After the very good results from the last two World Junior Championships, where they grabbed a gold and a silver medal, Team Russia will play at home for the first time since 2001 and are hoping for a better finish in 2013 than their seventh place showing in twelve years ago.
It will be interesting to see if the Russians will be able to kill off the pressure of playing at home – the crowd in Ufa will definitely not accept any other outcome than the gold medal, and players know that.
Much has changed from last year’s team that settled for silver after surrendering to Sweden and Mika Zibanejad (OTT) during the overtime, despite a heroic performance from goalie Andrey Makarov (BUF). The head coach has changed: after two strong performances, Valery Bragin left the national team to coach the legendary CSKA Moscow club, but he was recently fired as his team is not doing as well as expected given their all-star roster. The new WJC head coach is Mikhail Varnakov, who showed during the latest Subway Super Series that he already understands how to successfully coach Team Russia in important tournaments, even if he is taking on his first stint on the international stage.
This year’s team resembles the latest few editions of the Russian squad: an exciting forward group, interesting goaltending, and the usual question marks on defense. There are some returnees and, of course, some surprises in the final roster.
Russia will play their home WJC tournament with an expert goaltending duo made up of Makarov and Andrey Vasilevsky (TBL). Before the tournament, former CCCP national player Vladimir Myshkin, who is now a goaltending coach for the Junior National Team, said that both goaltenders would be given equal billing. But, during the preparation games, Makarov didn’t look too comfortable as he allowed some weak goals. But Makarov is getting the call in Russia's first game, so Russia may well stick with the rotation they originally had in mind.
Both goalies are high-level players with the necessary tournament experience, so goaltending isn't likely to be a problem for Russia at this WJC. Both goalies already showed that they can deliver during big games. What’s even more interesting is that Vasilevsky will be eligible for next year’s tournament, assuming that the playing circumstances will allow him to do so. Vasilevsky, who is a native of Ufa, is doing well in the MHL with Tolpar and in November played his first stint of pro hockey with good minutes played in two games.
The team’s third goaltender, Igor Ustinsky, who plays in the MHL for Metallurg Magnitogorsk’s junior team, will most likely act as the emergency goalie.
Traditionally, the defensive corps are never team Russia’s forte, and this year is no exception, even if there is some good talent at this position.
Defenseman Nikita Nesterov (TBL) will be competing in his fourth big international tournament, after two U-18's and last year’s U-20 WJC. Nesterov is an experienced player with good two-way abilities who will most likely play on the first defensive pair with Albert Yarullin of Ak Bars Kazan. Both players are regularly playing in the KHL now and they are experienced enough to form a valuable defensive pair to be iced in key situations.
Another returnee is defenseman Artyom Sergeev (TBL), who plays for the Val d'Or Foreurs of the QMJHL. The Moscow native is now a more experienced player and will certainly be more valuable to the team compared with last year’s tournament, where he had a bit of difficulty at certain moments. Sergeev is the lone Russian defenseman playing in North America, as Nikita Zadorov of the OHL's London Knights was among the last cuts.
Kirill Dyakov, Andrei Mironov, and Pavel Koledov will round out the top six for Russia.
Year after year, Russia keeps on producing elite level forwards for it's WJC teams, and this year, Russian hockey fans won’t be disappointed by the quality of their offensive corps. The top six will once again – at least on paper – be one of the best in the tournament. The first line will most likely feature Nail Yakupov (EDM), Alexander Khokhlachev (BOS) and Andrei Sigaryov.
Yakupov is having a very good first pro season with Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk, with 10 goals and 18 points in 22 games. This pro experience will certainly help Yakupov to further develop his game to fulfill the expectations of him being a team leader at this tournament. Alexander Khokhlachev is not having as good a season as Yakupov, but this is mostly due to Spartak Moscow’s terrible 2012-13 campaign. In 25 games, the young forward has scored two goals and added five assists, but he was instrumental in Russia’s strong showing during the recent Subway Super Series. Andrei Sigaryov is a versatile forward who recently was signed by KHL powerhouse SKA St. Petersburg after leading the Russian First League in scoring. Sigaryov is a technically sound player with excellent offensive abilities and puck skills who lacks experience on the international stage.
Russia's second line looks very strong, as well. Centered by Mikhail Grigorenko (BUF), it will also feature Nikita Kucherov (TBL) and undrafted winger Anton Slepyshev. Both Kucherov and Slepyshev didn’t play much this year due to injuries, but they played well during the preparation games and thus it looks like they have recovered from their traumas. On an interesting note, four of the top six forwards are returnees from last year’s tournament and two, Grigorenko and Slepyshev, will be eligible for next year’s WJC, as well.
The third line will most likely include other interesting prospects like Yaroslav Kosov (FLA) and 2013-eligible Valery Nichushkin. Nichushkin, a 95-born, will be one of the tournament’s youngest players. He is having a very good 2012-13 season, scoring at a point-per-game pace in the MHL while amassing eight goals in 15 games in the Russian First League for Traktor Chelyabinsk’s farm team, along with getting his first KHL points. Russia’s lineup will also include prospects Maxim Shalunov (CHI), who was Russia’s top scorer during the Subway Super Series, and Daniil Zharkov (EDM).
The team’s last two cuts were Bogdan Yakimov and, more of a surprise, Anton Zlobin.
Given the roster and the home factor, it’s hard not to consider Russia the main contender for the gold medal, with Canada and Sweden being the main rivals of the Russians. Some question marks remain, however, including the team's ability to successfully deal with the major pressure host teams often feel at this tournament. Also, the play of the defense, given the more offensive, forward-thinking system of Russian teams, could be a problem given the mostly unheralded defensive group that the Russians will be icing. It will also be interesting to see if Russia's main stars will deliver and act as a team with the same spirit the team had under the guidance of Valery Bragin. If the Russians can dictate the style of play – spending a lot of time in the offensive zone and finding space for their shifty, skilled forwards – they should have a very good chance of recapturing the gold medal.
Follow Alessandro Seren Rosso on Twitter via @AlexSerenRosso