Team Russia has recently had much more success at the U20 World Junior Championship level than at the U18, with the last U18 medal being a bronze in 2011 in Germany when the team was led by players like Nikita Kucherov (TBL), Mikhail Grigorenko (BUF), and Nail Yakupov (EDM).
This year’s roster for the 2015 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship doesn’t seem as good as the 2011 edition, but as usual with Russia, there are some very interesting players, especially in goal and among the forwards. Unlike recent tournaments, Russia this year decided to go to the U18 minus players competing in North America. This may limit the team’s chances, considering that a few key players would certainly be available for the tournament, such as OHL player Nikita Korostelev.
Long gone are the days when Russia’s Achille’s heel was goaltending. Even if Andrei Vasilevskiy has graduated, Russia is continuing to send good goalies to the junior tournaments. A couple of years ago, Russia featured Igor Shestyorkin, currently a good goaltending prospect for the New York Rangers who competed at the recent U20 WJC tournament. This year, the team’s starting goalkeeper will be Ilya Samsonov. Samsonov had a great performance at the Five Nations Tournament in February and has been ranked as the top European goalie in the final NHL Central Scouting rankings. Samsonov has great size at 6’3” and 201 pounds, something that will help him in heated battles in the slot, especially against the North American teams. Most likely, his size will also be an interesting attribute during the next NHL Draft. Samsonov will be joined by Maxim Sidorov and ’98-born Mikhail Berdin.
In recent years, Russia’s production at defense has fallen a little bit behind that of goalies and forwards. The defense for Russia at this year’s U18 is not an exception to that rule.
One of Russia’s top defenders will definitely be Yegor Rykov. A solid two-way defenseman, Rykov will most likely be the team’s captain, as he was for much of the season. Some good surprises may come from two ’98-born players, Mikhail Sergachyov and Alexander Yakovenko. In spite of being much younger than many other players, both defensemen played at the MHL level this season with a certain degree of success. Both players, moreover, can get on the scoresheet with a certain ease, therefore it is expected that the duo will produce some offense for Russia. As he did in recent tournament games, another player who will most likely spend a lot of time in power play situations is Andrei Bannikov. A more defensive defenseman, but still interesting, is Alexander Shchemerov, who plays in the MHL for Avtomobilist Ekaterinburg.
As usual, forwards are the best part of Russia’s roster. It is expected that most of the attention will be given to 2016-eligible Dmitry Sokolov. The ’98-born forward is an exciting player with plenty of speed and exceptionally smooth hands who can score highlight reel goals with relative ease. He’s probably one of the most sought-after players from Europe for next year’s draft. His teammate on the national team, Vitali Abramov, hasn’t been called, which was one of the biggest surprises. Considered pretty much at the same level as Sokolov, Abramov is considerably smaller in size, which may have led to his exclusion.
Two more players worthy of attention are Kirill Kaprizov and Denis Guryanov. A natural scorer and a complete player, Guryanov scored often this year with the national team as he raised his stock for the 2015 NHL Draft. A good tournament may mean a lot for Guryanov as his exposure this season has been very limited due to his not competing in the KHL. On the other hand, Kaprizov has one full year of pro hockey under his belt, along with strong showings in many international tournaments, including the Ivan Hlinka Memorial last August where he scored five goals in four games. A smooth-skating player with soft hands and a good touch around the net, Kaprizov will be one of the most heavily-scouted players for Russia.
Other very interesting players include center Dmitry Zhukenov, who plays with Sokolov in Omsk; ’98-born German Rubtsov; and right-winger Ivan Yemets. Russia will have some good game-breaking forwards, even if this team most likely isn’t at the same level as the ones made up of ’93- and ’94-born players.
The bottom line
Leaving out Russia from the contenders isn’t easy, and probably will not be the case. This roster features some very intriguing forwards, a great goalie, and a solid defense. This won’t guarantee a medal, of course, but a couple of good lines and a hot goalie can transform any team into a contender, and it looks like Team Russia may have both of those elements.
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