Kazakhstan 2009 WJC preview

By Alessandro Seren Rosso

At the miraculous 2008 WJC, Kazakhstan, a large country in Eastern Europe/Central Asia located south of Russia, avoided the relegation as underdogs thanks to two big victories against Switzerland and Denmark. Team Kazakhstan will try their best to repeat last year’s achievement.

The mission will be even harder for the team’s head coach, Oleg Bolyakin, who before last year’s performance, earned a gold medal with Team Kazakhstan in the 2007 WJC Division 1 played in Italy. The top two offensive prospects, Evgeny Gasnikov and Evgeny Rymarev (who’s enjoying a good rookie season in the KHL with Barys Astana) are too old to play in the WJC, just like the reliable offensive defenseman Roman Savchenko. Oleg Bolyakin had the luck to work with two very good classes as 1987 and 1988, which produced a number of good players who are starting to deliver in the KHL or in Russian High League. But of course, he wasn’t only blessed with a good team, but he also had the ability to make them win with his playing style made up mainly of quick counterattacks through the offensive zone to exploit his players’ technique in one-on-one situations. Also the last year’s netminder, Mikhail Smolnikov, has graduated, and this will open another question in the line-up even if Smolnikov wasn’t as reliable as other junior team’s goalkeepers of the past. Bolyakin will also have to deal with his team’s relative lack of size, with only one skater over six feet.

The team leaders will be thus Evgeny Bolyakin and Yakov Vorobiev. Bolyakin, the head coach’s son, is a young offensive defenseman 1990-born who is at the second WJC. Last year he finished the tournament with just one helper, but in the under-18 WC he was the top point scorer among defensemen, outscoring Michal Jordan (CAR) and former OHL player Milan Doczy with five goals and one assist in five matches. Gifted with an accurate shot, good game intelligence and very good skating, Bolyakin is expected to turn up the level of his performances after an average tournament last time. In this season he skated in nine KHL matches with HC Amur Khabarovsk before of being waived. It’s unclear wherever he will continue his career, maybe his KHL team will only loan him down to the Vyschaya Liga just to recall him later on.

Yakov Vorobiev is another player who’s expected to have a very good tournament. After being drafted this spring in the annual CHL Import Draft by the Ottawa 67’s of the OHL, he could not bring a spot on the roster for himself and after five games he was released from the club. Despite his very good technique and impressive quickness, he could not deal with the kind of physical play required to play in the Canadian junior leagues and with the bigger defensive awareness that players must have there. After scoring four goals in last year’s tournament, the undersized winger will probably skate in the team’s first line, being the first offensive option for the loved long pass of his coach. If his teammates manage to launch him constantly in the opponent’s zone, he’s going to score many goals this year too. Otherwise he will struggle a lot especially against more physical teams.

As usual, most of the players in the roster come out of one team, Kazzinc Torpedo Ust-Kamenogorsk, the top Kazakhstani hockey academy. Thirteen players are from this team, and only five other teams are represented in the preliminary roster.

Leonid Metalnikov, yet another offensive defenseman produced by the team, belongs to this group. Like Bolyakin he scored six points in the last under-18 WC with three goals and three assists. He was also a heavy candidate for the last season’s WJC team, but was the last cut of the team after the training camp. Differently from Bolyakin, he’s not having yet a successful career with the pros as he never played with the main team, but only with the second team who plays in the Russian’s third tier league.

Another interesting player from this crop is the underaged forward Konstantin Savenkov, at his second WJC. Also the starting goalkeeper was formed by the Kazzinc Torpedo goalkeeping school, famous for having produced the like of Evgeny Nabokov, Vitaly Eremeev and Vitaly Kolesnik. The undersized Andrei Yankov will be at his first WJC after being the starting goalkeeper at 2007’s under 18 World Championships. His relibility for now is a question mark and he has to step up to give his team a chance, but as said it’s still questionable if he has the abilities to do that.

Other players not coming from Torpedo are the big center Nikita Ivanov, currently playing for the Soviet Wings of Moscow in the Russian High League, the young backup goalkeeper, 1992-born Maxim Gryaznov from Sary-Arka of Karaganda with his teammates Dmitry Tikhonov and Eduard Mazula. The Kazakhstan KHL team, Barys Astana, will bring no players to this tournament.

Team Kazakhstan will play a test match on Dec. 21 against Team Russia.