The 2011 WJC Gold Medal has been an unexpected but pleasant achievement for all of Team Russia’s fans or admirers. The Motherland capture its first triumph after an eight-year draught in which most of times the teams didn’t feature enough leadership and were many times either outplayed by Canadians, like 2005 or 2006 editions, or simply having very poor performances due to multiple factors, like in 2010.
This season Team Russia got excellent coaching from Valery Bragin, a former RSL head coach, who didn’t hesitate in leaving home some talented but younger players like Nail Yakupov and Alexander Khokhlachev, in favor of players with a bigger drive and experience. The whole team was made up of 1991-born players, with the notable exception of Evgeny Kuznetsov (WAS), who has been included in the tournament’s All-Star Team. Caps fans will be happy to know that Dmitry Orlov also got All-Star Team honors as both players were instrumental to their team’s triumph.
The dramatic ending of the tournament showed not only that experience can play a huge role at this level, but also that a less physical team can win on the small ice surface, if the will is there. The Russians played their usual kind of hockey, but this time showed an exceptional timing and more importantly, an evident ability of not being intimidated by the more physical opposition.
The biggest contribution to Team Russia triumph probably came from three players. We already mentioned Orlov and Kuznetsov, the third stand-out player for Russia was Vladimir Tarasenko (STL), whose absence from the All-Star Team might lead to some controversy in how this accomplishment is awarded. Tarasenko has been one of the better players of the tournament throughout all the games and he stepped up his game when it mattered more, in the finals. After picking up an injury after a forced collision with Marcus Foligno (BUF) he had to be brought to the locker rooms. But in the third period he returned to the ice, inspiring his teammates and appearing on the score sheet.
“Vladimir Tarasenko, our captain, he has injury, and the coach said ‘Don’t go’ in the first period, and he said, ‘No, I’m going.’ And he scored the third goal. It’s the best captain in my life”, Igor Bobkov told to the press after the game. Tarasenko had an excellent tournament, with 11 points in 7 games (tied-second with Kuznetsov in the scoring race) and a big-time performance in the finals. He scored the 3-3 goal with a great one-timer off a great pass by Kuznetsov and then set up the game winning goal scored by Artemy Panarin with a smooth pass from the Gretzky’s Office.
The Blues’ prospect definitely looked like a NHL ready player and he should cross the pond next summer. Should he report, the camp will say if he’ll start the season already in the NHL or not. While he declared many times that he’s more than willing to play NHL hockey, he might not be interested in the AHL and could possibly decide to spend a further year in the Motherland should the issue arise. But considering his contract renegotiation of last summer, there are very good chances that he will report.
The hero of the quarterfinals game against Finland, Evgeny Kuznetsov, already declared that he should play another year or two in the KHL. He’s getting good coaching there from Valery Belousov, a very respectable coach who won three RSL titles and trained such players like Evgeny Malkin and Alexei Cherepanov, and isn’t going to cross the pond until he feels completely ready to face NHL competition. Most probably he’ll land in DC during the 2011-12 summer.
Kuznetsov, just like Tarasenko, had an excellent tournament. He had a very slow start and he was pretty much invisible in the round-robin game against Canada, but a goal against Czech Republic changed his tournament and he had an excellent medal round. It started off with a monster, clutch performance against Team Finland, but Kuznetsov kept the ball rolling in the final game as well with a three-assist performance.
Maxim Kitsyn (LAK) is another player who has been instrumental during the medal round. His ability in converting chances into goals has been a welcome feature of his play as he was a constant threat. He also showed a very good passing ability and can create scoring chances himself with his big frame and physical play. Kitsyn finished the WJC as Team Russia’s top goal-scorer with five markers and nine total points. After the Buffalo triumph, the Novokuznetsk, Russia native decided to report to the Mississauga St. Michael Majors of the OHL. In his first two games he already amassed three goals and five points and he can earn some very valuable experience playing in Major Junior hockey. Metallurg Novokuznetsk’s GM, former referee Leonid Waisfeld, has already pointed out that Kitsyn will be back in the KHL after this season, we’ll see whether the Kings will offer him a contract or not.
Offensively, team Russia had some good contribution also from undrafted players. Center Artemy Panarin, who plays for Vityaz Chekhov of the KHL, scored two goals in the final game – including the gold medal-clinching one – and showed not only the usual good technique owned by Russian national team players, but also some good sand paper along the boards and in front of the net. His small frame, at 5’9”, 154 lbs, will most likely prevent him from being called during the selections.
Other players with solid performances were first line center Daniil Sobchenko, playmaker Denis Golubev and energy players Nikita Dvurechensky and Sergei Kalinin. Among these ones, Dvurechensky is the one who has the biggest chances to be drafted due to his size and good two-way play, joined with excellent technique and some displayed clutch ability. Sobchenko also showed to be a very good player, scoring seven points in six games, but he recently stated that he didn’t like North America and thus pretty much called himself out of the draft.
The most valuable defenseman of the team has been, as said, Dmitry Orlov. The 19-year-old blueliner had an outstanding offensive performance throughout the whole tournament, scoring nine points and getting named to the All-Star Team. In spite of these achievements, Orlov showed some problems in coping with physical play and in overall defensive coverage. His physical and defensive development will show in the next few years if he will become a Sergei Zubov or a Kevin Dallman.
The only other defenseman who made a good impression has been Orlov’s linemate Yuri Urychev. The 6’4”, 210 lbs blueliner showed some defensive skills and a good slap shot, but most likely this won’t be enough to get drafted in June.
Between the pipes Igor Bobkov (ANA) had a bad game in the first very contest of the tournament against team Canada, and thus Valery Bragin decided to give Dmitry Shikin a chance. The 19-year-old goalie had an okay tournament, with some great saves, but also with some soft goals allowed. However, in the final game, after Canada’s third goal he has been called to the bench in favor of Bobkov, who had a good display getting man of the game honors. We’ll see if this accomplishment will be a mood booster for Bobkov, who isn’t having a good season in the OHL with the London Knights.
Team Russia will have only Evgeny Kuznetsov as a likely returnee for the 2012 WJC. Next year’s team will feature some of the top prospects in the CHL like Vladislav Namestnikov, Alexander Khokhlachev and Nail Yakupov. There are also some interesting names from Russia, like defensemen Zakhar Arzamastsev and Alexei Marchenko. Will Russia be able to repeat this year’s triumph? The first thing to do in order to try to get that would be confirming Valery Bragin as head coach.