Team Russia gears up for U18 World Championship

By Alessandro Seren Rosso

After the 2009 tournament silver medal team Russia managed to grab only a fourth place last year in Minsk, in spite of icing a good roster with a good coach. For the 2011 World U18 Championship the lineup remains impressive in the offensive part – as tradition dictates – but also presents some questions in defense, goaltending, and coaching, something that might be called traditional too for the Motherland. Team Russia-93 has had bad results all year long and thus the Russian fans shouldn’t expect too much from this team, but the presence of some potential superstars in the lineup might change things fast.

Goaltending

Team Russia‘s goaltending has often been an Achill’s heel, especially at the junior level, and this year it might play a factor too. The goalkeepers will be Pavel Shegalo and Andrei Vasilevski, who should be the starter, in spite of the fact that he’s a 94 born. Vasilevski had a good tournament last year in Belarus, when he posted a goals against average of 2.65 and a saves percentage of .897 as double under aged. This year Vasilevski cemented his play stopping pucks for Tolpar Ufa in the Russian Junior League, where he played 12 games. Let’s note that players up to 1989 are eligible to play in that league and thus Vasilevski faced opposition five years older than him. The team’s head coach Yuri Rumyantsev decided to call a first timer, Pavel Shegalo, to be paired with Vasilevski for the goalkeeping tandem. Considering the bad performances of other 93-born goalies during the season, this decision isn’t surprising, even if it won’t be easy for him to face the pressure of the national team for the first time at a World Championship event.


Defensemen

Team Russia’s defensive line also doesn’t look extremely good, even if there are some good players. The leaders will most likely be Nikita Nesterov and Andrei Pedan. After being selected during the CHL Import draft, Nesterov decided to stay in Russia and he spent the whole season playing for the White Bears of Chelyabinsk in the Russian Junior League, where he had 17 points in 45 games. Nesterov has a very strong shot from the point and the opposition goalies should watch out for it as this year he scored at least a goal in most international tournament he skated in. Nesterov is a returnee as he scored two goals last year, and in this edition he should have an even bigger role and he can be a key member of the team thanks to his strong shot and physical play. A good showing at this tournament might boost his chances at the upcoming 2011 NHL Entry Draft.

Physical play is to be expected also from Andrei Pedan, a 2011 eligible defenseman who spent this year with the Guelph Storm of the OHL. After a tough first part of the season, Pedan adapted nicely and he posted eight assists in six playoff games. The large defenseman is also expected to contribute with a key role within the team.

Another strong showing is expected from Albert Yarullin, a key member of the team. The rest of the defensive line is made up of average players, even if there is some experience in players like Gennadi Sabinin.

Forwards

Not surprisingly, forwards are expected to be the best part of team Russia. The squad will ice some players who can be easily thought as some of the tournament’s top players.

Mikhail Grigorenko is most likely the most-chatted-about player. The 2012 draft eligible center is going most likely to play in the first line and is expected to score a lot. Grigorenko is a playmaking center with enormous talent in the skills and skating areas and will most likely be a threat every time he is on the ice. He is a strong candidate for a first round selection during next year’s entry draft. Grigorenko will play side to side with Nikita Kucherov, his team mate with the CSKA Moscow junior team. Kucherov is another very good player with great offensive skills, but, differently from Grigorenko, his little size might harm his attractiveness in sight of the next draft. Kucherov is not only a fantastic offensive player, who takes full advantage of his skills, skating and shot, but is also a leader and captain of the Red Army junior team, despite being three to four years younger than most of his teammates. Team Russia fans should expect a lot of points from him, especially during the powerplay.

The other two players to watch, concerning the offense, are Nail Yakupov and Maxim Shalunov. While there’s little left to say about Yakupov and his stellar rookie season in the OHL, Shalunov is a different story. He might be scouted a lot, even if he already said that isn’t much interested in moving to America yet, maybe being influenced by the similar path took by his teammate Evgeny Kuznetsov (WAS). The forward – who is another returnee from last season – is going to get plenty of ice time and he should also be able to score a lot.

The team will present another player who spent the season in North America, Alex Kuvaev from the Lethbridge Hurricanes of the WHL. The right wing had a good Hlinka Memorial tournament and he might add some scoring depth to the roster.

Other than Grigorenko, the team will feature several other 94 born players, with the better of the crop being Bogdan Yakimov, who has been trained by the same organization that raised Nail Yakupov, Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk. The sized center has had good numbers for Team Russia 94, as well as in the different national tournaments.

Conclusion

With the aforementioned said, and considering the suspect absence of some very good player (like Prokhorkin, Shmelev and others), it’s hard to expect much out of this team Russia. However, having an offensive lineup featuring Yakupov, Grigorenko, Kucherov, and Shalunov could cause some serious headaches for the opposition. This team can really placed anywhere from the last (although very unlikely) to the first place at the end of the tournament.