For seven years now, the Canada-Russia "Super Series" that has gone on every November between a team of Russian juniors against the top Canadian juniors in each of the three major junior hockey leagues has taken place. The tournament started with some fanfare: at the time, Russia was dominating the junior hockey world, and the Canada-Russia rivalry seemed in full swing. However, the series soon turned quite lame: Russia would send over their marginal players as a way of determining the bottom parts of their roster for the World Juniors, and possibly trying to protect their top players from injury at the hands of an overzealous Canadian bruiser trying to make an impression. Their better players generally participated in the 4 Nations Cup tournament in Europe at the same time. This year, the Russians sent a better team, but it was still far from their best. So it seemed like it would be more of the same: heading into this year, the Russians had only won six of fourty-two games.
The seventh time was evidently the charm. Russia beat the QMJHL team twice in regulation, lost to the OHL in regulation and then in a shootout, and then beat the WHL in a shootout before capping off the Series with a 5-2 win in Prince George, British Columbia. I suppose the law of averages had to see a result like this at some point, but there seemed little reason that this was the year it would occur. In all six games, the CHL teams outshot their Russian opponents, but it didn't seem to matter. Goaltending will obviously be pointed out as a cause for concern, but Canada has never really had to rely on it in the previous years... the mere fact is this was a more competitive series than it probably should have been. (For more on the Super Series, check out Su Ring's post at From the Rink this morning).
So how does this affect things as we look forward to the U20 World Junior Championships next month in Buffalo, New York?
To be quite honest, the Canadian national junior team looks a little weaker up front heading into the 2011 edition than in recent years, which have seen them make the Final ten years straight (going 5-5 in the Final in that time). They're more vulnerable this year than most, but they do have a comparable in the 2006 gold medal team. That team relied on aggressive play as well as defensive stinginess, led by Marc Staal, the late Luc Bourdon, Kris Letang and Kris Russel. They helped turn goaltender Justin Pogge into a star for a brief period of time, raising expectations for him beyond what he could handle in the Maple Leafs organization. This year's defensive crew will have to be the difference maker: at the development camp in August, anchored by 3rd time Team Canada member Ryan Ellis, Jared Cowen, Calvin de Haan, and a who's who of depth players like Brandon Gormley, Erik Gudbranson, Dylan Olsen, Stefan Elliott, Charles-Olivier Roussel, big man Brett Ponich, Dylan Olsen, and Tyson Barrie. In short, don't expect the uber-talented Ryan Murphy to crack this team, even if he's currently fourth in the OHL in points. Don Cherry won't be too happy with that decision.
Russia, on the other hand, has a good shot to medal this year, but might have to go the long way to do it. Due to their terrible 6th place showing last year, they're being put in what will be termed the "Pool of Death" at this year's tournament: Canada, Sweden, the Czech Repbulic, Russia, and then the guaranteed relegation round participant Norway will do battle. Canadian fans will probably be happy if they get more than one blowout in the preliminary round for a change. Russia didn't send a top notch squad to the 4 Nations U20 Cup this year, only winning one of three games (3-2 against Finland, losing 6-2 to Sweden and 6-3 to the Czechs). While Canada may be lacking in top notch offensive talent, Russia should boast several slick scorers: Vladamir Tarasenko, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Stanislav Galiev, Super Series star Maxim Kitsyn, Alexander Avtsin (currently playing in the AHL), and possibly 16 year old OHL rookie sensation Nail Yakupov could crack the team. You'll notice I didn't bother to include Kirill Kabanov in the mix... he'll forever be a wildcard and you never know if Russia will include him. There's also a possibility that Alexander Burmistrov could me made available by the Atlanta Thrashers to participate, just like the Los Angeles Kings might make Brayden Schenn or Kyle Clifford available for Canada.
With a strong U20 year for Russia, Sweden, and the host Americans, to go with a down year for Canada, this could be one of the more competitive U20 tournaments in recent memory. The Americans are almost guaranteed a shot at a medal, as they should finish first in their fairly weak Pool (Switzerland, Finland, Slovakia, Germany). But the Americans will almost certainly face one of the other contenders in the semifinals, barring another Switzerland style upset.
A return to the top of the junior hockey world is never out of the question for Canada, but it will almost certainly be their most challenging tournament in several years. And Russia just helped serve them notice, proving they could win even when outmatched. That doesn't always happen at this level.