They're the elephant in the room. Leading up to this year's IIHF U20 World Junior Hockey Championships in Buffalo and Niagara, New York, they're only getting a passing mention. Finishing sixth a year ago and imploding on and off the ice, the team hasn't set themselves up well as favourites. The lack of high (and total) NHL draft picks has also played a role in perception, even though the reason for that is due to the presence of the KHL, not really a drop off in talent. How quickly the North American press are forgetting Russia: a team that since the breakup of the USSR has never finished fourth, yet only four times has finished without a medal. Four golds, six silvers, and five bronze medals have decorated the Russian team in that time, and although they haven't won gold since back-to-back golds in 2002-03, last year ended a five year medal streak (three silver, two bronze).
In the meantime, Russia has launched a new junior hockey league, called the MHL, devoted to the U22 grouping of players. A team of Russian juniors, not the final team by any means, won the Super Series exhibition between them and All-Star teams from every Canadian major junior league for the first time. Russia is also coming off a year in which three Russians were picked in the first round of the NHL entry draft, a strong showing all things considered. I have them ranked a solid fourth on the Junior Hockey World Ranking, and they are clearly more comparable with the top 3 than the 5-7 group. Getting placed in a group with Canada, Sweden, the Czech Republic and Norway, we'll get an idea quite quickly of how good this team really is.
I chatted with Russian web journalist Alessandro Seren Rosso about the team's prospects. Alessandro helps run various websites, including Russian Prospect and Russian Hockey Fans, as well as writing about Russian prospects for Hockey's Future.
Perhaps the most scrutinized aspect of Russia's game always seems to revolve around coaching. What kind of team game do we expect new coach Valeri Bragin to employ?
He's going to bring a typical Russian game - plenty of passes, based-on-chemistry kind of game. It should be good to watch.
There are some notable names not on the team's preliminary roster, namely Kirill Kabanov and Alexander Avtsin. Is it safe to say that these were just coach's decisions?
Absolutely. Kabanov simply had many occasions, and he wasted them all. Avtsyn, well, I'm sure he could have get a spot, but Bragin never had a chance to work with him and thus he hasn't been called, that's all.
Bragin coached the Russian Selects team to their first ever win against the CHL All-Stars in the Subway Super Series in November. Why was this team able to succeed when previous teams could barely compete at that series?
For a number of factors. This year's roster was particularly good, while in other years coaches preferred calling worse players not to give Americans and Canadians a chance to scout the WJC team with a 2 months advantage. And as many players pointed out, Bragin had a great job there.
Dimitri Orlov looks like the team's top defenseman, and Nikita Zaitsev is also returning from last year's 6th place team. Can you give us an insight into the other defensemen that will play for the team?
At the moment it's still unknown who will skate there. Anyhow, Georgy Berdyukov is a good player, more an offensive defenseman who, with the years, learned also some defensive game. He has a good shot as well. Grigoriev played at the Super Series, he showed that he's a reliable defenseman even if he's a bit small. We can say something similar about Pivtsakin too, but he's more experienced and also is more a scorer. Andrei Pedan is a sized defenseman who's having a good first North American season. Also Yury Urychev is quite a sized player, with some valuable KHL experience.
With top offensive players like Tarasenko, Galiev, Kitsyn, Telegin, and Kuzentsov on the team, what kind of role, if any, is expected out of young Nail Yakupov?
Most likely he won't make the cut, he's too young, just like other 93-born players like Alexander Khokhlachev.
Last year was the inaugural year of the MHL. How would you rate the quality of the league so far, and does Russia hope it will allow them to keep their top junior players? Or are they fine with players going to North America to play?
Well of course the league was built with the desire of keeping their top junior players in Russia. The league is doing well, during this second year there was an increase in the attendance, also many other teams joined the league and thus all is so far, so good. The level is comparable to other big European junior leagues, like the Swedish one, or maybe slightly better in the top teams, which feature many good players.
Finally, what is your prediction for Russia, and your predictions for the medals overall.
This year we have a good team with a good coach, a combination that, unfortunately, team Russia rarely had at the WJC. While Team Russia is traditionally one of the strongest team in offense and a bit weak on defense, I'm comfortable that this year we can potentially talk about gold. Also team Canada looks a little bit less good than the precedent years. Honestly I found that in the latest two years team Canada has been a little bit less good, in Ottawa they had to struggle against very good team Sweden, while in Saskatoon they lost to the US. With that being said, I think it's a race between Russia, Canada, USA, Sweden. But don't we say the same every year? And surprises are always possible.
|6||Georgy Burdyukov||D||R||6'1"||201||1991||Khabarovsk||St. Petersburg (KHL)|
|5||Maxim Berezin||D||L||6'3"||192||1991||Izhevsk||Nizhnekamsk (KHL)|
|30||Igor Bobkov||G||L||6'4"||192||1991||Surgut||London (OHL)|
|18||Stanislav Bocharov||LW||L||5'11"||185||1991||Khabarovsk||Kazan (MHL)|
|29||Anton Burdasov||RW||R||6'3"||198||1991||Chelyabinsk||Chelyabinsk (KHL)|
|17||Nikita Dvurechenski (a)||LW||L||6'2"||187||1991||Lipetsk||Dynamo Moscow (KHL)|
|11||Stanislav Galiev||W||R||6'1"||176||1992||Moscow||Saint John (QMJHL)|
|1||Emil Garipov||G||L||6'2"||192||1991||Kazan||Almetievsk (VHL)|
|19||Dmitri Goldenkov||W||R||5'11"||183||1991||Moscow||Khabarovsk (KHL)|
|4||Mikhail Grigoriev||D||L||5'11"||168||1991||Orsk||Neftekamsk (MHL)|
|21||Sergei Kalinin||W||L||6'2"||165||1991||Omsk||Omsk (KHL)|
|7||Vladislav Kartayev||C||R||6'2"||159||1992||Chelyabinsk||Ufa (KHL)|
|13||Maxim Kitsyn||LW||R||6'2"||192||1991||Novokuznetsk||Novokuznetsk (KHL)|
|66||Albert Konozov||W||L||5'12"||212||1991||St. Petersburg||St. Petersburg (MHL)|
|25||Evgeny Kuznetsov||RW||L||6'0"||172||1992||Chelyabinsk||Chelyabinsk (KHL)|
|55||Alexei Marchenko||D||R||5'11"||178||1992||Moscow||CSKA Moscow-2 (MHL)|
|16||Vladislav Namestnikov||C||L||5'12"||159||1992||Voskresensk||London (OHL)|
|9||Dmitri Orlov (a)||D||L||5'11"||179||1991||Novokuznetsk||Novokuznetsk (KHL)|
|27||Artemi Panarin||W||R||5'10"||154||1991||-||Chekhov (KHL)|
|44||Andrei Pedan||D||L||6'4"||194||1993||Moscow||Guelph (OHL)|
|3||Nikita Pivtsakin||D||L||5'10"||181||1991||Omsk||Omsk (KHL)|
|33||Ramis Sadikov||G||L||6'2"||181||1991||Moscow||Erie (OHL)|
|26||Andrei Sergeyev||D||R||5'12"||190||1991||Nizhnekamsk||Nizhnekamsk-2 (MHL)|
|20||Dmitri Shikin||G||L||5'12"||176||1991||Elektrostal||Khabarovsk-2 (MHL)|
|14||Danil Sobchenko||C||L||6'2"||192||1991||Kiev, UKR||Yaroslavl (KHL)|
|10||Vladimir Tarasenko (c)||LW||L||6'0"||172||1991||Yaroslavl||Novosibirsk (KHL)|
|24||Ivan Telegin||LW||L||6'0"||159||1991||Novokuznetsk||Saginaw (OHL)|
|12||Yuri Urychev||D||L||6'3"||201||1991||Yaroslavl||Yaroslavl (KHL)|
|8||Semyon Valuiski||LW||L||5'10"||176||1991||Togliatti||Nizhny Novgorod (KHL)|
|15||Artyom Voronin||C||L||6'1"||168||1991||Moscow||Spartak Moscow (KHL)|
|?||Nail Yakupov||LW||L||5'11"||168||1993||Nizhnekamsk||Sarnia (OHL)|
|2||Nikita Zaitsev||D||R||6'1"||172||1991||Moscow||Novosibirsk (KHL)|
2011 Draft Hopefuls (first eligible year): D Andrei Pedan, C Vladislav Namestnikov.
Not Made Available: Alexander Burmistrov, ATL.
NHL Draft Picks: 7: D Dmitri Orlov (2/55 in '09, WSH), G Igor Bobkov (3/76 in '09, ANA), LW Vladimir Tarasenko (1/16 in '10, STL), RW Evgeny Kuznetsov (1/26 in '10, WSH), W Stanislav Galiev (3/86 in '10, WSH), LW Ivan Telegin (4/101 in '10, ATL), LW Maxim Kitsyn (6/158 in '10, LA).
Notable cuts: Kirill Kabanov, Alexander Avtsyn
Team Staff: Alexei Kochetkov (General Manager), Valeri Bragin (Head Coach), Yevgeni Koreshkov and Yuri Novikov (Assistant Coaches).
Russia has a great combination of skill, some notable size, motivation and international experience. While it's doubtful any of the teams participating will take them lightly, they really are flying in under the radar a bit. Russian hockey took a lot of hits in 2009-2010, and they usually don't stay down for very long in this sport. In a fight for the gold, I think Russia has as good of a chance as anybody, and that's even with last year's #1 goaltender (Bobkov) having a terrible year in the OHL. Russia has other options besides him, just as they had the option of leaving behind talented forwards that could be a problem (Kabanov) or that the coach isn't familiar with (Avtsin). Those decisions will either be viewed as confidence or even hubris if it doesn't work out, but there's little reason to think they can't overcome them. Russian captain Vladimir Tarasenko, meanwhile, is my pick for tournament MVP. He had four goals and an assist last year in six games, and had an astonishing fifteen points (8+7) in seven games at the '09 U18s.
Prediction: 2nd in Group B, Gold Medal.