2012 World Juniors Preview: Team Russia

BUFFALO NY - JANUARY 05: Yevgeni Kuznetsov #25 and Russian head coach Valeri Bragin embrace after defeting Canada 5-3 during the 2011 IIHF World U20 Championship Gold medal game between Canada and Russia at the HSBC Arena on January 5 2011 in Buffalo New York. (Photo by Rick Stewart/Getty Images)

A year ago, Russia was overlooked when evaluating the 2011 tournament. The once mighty power was taking a back seat to the likes of Canada, USA, and Sweden, with pluckly little Switzerland drawing more interest from fickle Canadian media members. In eleven days, they shook the hockey world, with stunning comebacks against Finland, Sweden, and most of all Canada to take the gold.

What last year's team lacked in NHL prospects they made up for in experience. It was an older lineup, almost exclusively made up of 19 year olds (only Yevgeni Kuznetsov was eligible to return this year), and the core of the team was formed at the CHL All-Stars vs. Russian Selects Super Series which became the first Russian team to win that series. Valeri Bragin coached both those teams and helped form an identity, one that was more a predatory counter-puncher than a dominant possession based team.

This year's team is a lot different. The forward group is far more talented, but also noticeably younger. Top 2012 Draft eigibles Nail Yakupov and Mikhail Grigorenko will be asked to play significant roles as 18 and 17 year olds respectively, and Russia's 1992 birth year is a bit thinner than usual, despite the presence of Kuznetsov.

So while there is a lot more hype around Russia going into this year, there are actually considerably more question marks about how they'll compete in this tournament with the best nations. Their defence took a major hit with an injury to the offensively dynamic Alexei Marchenko, and that really was one area in which Russia couldn't take a big injury.

That being said, the North American media contingent is a lot more aware about Russia's talent level this year. That's partly due to the elite talent that is coming over to play major junior the past couple of years, but also a recognition that maybe Russia's new junior league, the MHL, might be helping get their younger players develop quicker, by giving them more ice time against their peers. This year's team has 13 players who have played a majority of their season in the MHL so far, with 6 major junior players and three full-fledged KHLers. All but two of the players, Ivan Telegin and Artyom Sergeyev, spent some time in the MHL, and that includes all the CHLers.

After the jump, we look at how their roster breaks down:

Canada U20 - Forwards
Name Pos Ht Wt DOB Club League Draft IIHF Exp.
Danil Apalkov C 5'11" 176 Jan 1/92 Yaroslavl MHL Undrafted U18 (1)
Sergei Barbashev LW 6'0" 170 Jul 26/92 CSKA Moscow KHL Undrafted U18 (1)
Mikhail Grigorenko C 6'2" 185 May 16/94 Québec QMJHL Elig. 2012 U18 (1)
Nikita Gusev LW 5'9" 154 Jul 8/92 Krasnaja Armija MHL Undrafted U18 (2)
Alexander Khokhlachev C 5'10" 172 Sept 9/93 Windsor OHL Bruins (2/40, '11) none
Yaroslav Kozov RW 6'3" 187 Jul 5/93 Magnitogorsk KHL Panthers (5/124, '11) none
Nikita Kucherov RW 5'10" 148 Jun 17/93 Krasnaja Armija MHL Lightning (2/58, '11) U18 (1)
Pavel Kulikov C 6'0" 163 Jan 14/92 Nizhnekamsk MHL Undrafted U18 (1)
Yevgeni Kuznetsov RW 6'3" 187 May 19/92 Chelyabinsk KHL Capitals (1/26, '10) U20 (1), U18 (2)
Ivan Telegin LW 5'11" 183 Feb 28/92 Barrie OHL Thrashers (4/101, '10) U20 (1)
Nail Yakupov LW 5'11" 161 Oct 6/93 Sarnia OHL Elig. 2012 U18 (1)
Ignat Zemchenko C 6'2" 185 Apr 24/92 Cherepovets MHL Undrafted none

This is an incredibly skilled group of forwards. The line of Gusev-Grigorenko-Kucherov have played together for a long time, starting in CSKA's system and also expanding out into the Subway Super Series this past year. Grigorenko and Kucherov lit up the U18s this past year, with Kucherov putting up 3 points per game and Grigorenko being just behind that pace. And they might just be the 2nd line. Telegin, Kuznetsov, and Yakupov have spent some time together, while Khokhalechev, Kosov and Barbashev could be a force as well. This is a team with a lot of different players that can beat you, but one has to wonder whether they are physically mature enough to compete with the Americans and Canadians. There also isn't a lot of defensive accumen in this group, with Grigorenko probably being the most accomplished two-way forward of the group, but he's only 17 and that part of his game is still a work in progress.

But still... wow. There isn't many nations that can put that kind of forward talent together all at once for a junior hockey tournament, and it'll be fun to watch them at work.

Denmark U20 - Defencemen
Name Ht Wt DOB Club League Draft IIHF Exp.
Viktor Antipin 5'9" 146 Dec 6/92 Magnitogorsk MHL Undrafted U18 (1)
Zakhar Arzamastev 6'0" 179 Nov 6/92 Novokuznetsk KHL Undrafted U18 (1)
Ildar Isangulov 6'3" 227 May 20/92 Ufa MHL Undrafted none
Mikahil Naumenkov 6'0" 176 Feb 19/93 Krasnaja Armija MHL Undrafted none
Nikita Nesterov 6'0" 183 Mar 28/93 Chelyanbinsk MHL Lightning (5/148, '11) U18 (2)
Igor Ozhiganov 6'2" 214 Oct 31/92 Krasnaja Armija MHL Undrafted none
Artyom Sergeyev 6'2" 203 Mar 20/93 Val-d'Or QMJHL Undrafted none
Girgori Zheldakov 6'0" 192 Feb 11/92 MHC Spartak MHL Undrafted U18 (1)

If you're confounded by this group on defence... you're not alone. Aside from Arzamastev, who probably should have been drafted last year by a NHL team, and Nesterov, there isn't a lot of depth here. Antipin and Naumenkov have some talent, but when we're comparing against the likes of Sweden, USA, and Canada this is a terrible defence. The forwards are where Russia will live, but the defence is likely how they will die (if they do). It's not a group with a lot of anything in particular: offensive ability, defensive smarts, experience, size, or even speed. It's collectively a very middling group that will try and keep it simple and get the puck to their exciting forwards as quickly as possible.

Russia U20 - Goaltenders
Name Ht Wt DOB Club League Draft IIHF Exp.
Sergei Kostenko 5'11" 170 Sep 17/92 Kuznetskie Medvedi MHL Undrafted U18 (1)
Andrei Makarov 6'1" 150 Apr 20/93 Saskatoon WHL Undrafted none
Andrei Vasilevski 6'3" 201 Jul 25/94 Ufa MHL Elig. 2012 U18 (1)

Andrei Makarov should get the starting duties here, and he's been one of the best goaltenders in the WHL this year so far. Kostenko will probably see backup duties, I'm actually not sure how this will all shake out even with their first game so close at hand. Vasilievski is one of the top draft prospects for goaltenders this year (as is Makarov as a guy who was passed over once), but I don't know if Russia will go with two underaged goaltenders. This is another area in which Russia has the talent, but maybe they aren't old enough to handle the top 19 year old players of the other nations.

Russia has a lot going for it, but no one is going to take them lightly this year. It's a very talented group with some massive holes on defence that will be difficult to overcome.

Russia U20 Schedule
Date City Opponent Result/Time
Dec 20 Red Deer USA Us_medium
W, 6-3
Dec 22 Lethbridge Czech Rep. Cz_medium
W, 5-3
Dec 26 Calgary Switzerland Ch_medium
8:00 PM MST
Dec 28 Calgary Slovakia Sk_medium
8:00 PM MST
Dec 29 Calgary Latvia Lv_medium
8:00 PM MST
Dec 31 Calgary Sweden Se_medium
8:00 PM MST

Prediction: 2nd in Group B.

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