2008 WJC: Russia preview

By Eugene Belashchenko

As tradition dictates, Team Russia continues to be one of the favorites to finish high in the 2008 U20 World Junior Championships.  Unfortunately, if one carefully studies recent history, Russia is also once again destined to lose to Canada in the finals, as it has done so now three years in a row.  This was made especially clear after Russia’s embarrassing shellacking during the U20 Super Series tournament that took place in August, where Russia seemed to have a size advantage and was playing in front of the home crowd for half the games, but still failed to succeed against the Canadian team.  However, there is a silver lining for Russian fans, as the squad did perform admirably at the U20 ADT Canada/Russia Challenge, where Russia, while not winning every contest, did hold its own time and time again while competing with the best that the Canadian juniors had to offer. 

Goaltending

Sergei Bobrovsky (Metallurg Novokuznetsk)
Sergei Gaiduchenko (Florida Panthers) (Metallurg Novokuznetsk)
Stanislav Galimov (Ak Bars Kazan)

For the past two years, Russia’s goaltending had been securely in the hands of Washington Capitals goaltender Semen Varlamov, who delivered an outstanding performance during his rookie Super League season.  However, the young goalie did not perform all that well against the Canadians in the Super Series and was consequently demoted from the starting position.  It is unclear whether the rumors regarding existing tension between him and the U20 team’s head coach Sergei Nemchinov are true, but what is clear is that despite being a starter in the Super League, Varlamov was omitted from Russian national team’s roster. 

Only time will tell whether Varlamov’s omission will cost Russia the gold medal.  However, the team is deep in the net this year with three capable goaltenders travelling with the Russian squad to the Czech Republic.  In regards to the starting job, it is up in the air whether Sergei Bobrovsky or Stanislav Galimov will be able to take it.  Bobrovsky has been a surprisingly strong goalie for Russia in the Super Series against Canada and has also performed well for the lowly HC Metallurg Nk in the Super League, where his club securely holds the bottom ranking position.  Galimov has been a stable No. 3 netminder with the wealthy Ak Bars Kazan, at times getting ice time when Norronen went down with a collar bone injury and Vasily Koshechkin started to struggle.  Now, however, he is securely third behind Norronen and Esche, but in addition to his limited Super League experience, Galimov has also a strong international resume with Team Russia.  A late addition to the Russian national squad, he was very impressive against the Canadians during the Canada/Russia Challenge.  He seemed to always give the Russian squad a strong chance to win when in net and the team played with more confidence in front of him.  The third goalie travelling with Russia is Sergei Gaiduchenko, who was traditionally a backup for the 89-born national team.  The young goalie seemed to have been stuck deep in the depths of HC Lokomotiv’s talent chart, but revived his career when loaned to HC Metallurg Nk, only to see his playing time being taken away by Bobrovsky, who simply outperformed 6’5 goalie from Kiev. 

Defense

Yuri Alexandrov (BOS) (Severstal Cherepovets)
Pavel Doronin (Salavat Yulajev Ufa)
Valeri Zhukov (Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod)
Evgeny Kurbatov (Avangard Omsk)
Vyacheslav Voynov (2008) (Traktor Chelyabinsk)
Maxim Chudinov (Severstal Cherepovets)
Marat Kalimulin (Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk)
Andrei Kolesnikov (CSKA Moscow)
Nikolai Lukyanchikov (Dinamo Moscow)
Yakov Seleznev (Ak Bars Kazan)

Defensively, Russia has been historically weaker when compared to their top international opponents. Even if the Russian players are bigger, they seem to be unable to effectively compete physically against the more experienced North American blueliners.  This year appears no different, as Russia is bringing only a few experienced defenders to this tournament.  Yuri Alexandrov is captaining the squad and clearly has the most experienced defenseman on the squad. He already has three seasons of Super League experience, and that is with a fairly strong team and in a significant role. Vyacheslav Voinov is a 1990 born youngster who has been an impact player with HC Traktor in the Super League and impressed with his performance during the Super Series.  Still considered to be a marginal first-round caliber prospect, this will be Voinov’s chance to showcase his skill on the biggest arena available prior to the draft and if he able to perform, his stock will likely make him a legitimate first round choice.

One noticeable absence is that of Dallas Stars prospect Ivan Vishnevsky, who was expected to add some offensive upside to Russia’s blue line.  It is unclear why the young defenseman is not on the team, but he has unfortunately had a history of having little interest of playing for the Russian squad, as was evidenced prior to his draft year.  

From the supporting cast, Marat Kalimulin is worth a mention, as he was at one point considered a promising prospect with HC Lada, but then faded as the 2006-07 season went on.  He has impressed this year with HC Lada, where he has taken on more of a leadership position.   Additionally, he has been one of Russia’s top defensemen on the U20 squad and will likely skate on the second defensive pairing. 89-born Pavel Doronin, Valeri Zhukov, and Nikolai Lukyanchikov are other blue liners who have gotten some Super League experience lately and have had more than a year of professional experience in either the High League (RUS2) or Super League (RUS1), even though they have held only marginal roles with their respective squads. 

Forwards

Artem Anisimov (NYR) (Lokomotiv Yaroslavl)
Maxim Mamin (Metallurg Magnitogorsk)
Ilya Kablukov (VAN) (CSKA Moscow)
Alexei Cherepanov (New York Rangers) (Avangard Omsk)
Evgeny Bodrov (Lada Togliatti)
Nikita Filatov (CSKA Moscow)
Evgeni Dadonov (FLA) (Traktor Chelyabinsk)
Vadim Golubtsov (Amur Khabarovsk)
Viktor Tikhonov (Severstal Cherepovets)
Mikhail Milekhin (Neftyanik Leninogorsk)
Dmitri Kugryshev (CSKA Moscow)
Artem Gordeev (Salavat Yulajev Ufa)
Alexander Polukhin (Dinamo Moscow)
Anton Lazarev (Khimik Mytischi)
Dmitri Sayustov (Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod)
Anton Korolev (Neftyanik Leninogorsk)

Team Russia’s offense is predictably headlined by New York Rangers prospects Alexei Cherepanov and Artem Anisimov.  Cherepanov struggled in the Super Series, though did not have a chance to make an impact due to the concussion he suffered in the same game.  The Russian squad will need to protect him better at this tournament, and he will need to deliver some key goals as he did last year.  Thus far he has not had as much success in the Super League with Avangard in 2007-08, but that was to be expected as the teams now know of the young winger and have started to pay special attention to him.  Anisimov showcased his size and ability to play in traffic during the Super Series and has hopefully gotten more grit with Hartford in the AHL and should also help with his playmaking ability.  These two give Russia a serious scoring line no matter who will be playing on wing with them.  

Florida Panthers prospect Evgeny Dadonov is another promising young prospect on the squad who should give Russia a boost in the offensive zone.  He has a wealth of skills and also has significant Super League experience and has proven to be fully capable to play on Russia’s highest level.  The young forward also impressed with his ability to compete with Canadians during the Super Series.  Vancouver Canucks prospect Ilya Kablukov will likely bring some size and skill to the Russian squad, but he will hold more of a defensive and checking line role on the team, a role that he holds with HC CSKA.  Undrafted Viktor Tikhonov and Nikita Filatov are other forwards worth mentioning who will likely help boost their draft stock at the tournament. Tikhonov was overlooked last year, but has impressed at the Super Series with his knack for the net and his ability to play physical hockey. Additionally he has delivered a strong performance in the Super League with HC Severstal, consistently getting ice time and adding 9 points in 26 contests.  Filatov is yet to have a significant Super League experience, but is a promising and skilled U18 forward on the team.  This will be a very good experience for him and help Russia’s management start establishing a core of players for the next couple of years. 

Some of the surprising absences from the squad are Andrei Popov, who has been enjoying a solid Super League season, but has been rarely called up to the national team.  A first-round projected forward, Popov reportedly fell in the draft due to attitude issues, and this may likely be the reason for his absence from the team. Kiril Petrov is another surprising absence, as this 90-born prospect is in his second Super League season and while he has primarily held marginal roles with HC Ak Bars, Petrov is a promising prospect who would have helped build another piece for the foundation for the U20 squads in the next couple of years.