Team Russia 2012 WJC recap

By Alessandro Seren Rosso
Photo:Russian forward Yevgeni Kuznetsov was not only the star player for Team Russia, but of the entire 2012 WJC. (Photo courtesy of Ken McKenna/HF)

The 2011 gold medal champions were hoping for a back-to-back triumph, but their hopes were halted by Mija Zibanejad’s (OTT) overtime goal in the Gold Medal game. Team Russia struggled a lot during the gold medal game, but upsetting Canada en route to a Silver Medal was a good result for the team led by Head Coach Valery Bragin.

Forwards

The team’s brightest star was, just as expected, Yevgeni Kuznetsov (WSH). The 2010 first round pick was named Tournament’s Most Valuable Player and best forward, earning a spot in the Tournament’s All-Star Team. He was also the WJC top scorer with 13 points. The Caps’ prospect was played by Bragin in different lines, but he was his best with Alexander Khokhlachev (BOS) and Nail Yakupov. Of course his greatest performance was the fantastic hat-trick against Team Canada in the semifinals. Kuznetsov also was instrumental in getting Team Russia‘s top chance during the last minutes of the final game, when he found undrafted Nikita Gusev with an eye-catching backhand pass, but the goal was denied by a great save by Johan Gustafsson (MIN).

The aforementioned Khokhlachev and Yakupov also had a good tournament. Khokhlachev had a good overall tournament with four goals and five points, Yakupov, after struggling in the first few games, didn’t manage to find the net, but he finished as team’s third top scorer with nine helpers. The team’s second top scorer was Gusev, with three goals and nine points. The undrafted winger did turn some attention toward him and he might well find a team who will find a later round pick on him.

For the first few games, the line made up of Gusev, Mikhail Grigorenko, and Nikita Kucherov (TBL) was arguably the best for Team Russia as they managed to score a lot, even if mostly against lower seed teams. But then Grigorenko, one of the top prospects for the 2012 NHL draft, picked up an injury during a game against Team Latvia and their production started declining. Grigorenko, however, finished with five points, definitely not bad for a 1994-born. By contrast, Kuznetsov, in his draft year, scored only two goals during the 2010 WJC. Kucherov, one of the most waited players, had a disappointing tournament. He had decent stats with two goals and seven points, but he was a factor only during the game against Czech Republic, when he set up the OT game winning goal by defenseman Grigory Zheldakov.

Other two forwards were interesting from a North American point of view: Ivan Telegin (WIN) and Yaroslav Kosov (FLA). Both had a solid tournament, scoring respectively two and four points, but they didn’t have a true impact on Team Russia. Moreover, Telegin picked up an injury during the medal round, which impaired his contribution. Kosov, like Kucherov and other members of the team, will be eligible for next year’s WJC.

Defense

Traditionally, the defense is Team Russia’s Achilles’ heel. This year it made no difference, although the defensive corps managed to be more effective than usual, also helped by Russian goalkeepers, which were excellent throughout the whole tournament. With that being said, the inability of most defensemen to carry the puck out of the defensive zone most likely cost Team Russia the gold medal as they weathered quite a storm defensively, reflected by the 58 shots allowed. The team’s top defensemen were Zakhar Arzamastsev and Nikita Nesterov (CHI), while Russia wa expecting more from small sized blueliner Viktor Antipin, who failed to translate his game to the more demanding small ice surface.

Many were left surprised when no one called Arzamastsev’s name during last year’s selections, and another silence this season would be even more of a surprise, considering his good display during the WJC and the fact that at 19 years of age, he already has already three pro seasons in the KHL under his belt, which is very rare in Europe. The mobile defenseman was named one of the top three players of his team (the other two were Kuznetsov and goalie Andrei Vasilevsky). Nesterov had a solid all-around tournament, scoring two goals and five points. He will be a very welcomed return next year on home soil.

North-America based Artem Sergeev failed to impress, especially during the Gold Medal game. Perhaps Valeri Bragin should have given a bigger role to more experienced players. The Val d’Or blueliner was at his first international tournament.

Goaltending

This year’s goaltending duo was probably Team Russia’s best ever at the WJC. Both Andrei Makarov and Vasilevsky had excellent performances during the whole tournament, and both should be drafted coming next spring.

Vasilevsky in particular did impress, even if he struggled against Team Canada allowing four goals during the third period and being consequently benched. In any case he managed to finish the tournament with a goals against average of 2.01 and a .953 saves percentage. Nothing but excellent numbers for a goalie in his draft year. Vasilevsky is currently one of the top goalies for the 2012 NHL draft.

His colleague Andrey Makarov didn’t draw enough attention to get picked last season, but this year’s performance should be enough. His stellar 57-save performance during the Gold Medal was an excellent sign not only of great goaltending, but also of mental toughness, necessary to play in goal at the highest level. It is unlikely Makarov won’t be picked during the 2012 selections.

Conclusion

After the two straight finals, Team Russia will want to make their best to get the Gold Medal again on home soil as the 2013 WJC will be held in Ufa, a city of over a million in the eastern part of European Russia , about 1500 kms from Moscow. The biggest question mark for the city will be the availability of Yakupov and Grigorenko. Other than them, also Kucherov, Kosov, Nesterov, Khokhlachev, Sergeev, defenseman Mikhail Naumenkov and the two goalies will be eligible to return.