged on Elias earlier in an attempt to stop the play.  It would be another if the play broke down.  Yet, all of them didn't have to keep their eyes on Elias as long as they have.   Hall's pokecheck was lame, but he was backchecking and never really was in a position to do too much.  In retrospect, Peckham should have went after Elias sooner (as Hall did his poke) or hung back in anticipation of a pass around the net.

The biggest offender turned out to be Eberle.  As the center, he's got to maintain control of the slot in absence of the defender. When Gilbert went after Zajac - which wasn't a bad decision - Eberle was in the right area but he wasn't really in position.  He had no idea what was going on if it wasn't around the puck.   Vasyunov saw this and exploited him for it. Zajac saw this and knew he had a teammate open in front.   It's a big reason why Vasyunov was able to get into position for his one-timer, and it helped Zajac know where to put the pass.     He started out OK on this play, but you can tell by his eyes that he could have done a lot more.  

The goal is yet another example that hockey is a team game and success is a result of teammates doing well with each other.  Zajac and Elias worked very well on this play and without their passes, this never happens.  Elias waited until the right time to make his pass, which effectively took two Oilers out of the play.  Zajac got around Eberle at the blueline, dumped it off at the right time to Elias, got behind the net to support Elias after the dump, and made the killer pass. 

As for Vasyunov, he really shined with his off-the-puck play.  His trailing of Zajac and Elias allowed him to get behind the four Oilers in their end and get into good parts of the ice without much interference.   The decision to stay away from his teammates was important as it allowed them to do what they needed to do; and give them an open man in an offensive position.   His read on Eberle in the slot was great and the tipping point on the play.  When he drove to the net behind #14, Zajac read him well and Vasyunov knew that if he got the pass, he could beat Dubnyk.  One pass later, and Vasyunov has a memory for a lifetime - a beautiful and important first NHL goal

Unfortunately, that life was ended far, far sooner than it should have.

What do you think Alexander Vasyunov's first goal and the play that led to it? Were you surprised to see that Edmonton's puck-watching did them in?  What impressed you the most? Wasn't that a good looking goal? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about Vasyunov in the comments. Thank you for reading.

Condolences and prayers to family and friends of all those who perished on that flight, both the crew members and members of Lokomotiv Yaroslavl.  

Lastly: Thank you, Alexander Vasyunov.  Please rest peacefully.

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