Each year, Russia is usually among the contenders for the U20 World Junior Championship gold medal, with this year being no different as head coach Mikhail Varnakov will have at his disposal a very good team. Last month's Subway Super Series showed that Russia would ice a very competitive team as, with 14 players busy in the KHL, Team Russia still skated on a par with the CHL all-star teams that they faced.
In the early years of the Subway series, the Russian selects were romped with lopsided scores, while in more recent editions they could count on icing better teams. This year, though, the schedule was changed and Varnakov had to make do mostly with a second-tier squad. Nevertheless, the final result was very good and some players really stood out there and earned a spot on the WJC team, players like Ivan Nalimov, Alexei Bereglazov, Kirill Maslov, and others.
Another player who looked good during the Super Series, Vladimir Tkachyov, was passed over for the 2014 WJC squad, as was Sergei Tolchinsky. Both players are somewhat undersized and play more of a finesse style, with both of those attributes playing against them, especially with a coach like Varnakov who prefers playing a more physical style, usually relying on bigger players to buy into his defense-first approach. Both players are ’95-born, therefore they’ll get a chance at next year's WJC. Another interesting player, Denis Gorbunov, has been cut due to a knee injury.
Traditionally the Achilles’ heel of Russian hockey, the goaltending has tremendously improved in the last few years for Team Russia, with strong goalkeeping playing a key role in the team’s any success achieved during this time period.
In the past, some very good goalies defended Russia’s crease (Dmitry Shikin, Igor Bobkov, Andrey Makarov), and in the recent past this position has been almost monopolized by Andrey Vasilevskiy (TBL). Undoubtedly the top Russian goalkeeper of recent years, Vasilevskiy has backstopped Russia at the last three U18 and last two U20 World Juniors, although never managing to win a gold medal. Vasilevsky has matured a lot in the last few seasons and now he’s the starting goaltender for Salavat Yulaev Ufa of the KHL, where he has twice been named that league's Rookie of the Month. Vasilevskiy will be Russia’s starting goaltender at the 2014 WJC.
The team’s second goalie will be Ivan Nalimov, who won this spot thanks to his excellent performance at the Subway Super Series. But as good as Nalimov is at this point, he is nowhere near to Vasilevsky’s level. For the third season in a row, Igor Ustinsky will be the third goalkeeper for Team Russia as he was the third goalie at the 2012 U18 (with Vasilevsky and Nalimov again being the first and second goalies) and at the 2013 WJC (behind Vasilevsky and Makarov). The Tyumen, Russia native is a good goalie at the MHL level, but didn’t show enough to convince Varnakov to give him a better spot on the team.
Defense is another area in which Team Russia did improve in recent years, but that remains a part of the team that could still use some improvement.
The team will bring a very good top pairing made up of Nikita Zadorov (BUF) and Andrei Mironov. Zadorov played well in the NHL before being reassigned to the London Knights of the OHL and his experience and size will certainly help Varnakov’s squad in their quest for the gold medal. Andrei Mironov is a shutdown defender who currently plays for Dynamo Moscow of the KHL. He won the Gagarin Cup last year with the Moscow franchise and had a major role on the team. This year he’s repeating his rookie season’s success and is logging an average of more than 17 minutes a night, a strong signal of the trust the coaching staff has in Mironov. Mironov is an interesting prospect and has already represented Russia during last year’s WJC.
Valeri Vasiliev (PHI) will most likely play on the second defensive pairing. Vasiliev is a more defensive-minded defenseman who can deliver some good, well-timed hits and will probably be paired with a more offensive rearguard. Vasiliev is having a decent season in the KHL with struggling Spartak Moscow, logging more than 13 minutes a game. His assumed defense partner, Rushan Rafikov (CGY) was among the last cuts.
Another interesting defender to watch will be Nikita Tryamkin. The big man (6’4”, 215 lbs.) is in his second full season in the KHL with Avtomobilist Yekaterinburg and can be a threat on the blue line with his powerful slap shot. Last year, Tryamkin was among the last cuts from the squad, so he might lack a bit of international experience.
Just as expected, the offense is Team Russia’s strong suit as they will go to Sweden with some good firing potential. But this is also the part of the team that left more surprises with regards to players excluded from this WJC roster.
Two very talented but smallish forwards, Vladimir Tkachyov and Sergei Tolchinsky, were left at home, but this wasn’t a surprise for those who follow Varnakov's coaching style closely. Varnakov also did not invite the Sarnia Sting's Nikolai Goldobin, a 2014-eligible who is having an excellent second season in the OHL.
Most of the team’s firepower will alsmost certainly come from the first line, which will be made up of Mikhail Grigorenko (BUF) centering Pavel Buchnevich (NYR) and Anton Slepyshev (EDM). Slepyshev will also captain the team and he was already the captain for the ’94 team during the U18 WJC two years ago. Buchnevich is having a very good season with Severstal Cherepovets of the KHL as he has scored six goals and as many assists in 31 regular season games. Buchnevich is a very fast player with great hands and his soft touch will be very valuable on the big ice in Malmo.
Another interesting player to follow will be Bogdan Yakimov (EDM), who will center the second line. Yakimov is having a solid rookie season with Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk of the KHL where he’s showing that he can contribute on the score sheet, defend well, and win faceoffs. Yakimov’s KHL deal will run out after this season and he has already confirmed that he is going to head to North America and has no problems with playing in the AHL for the Edmonton Oilers’ affiliate team.
The CHL will be represented by Valentin Zykov (LAK) and 2014-eligible Ivan Barbashev. After a very successful 2012-13 campaign in the QMJHL, Zykov is again doing very well, so he’ll be required to provide some secondary scoring for Russia at this WJC. Barbashev will have pretty much the same role as Zykov and, just like Zykov, is having a good second QMJHL season with the Moncton Wildcats. Barbashev at this point is viewed as a potential first round selection in the 2014 NHL Draft, so a strong WJC will only raise his stock. Their line will most likely be completed by Alexander Barabanov, one of the top MHL players of the last couple of seasons who is now playing for VMF-Karelia in the Russian High League. Barabanov has scored seven goals in 21 games, placing him third on the team in scoring, and he'll likely get a chance with SKA's main team next year.
The rest of the forward corps is made up of slightly less skilled players. Damir Zhafyarov is in his second full KHL season and is playing very well again with seven goals and 11 points in 29 games for one of the worst KHL teams, Metallurg Novokuznetsk. Zhafyarov, although, is a smallish player at 5’9”, 160 pounds, and it has yet to be seen how effective he can be playing in this kind of tournament. Vyacheslav Osnovin is a player of a similar status, but he has had less fortune in the KHL so far. The Chelyabinsk, Russia, native is a talented center with good skating ability and decent size, but he has yet to translate these attributes into on-ice success.
Follow Alessandro Seren Rosso on Twitter via @AlexSerenRosso