Team Russia U18 World Championship review

By Alessandro Seren Rosso

After the WJC triumph, Team Russia hoped for a repeat in Germany for the U18s. They fell short though. After a good round robin, the team led by Yuri Rumyantsev lost the semifinals to team Sweden with a 1-3 score – exactly like the 2010 edition – but then managed to surprisingly defeat team Canada to grab a bronze medal.

However, the Russians weren’t satisfied by the output of the game, as some pointed out that the goal scored by Gustav Bjorklund was not good and the coach and some players weren’t scared to tell it to the media: "The referees made this game for our opponents", said goalkeeper Vasilevski after the game. But even if Bjorklund’s goal had a certain degree of controversy, the victory was well deserved for the Tre Kronor, who managed to shut down the Russian top line and played an overall very good game, with Russia being able to be a treat mostly thanks to Vasilevski’s superb play.

The bronze medal was better for the Russian side. A hat-trick from 2012 top prospect Nail Yakupov lifted the Russians over Canada and they were able to grab the fourth medal in the last five years (one gold, 2007, two silvers, 2008 and 2009).

The best players for the Motherland were, as expected, the first liners. Blue chip prospects Nail Yakupov, Mikhail Grigorenko, and Nikita Kucherov combined for an outstanding 52 points, 21 of them scored by record breaker Kucherov, which are a new record, beating 2009’s Toni Rajala (EDM), who posted 19. As a consequence, Kucherov has been awarded with Top Forward honors. It will be interesting to see how this big time performance will influence Kucherov’s ratings at the upcoming NHL Entry Draft. NHL scouts surely appreciated his skills and shooting abilities, although they might have been a bit worried by his size, not small, but also not special at 6’0, 165 lbs, and also by the fact that he already declared that his goal for the upcoming future is getting a KHL spot within his team, the famous CSKA Moscow.

Kucherov’s Red Army teammate, Mikhail Grigorenko, had an excellent tournament too, and he is has definitely grabbed more attention from NHL scouts. The center, who played with Kucherov all year long in the Russian junior league, led the tournament with 14 assists and was the second player in the scoring list with 18 points. Grigorenko looks like a surer pick than Kucherov. He has a great hockey sense and excellent reading of the play, as well as superb skills and tremendous skating abilities. Grigorenko also showed to be a very good finisher, even if he scored only four goals. His wrist shot is top notch and, even if he is definitely more of a playmaker, he can score goals with ease. In spite of the infamous Russian factor, most likely Grigorenko will be picked in the first round of the 2012 NHL Entry Draft.

Nail Yakupov had a less outstanding tournament, although he managed to increase his performance after a relatively slow start. His hat trick in the bronze game medal was definitely a notable show and overall in the tournament he confirmed all what he showed during the OHL regular season and he is also a front runner for the 2012 first overall pick, although it might be a little bit early to talk about it.

A part the big-three, other players had very good tournaments. The first of them is the teams captain, defenseman Albert Yarullin. The Kazan, Russia, native led all defensemen in scoring with 11 points, all assists, and led the whole tournament in plus/minus, with an impressive plus-12. Yarullin showcased good passing abilities and also – at times – an imposing physical presence in spite of his not impressive size (6’0, 194 lbs). Yarullin surely can throw the body around and after such a good show it’s not unrealistic thinking that some NHL team might take a flyer on him. Yarullin is a product of the same hockey team which raised Alex Burmistrov (ATL) and Kirill Petrov (NYI), Ak Bars Kazan.

Yarullin was really happy after Team Russia’s win in the bronze medal game. "For sure winning the tournament would have been the best, but this bronze medal is great, as we defeated team Canada, which is always our principal opponent. And also we showed that our hockey is better than theirs", he said with probably some adrenaline still going after the win.

Other two strong candidates for the 2011 NHL draft – Maxim Shalunov and Nikita Nesterov – had okay tournaments, but not the best. Winger Maxim Shalunov had two goals and one assist in six games, and he had to sit for the semis due to a mild injury, while blueliner Nesterov – who was drafted in the CHL by the Tri-City Americans – scored two goals and two assists in all the seven games of the tournament. "Getting the bronze medal was a good result", Shalunov admitted. "It would have been bad should we get the fourth spot, like last year.

A good sign for Russia was the solid play of goalkeeper Andrei Vasilevski. He was at his second U18s and it is even more impressive if we count he is a 1994 born. He already played 11 games at this level and most likely he will become the goalkeeper with more games in the history of the tournament (currently the record is shared between Jaroslav Halak and Swiss Tobias Stephan, a former Dallas Stars pick).

Two players currently playing in the North America also skated in the tournament, although their performances have been less impressive than other players’ ones: Alex Kuvaev and Andrei Pedan. Blueliner Pedan from Guelph Storm had a decent, but not impressive, defensive tournament and finished with two assists in six games, missing the bronze medal game due to a game misconduct he picked up during the semis. Kuvaev, who plays in the WHL for the Lethbridge Hurricanes, had only one assist in seven games. Both players might be picked during the upcoming NHL Entry Draft.