Team Russia 2012 WJC Preview

By Alessandro Seren Rosso
Photo: All eyes will be on winger Nail Yakupov, a player who is expected to be among the top NHL draft picks in 2012. (Photo courtesy of Aaron Bell/OHL Images)

The reigning WJC champions, Team Russia is once again a contender for the Gold Medal in 2012. After last year’s triumph, Russia will bring to Alberta a team which looks even better than last year’s one on offense, but with bigger question marks between the pipes and on the blue line.

The Subway Super Series showed this as Valery Bragin’s team appeared extremely good on offense, but not as much on defense and when it came to goaltending. Last year’s squad could count on Igor Bobkov (ANA), but this year it doesn’t seem to be present a goalie of this caliber and this, of course, can be a problem for a contending team.

Defensive game has always been Team Russia‘s Achilles’ heel, and this year makes no exception, especially considering that 2011 leaders, like Dmitry Orlov (WAS) and Andrei Sergeev, graduated and the new wave of players doesn’t seem to be on the same level, even if there are some interesting names.

Goaltending

At his second North American season, Andrey Makarov is improving, maturing and growing as the time goes by, but he still doesn’t look as good as Bobkov did last year, especially taking into account Bobkov’s international career. With that being said, Bobkov was instrumental in last year’s Gold Medal triumph also thanks to his readiness toward North American hockey, something that will come with Makarov too, and this might be very important against the likes of Canada and United States.

The backup goalie position will be shared between Sergei Kostenko and Andrei Vasilevski. Kostenko always played with Team Russia-92 as he is most likely the top goalie of this birth year, and at the Subway Super Series he clearly outplayed the other candidate for this spot in the roster, Pavel Suchkov. His experience can be very useful for the team. Also Andrei Vasilevski is a player who is not short of international experience, having participated to two U-18 WJCs, one when he was just 15, and this Spring most likely he’ll get iced in his third. Both goalies are having good seasons in the MHL, it won’t be easy for Bragin deciding Makarov’s backup.

Defense

As usual, the blue line is where lies most of the concern when discussing Team Russia, especially at the junior level. The team’s defense might raise even more concern than last year as some of the better players graduated and the replacements don’t look as promising. The absence of Andrei Pedan (NYI), one of the last cuts, surprised some, but it was expectable after his less than stellar performance at the Subway Super Series.

Most of the offensive production on the blue line will be awaited from Viktor Antipin. The 19-year-old defenseman is an offensive minded player with excellent power play skills, but, as it almost always happen with Russians, his own-zone game is definitely not as good. Even if considering his undeniable talent, Antipin looks pretty much a downgrade from Dmitry Orlov (WAS), who last year was named on the tournament’s All-Star team. Antipin is a particular downgrade considering his size (5’9, 146 lbs).

Another interesting player coming out from Russia is Zakhar Arzamastsev. A product of the prolific Metallurg Novokuznetsk hockey school (which raised in the latest few years Orlov, Kostenko, Sergei Bobrovsky and Kings’ prospect Maxim Kitsyn), Arzamastsev is a reliable two-way defenseman with extensive KHL experience, being at his third full pro season. His experience will be much needed on this team.

The blue line will feature another player the North American audience is already familiar with, Nikita Nesterov (TBL). Nesterov has recently been awarded KHL rookie of the week and is among the leader of his team, Traktor Chelyabinsk, currently on the top of KHL standings, in the plus/minus stat with a plus-nine. The 18-year-old blueliner has an extensive international experience and this might help when the team will be playing with a full, hostile crowd in the stands. Just like many other players, Nesterov was a member of the team which won the Bronze medal at the 2011 U18s.

Another player to follow will be Artem Sergeev. The Muscovite defenseman is at his third season in North America and the second with the Val d’Or Foreurs of the QMJHL and his small-ice experience is definitely something coach Valery Bragin was looking for. Bragin will also seek some help from his big blue line slapshot and defensive game.

Among the rest of the defensive crop, the most interesting players are Ildar Isangulov and Grigori Zheldakov. Isangulov is a very large (6’3, 230 lbs) stay-at-home defenseman, who most likely will be iced on a pair with Antipin, while Zheldakov is an aggressive, two-way blueliner with some KHL experience under his belt with Spartak Moscow.

Forwards

Historically the forward line has always been the best one for Russia and it’s going to be the same once again. There are no doubts that, at least on paper, the Russians will have more firepower than any other team of the tournament. The team’s main star will of course be Evgeny Kuznetsov (WAS), the only returnee from last year. Kuznetsov will also captain the team and it will be interesting to see how he will react in dealing with such pressure. However, with all this talented forwards in the lineup, it will be hard to believe that if a team will succeed in blocking Kuznetsov, no one would take his role.

Kuznetsov, who is having an extremely good season in the KHL with top team Traktor Chelyabinsk, will most likely center a line with right wing with Daniil Apalkov and left wing Sergei Barbashev. Daniil Apalkov is a product of the Metallurg Magnitogorsk organization (Evgeni Malkin, Nikolai Kulemin, Anton Khudobin, etc.), who recently moved to the reborn Lokomotiv Yaroslavl, who will spend the rest of the season in Russia second tier league, the VHL. Apalkov captained Team Russia at the latest Subway Super Series and he showed to be ready to play a leading role on the WJC squad too. It won’t be surprising to see him drafted next spring if he’ll have a good tournament.

Sergei Barbashev is also having a very good season in Russia, playing both in the KHL and in the junior league MHL with CSKA Moscow. The Red Army product is a technically gifted winger with great skating and excellent top speed, which coupled with his size (6’0, 170 lbs), makes him your prototypical Russian winger.

The team’s second line is on paper the most dangerous of the squad due to chemistry. The unit will feature Nikita Gusev, Mikhail Grigorenko and Nikita Kucherov (TBL). This line developed an excellent chemistry and being formed by three potential stars might reserve some serious treats to the opposition. Grigorenko and Kucherov already showed what they are capable of, while Gusev is probably Russia’s best hidden secret now, and after an excellent showcase at the Subway Super Series it was clear that he won’t be a liability to this line in spite of his shorter CV. If things will go well for Russia, people can expect these three players to be on the first positions of the scoring race.

On the third line most likely Bragin will ice another very, very interesting player in sight of the 2012 NHL Entry Draft: Nail Yakupov. The Nizhnekamsk native is having another excellent season in the OHL with the Sarnia Sting and it will be very interesting to see how he will do against the likes of Team Canada and Team USA. Team Russia’s "North American" line will feature center Alexander Khokhlachev (BOS) and Ivan Telegin (WIN). This line fared very well during the Subway Super Series and it’s expected that Bragin will rejoin them once again.

The fourth projected line will most likely feature yet another NHL prospect in Yaroslav Kosov (FLA). The 18-year-old completely recovered after the injuries suffered from a car crash he had in late October and now he looks in great shape, ready to give his contribution in terms of size and grit, coupled with a good set of hands which allow him to score highlight reel goals, pretty similarly to Kitsyn, even with probably a lesser grade of talent. His linemates should be Ukraine native Ignat Zemchenko and two-way center Pavel Kulikov, a teammate of Apalkov in Lokomotiv.

Conclusions

With such an offensive firepower, it’s expected that Bragin’s team will fight for defend their Gold Medal in Calgary too. The forward line looks even better than last year’s one, even if Vladimir Tarasenko (STL) graduated, while the goalies and the blueliner can be source of some concerns among team Russia’s fans. Two unexpected absences are Pedan and Vladislav Namestnikov (TBL). Some rumors claim that Namestnikov is nursing an injury, and this was the reported reason of his cut, but since these are only rumors, most likely Bragin considered Apalkov, Khokhlachev and Grigorenko as more reliable options, preferring to keep Kulikov for his bigger defensive contribution.

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