As tradition dictates, Team Russia will be a top team because of the history and the overall talent. But this year’s roster, still surely a team capable of going far, seems a little bit weaker than usual, especially after the tragic loss of the team’s leader, Alexei Cherepanov, on October 13th after collapsing on the team’s bench during a KHL game. Replacing his skills, leadership and work in the clutch will be a hard task.
For the second consecutive year, the team will be led by Sergei Nemchinov. The two-time Stanley Cup winner has not done too well so far, getting good results only in meaningless competitions like the 4-Nations tournaments, traditionally played against Sweden, Finland and Czech Republic. His very first task, the Super Series in September 2007, was a complete debacle, while the last WJC ended with a bronze medal after the overtime defeat against Sweden in the semifinals. Nemchinov surely made some good steps forward, but the impression is that he still has to grow a lot both in the technical and mental aspects of the coaching art. He will have to make his team a real team and he also must be able to efficiently motivate the players in the playoff stage, with many of the Russian youngsters yet to taste its atmosphere. He also has to work a lot on the special teams after the disappointing losses against the CHL Selects at the recent ADT Canada/Russia Challenge.
The team’s starting goalkeeper is going to be Sergei Gayduchenko (FLA). The big sized netminder from Kiev is seeing almost no ice time in his KHL club, Lokomotiv Yaroslavl, despite playing solidly in all the three games he has been in (.942 save percentage, 1.64 GAA). Gayduchenko is 6’5 220 lbs, has a very good agility for his size and an above average positioning that allows him to play an effective, even if a bit raw, stand-up style. His backup is completely opposite to him. Daniil Alistratov, a 2009-eligible who strangely hasn’t been ranked in the preliminary Central Scouting Service lists, is a short netminder who plays an agile butterfly game based on quick slides and on his fast glove hand. It’s Alistratov who has more KHL experience and attention, he has even been awarded with the league’s best goalkeeper of the week prize at one point, but compared to Gayduchenko he doesn’t have the size to deal with traffic and with players who crash the net. This can be an issue even at the junior level, especially against the smart teams like the Canadians who are never scared to take advantage of this.
Team Russia‘s third goalkeeper, Vadim Zhelobnyuk, doesn’t have much of a chance to play despite having won a gold medal in the 2007 under-18 WC. He’s a young goalkeeper who has had a not bad career in the RSL/KHL so far, but has never been spectacular nor challenged the veterans for the starting duties. Zhelobnyuk has some potential, but first he needs to gain some experience in order to be effective at the elite level.
The defense is another area in which Nemchinov will have tons of work to do. Despite having some good prospects like Vyacheslav Voynov (LA), Dmitry Kulikov – a projected first round pick in the next NHL Entry Draft – and Maxim Goncharov (PHO), the defense looks really like the weak part of the team. A few of the players simply aren’t good enough for international hockey. Ones like Mikhail Pashnin, Dinar Khafizulin or Vasili Tokranov will have a hard time in coping with the elite-level forwards from the other nations. Coach Nemchinov will have a lot to work in building a good team defense. Because of the level of Russian blueliners and of their opponents, it won’t be enough for him to tell to the players to play hard, he will also have to study something to prevent the top players from Canada, Sweden or Finland arriving too freely in the zone in numerical superiority. Hopefully it won’t result only in overplaying the first couple of defensive pairs.
In the aforementioned pairs surely will play team’s captain Vyacheslav Voinov (LA). The young defenseman is already an experienced player even if just 18 and his AHL play surely made him progressing forward especially in the physical play required on the small ice. He’s probably going to be paired with undrafted Maxim Chudinov from Severstal Cherepovets. Known to the international audience mostly because of his performances at the last year’s Super Series, Chudinov is a reliable two-way defenseman who can play both finesse and hard-nosed hockey, being him able to move the puck and to hit open ice. Another key role in the team is the supposed 2009 first rounder Dmitry Kulikov, who’s currently having an amazing QMJHL rookie season with the Drummondville Voltigeurs.
The top four is likely to be closed by Maxim Goncharov (PHO), another young Russian player drafted by the Coyotes with NHL upside. He tried with them this season, but opted for spending another year at his CSKA, where is having yet another solid season with six goals scored in around 30 matches. He could be considered among the most improved prospects of this season, even if he played well already in the 2007-08 season. Unfortunately he didn’t skate too much with the Moscow team in the last playoffs so he’s another player whose reliability in the medal round is questionable.
A notable – yet not surprising – absence is Montreal Juniors defenseman Dmitry Kostromitin, but the sized blueliner never played for Nemchinov, who strangely doesn’t seem to see him as good enough for the WJC level.
If the defense may be the cause of worrying, the forwards crop – as usual for Russians – are without a doubt the best area of the team. With six players skating in the different North American leagues, the depth at the forward positions is something to count on. The team’s star is Nikita Filatov (CBJ). After being Team Russia‘s top scorer last year, Filatov is enjoying a very good season in the American Hockey League with the Syracuse Crunch, posting seven goals and 17 points in 23 matches, a good performance for a rookie. His linemate in Syracuse, Maxim Mayorov (CBJ), has been mysteriously recalled by his AHL team so as far as Tuesday it’s still unclear if he will play or not. If he will part of the team his size and experience will be of great help to his team and it’s likely that the coach will ice the Syracuse duo with the national team too. The Blue Jackets obviously won’t be the only franchise with a lot to observe.
The Florida Panthers are going to attend many matches of Team Russia in order to monitor Evgeny Dadonov’s progress since the last WJC edition. The dynamic winger from Chelyabinsk has been little played last season, being iced mostly in the fourth line. His KHL play has been very good lately, and he delivered some good performances with the National Team jersey in the fall preparation tournaments and he’s thus a strong candidate for a place in the top lines. In this he will be challenged by a number of players, especially from the Canadian Junior Leagues. Being a winger, in order to get a top lines spot he will have to outperform the likes of Dmitri Kugryshev (WAS) and Sergei Ostapchuk. Kugryshev, 18, is having a very good start of season with the Remparts of the QMJHL and he’s already accustomed to the small ice surface. Gifted of good skills with an interesting strength despite a "normal" size, he could add that sort of grit that Russia will need to go far in the playoffs stage.
That’s another area of concern as most of the team hasn’t got any share of experience for this situation. Ostapchuk, yet to be drafted, didn’t play too well in the last ADT Challenge, but his QMJHL performances and general level of play probably will make him one of the players to watch for the teams who overlooked him in the past spring.
The North American crop will feature another greatly awaited prospect, Evgeny Grachev (NYR). He’s another player who has enjoyed good success of late, being the top OHL rookie stats-wise with 19 goals and 35 points in thirty matches. His tactical versatility and his ability to play both wing and center makes him not only an exciting prospect in an NHL perspective, but also one of the players to watch in the entire tournament. Additionally, another CHL player in the lineup will be the center Sergei Korostin (DAL).
The KHL contingent features not only Dadonov, but many other interesting players. The undrafted Pavel Chernov has probably been the one who delivered the better performances in the ADT Challenge and in the WJC test matches. Chernov, who plays for Atlant Mytischi with Ray Emery and many other good players, is a tough center with excellent playmaking skills and good physical play. He hasn’t got a big size but with his very good balance and strength can cope very well with bigger players along the boards. It’s most likely that he will make the cut for the WJC as he can play on both checking and scoring lines. Another player from the KHL who’s likely to get into the lineup is the versatile Nikita Klyukin from Lokomotiv Yaroslavl. Skilled and poised, Klyukin is not a game-breaker like Filatov or Grachev, but can be an useful player thanks to his speed and technique.
The status of Kirill Petrov (NYI) is yet to be cleared. He didn’t play for more than two months because of a major injury he suffered at the start of the season and has only recently started playing in Ak Bars’ farm team and thus it’s still unclear if Nemchinov will risk him or not.
The last cuts, who will be soon communicated by Nemchinov, will probably exclude from the lineup Alexei Potapov, Artem Dubinin, Sergei Andronov, Dmitry Klopov and Alexander Komaristy.
Especially after the heavy defeat in the last test match suffered against the USA, Team Russia’s gold medal chances seem really slim this year. Despite having a great offensive corp, they lack in defense, in goalie and most seriously – behind the bench. But if the forwards can light it up surely the opponents – no matter if they are Kazakhstan or Latvia, Canada or Sweden – are going to get some hard time. But Sergei Nemchinov has really to start giving to the team the quality coaching they need to overcome the roster’s weaknesses.