The Russian National Team’s gold medal reign at the Under-20 World Junior Championships (WJC) is over.
Their quest for a third straight title ended in shocking fashion against Finland, when Valtteri Filppula’s long-range floater went sailing by Barulin with just 13 seconds left in the game.
The loss was a fitting end to a campaign plagued by poor coaching and questionable managing, responsibilities that were collectively handled by Rafael Ishmatov. But how can Ishmatov be blamed for Russia’s poor performance at the World Juniors? Isn’t he the same coach who guided the team to a gold medal just the year before? To answer both of these questions effectively, let’s take a closer look at Ishmatov’s track record at the helm of the U20 national team.
THE “GOLDEN” CAMPAIGN OF 2003
On the surface, Russia’s path to a second straight gold medal in 2003 was a glossy cover story, full of suspense regarding whether the squad could repeat their success without the scoring power of Stanislav Chistov, and in hostile territory in Canada. It also marked the rise of a new Russian hero, 2004 NHL Entry Draft prospect Alexander Ovechkin.
In addition, Rafael Ishmatov had plenty of talented players to pick from as the 1983-born class was a strong one for Russian hockey.
Most of the players on last year’s gold-medal roster held serious roles in the Russian premier Super League, and many were drafted in the first couple of the rounds of the NHL Entry Draft.
These players were mature and capable, many of whom had played together on national junior teams for several seasons. Some had even skated for the senior national team at EuroTour tournaments.
LEGITIMATE TRY OUTS OR POLITICS?
Traditionally, the September and November U20 tournaments provide an opportunity for the top young players to play together and prepare for the World U20 Championships.
During the 2002-03 season, Ishmatov was unable to field his best squad at these tournaments, as quite a few players were with Russia’s senior squad at the EuroTour tournaments, as previously mentioned. He was forced to dig deeper into the depth chart and field players who were unlikely to make the final World Junior squad.
This season, aside from Alexander Ovechkin and Konstantin Korneev, none of the ’84-born and younger group received invitations to represent Russia’s senior national team, giving Ishmatov an opportunity to consistently field a squad almost identical to the one he would bring to Finland for the World Juniors.
However, he instead chose to dig deep into the list of ’84-born players, selecting the likes of Sergei Chubikin, Alexei Krutov, Ilya Malyushkin and Konstantin Romanov to represent Russia. Granted, early on, several of the players, including Nikolai Zherdev and Dmitri Kosmachev, were withheld by their respective Super League clubs, but a number of others simply did not receive invitations.
So, when the roster was finally brought together in December, most of the skaters had never played together on the same line, and were expected to gel into a team in just two weeks. While this may be common practice at the World Championships or the Winter Olympics, where NHL players will join their respective national teams just prior to the start of tournament play, it is not usually a problem at the junior level.
Ishmatov had ample opportunity to build a solid team, but failed to do so. The result was clearly visible on the ice, where Russia skated as a group of, albeit very talented, individuals, and not as a cohesive team.
THE ’84 FIASCO
When one thinks of Russia’s best ’84-born players, the three names that instantly spring to mind are Zherdev, Anton Babchuk and Alexander Semin. Surprisingly, a year ago in Canada, Babchuk and Semin were absent from Russia’s U20 squad, while Zherdev was given a minimal third line role. This was no way to foster a nucleus on the ’84 squad, however, at the time, the gold medals appeared to have blinded most of the critics. In addition, it is worthwhile to note, that all three aforementioned players made their NHL debuts this season with their respective clubs and have all been impressive at this highest level of hockey.
Let’s take a look at the case of each of these three talented young players.
– has undeniably been one of the ’84 squad’s most dynamic and productive forwards over the past two seasons. He amassed an impressive number of goals and amazed scouts with his speed and puckhandling ability. During the summer of 2002, he signed with the Super League’s CSKA Moscow. Shortly upon his arrival, he was proclaimed the club’s savior and no one could say enough good things about the talented youngster.
However, after approximately a month, Zherdev’s youth and inexperience begun to take their toll on his success. He received plenty of criticism from coach Viktor Tikhonov, and, as his club began a nosedive to the bottom of the Super League, the media’s praises quickly disappeared.
Instead of trying to work with Zherdev, who was embroiled in the first struggle of his young career, Ishmatov chose to join the proverbial “mob”, criticizing and chastising his talented forward. At the 2003 World Juniors, as punishment, he placed Zherdev on the third line, where he skated without the passion and desire that he has shown on so many occasions in the past. Ishmatov continued to criticize Zherdev throughout the WJC.
While snubbing Zherdev didn’t have any immediate repercussions, would the young forward have been so quick to leave for North America and initially vow not to represent Russia at the 2004 tournament? Clearly, other issues were in play when Zherdev bolted for North America, but, with the military issues aside, if his relationship with Ishmatov had been strong, an arrangement would have been made and he would have still skated for Russia.
Anton Babchuk – With his enormous frame and blistering slapshot, Babchuk has been a mainstay on the Russian ’84 squad’s blueline from the outset. He led all Russian defensemen in goals at the U18 WJC, and seemed to be a lock for a spot on the U20 squad. With the team already boasting many great young blueliners, Babchuk wasn’t likely to earn a major role, although using him on the third defensive pairing would at least bolster an average-sized team thanks to his 6’4″ frame, not to mention adding his big shot to the mix.
However, instead of looking ahead, Rafael Ishmatov had a falling out with the young defenseman during November’s Four Nations tournament in the Czech Republic. For some reason, instead of acting in the team’s best interests, the head coach of Russia’s national team chose to hold the grudge, and overlooked Babchuk during his selection for the U20 WJC. Instead, he elected to select comparably-marginal defenseman in Dmitri Fakhrutdinov and Mikhail Lyubushin to round out his blueline. It is worth noting that the Russian squad also missed defenseman Alexei Stonkus, who is still recovering from a horrendous neck injury suffered in the fall. But, while Stonkus would have been a solid addition, Babchuk’s size and shot turned out to be irreplaceable.
Alexander Semin – Semin’s absence from the national team was simply shocking. The young winger was clearly the most dynamic scorer at the 2002 U18 WJC, and also performed quite well with the Super League’s Lada Togliatti. The p
rimary reason for Semin’s absence at the U20 WJC was not for his lack of ability, but more likely for his attitude, as he tended to play hard only when motivated properly by a coach that he respected – something that Ishmatov clearly was unable to do.
The young forward was equally, if not more, deserving of a spot on the national team than a number of others. It is curious that a player who led the Super League in points during the 2002-03 season playoffs, could not make Russia’s U20 squad.
While he skated for Russia at the 2004 U20 WJC, Semin’s presence on the squad was not without controversy, and it was clear from the start that the young forward and Russia’s coach did not see eye to eye. It appears that Semin inherited Zherdev’s role at this year’s tournament, never hearing the end of Ishmatov’s criticism.
Tragically, another of Ishmatov’s personal player conflicts again proved to be detrimental to the well-being of the team.
THE NOT-SO-SILVER LINING:
Beyond the three aforementioned players and Alexander Ovechkin, Ishmatov did bring on several newcomers to Russia’s 2003 U20 squad. Sergei Anshakov, Konstantin Korneev and Dmitri Pestunov each had the potential to become impact players on the 2004 U20 squad. However, even with Alexander Ovechkin on the same line, Pestunov was unable to fulfill the responsibilities of the top-line center.
Anshakov did showcase his scoring touch in Finland, but again, he was a great supporting player and not a leader. Korneev, on the other hand, was undeniably the squad’s leader, fulfilling his role as captain, but, unfortunately, neither he nor any of the other Russian blueliners had near the presence that Anton Babchuk would have brought to the mix.
CANADA CHALLENGE FACTOR
Then there is the issue of goaltending, where Konstantin Barulin, after recently stifling the best North American junior leagues had to offer, showed much less confidence and seemed unable to get on track. One feasible explanation for Barulin’s mediocre showing could be the fact that he spent all of November and December playing exclusively for Russia’s national team and saw hardly any action between the tournaments.
Initially a starting goalie for Upper League’s Gazovik Tyumen, Barulin was “promoted” to a backup position with a Super League club. The promotion was unfortunate, as he has yet to play a single Super League game. Subsequently, his game declined due to the lack of playing and, while it was great that he carried Russia during the Canada Challenge series, it is regrettable that his great performance in Canada may have likely cost Russia at the U20 WJC.
To say Ishmatov is largely to blame for Russia’s mediocre performance at the 2004 WJC may be a bold statement, however, there is still more evidence, aside from the above-mentioned, to support this claim. Many questions remain unanswered.
Why wasn’t the dynamic duo from the 2003 U18 Worlds, Evgenii Malkin and Alexander Ovechkin, reunited? Why were many longtime members of the ’84 national team, namely Vladislav Evseev, not even invited to try out for the U20 WJC squad? Why did Ishamtov’s feud with Semin spill over into the media and become a major distraction for an already-struggling team?
From every angle, it appears that the coach’s lack of foresight and inability to properly manage and motivate his players, contributed heavily to Russia’s failure in Finland. Interestingly, Rafael Ishmatov’s story is quite similar to that of his predecessor, Vladimir Plyuschev, who coached a strong U20 squad in 2002 to the first of Russia’s two U20 gold medals, but failed to succeed with Russia’s senior national team at the 2003 World Championships, where elite coaching ability is truly a necessity. However, Plyuschev’s shortcomings as a coach are a whole other long story.