Team Russia's bronze medal can be deemed as a good result on home soil, though not the result that was hoped for at the 2013 World Junior Championship. They surrendered to Sweden in the semifinals in the shoot-out, but the win over Canada in the bronze medal game surely cheered up the home crowd.
The win fulfilled the official expectation from the FHR, who set to head coach Mikhail Varnakov the task of getting a medal, but many accused Varnakov of playing too conservatively. This could actually have had some impact on Team Russia’s game, especially considering the very good offensive forwards the team featured in their lineup.
Unfortunately for the Russians, the team’s leaders weren’t as effective as Vladimir Tarasenko (STL) and Yevgeni Kuznetsov (WAS) were in previous years. Forward Nail Yakupov (EDM) did finish the tournament with eight points in seven games, but he was clearly not showing his best game. Yakupov was the captain of the team and many were expecting more from him. He had a very good bronze medal game against Canada, but not so much in the other games. It will be very interesting to see if he will make the Edmonton Oilers roster; he played very well in the KHL, but mostly in the early portion of the season.
Two leading forwards who played better than Yakupov are Nikita Kucherov (TBL) and Mikhail Grigorenko (BUF). Grigorenko scored less than Yakupov (six points in eight games), but he was more dangerous and also involved his linemates in the play much more than did Yakupov. Grigorenko will be eligible for next year's WJC, too, and if he isn't playing for the Buffalo Sabres, he will surely be the leader of Russia's team at that tournament.
Kucherov was the top goal-scorer for Russia with five tallies. The forward confirmed himself to be a great goal-scorer, so it will be interesting to see if the momentum will continue while playing for the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies in the QMJHL. Kucherov missed many games due to an injury and his participation at the WJC was even under question. But, not only did it look as though he was able to heal from his injury, but he was also able to at times carry the Russian squad on his shoulders.
Another forward, Alexander Khokhlachev (BOS) had a good tournament with five points in seven games. Immediately following the WJC, Khokhlachev announced that he was leaving Spartak Moscow of the KHL to go back to North America to play for the Windsor Spitfires of the OHL. Most likely, Khokhlachev will try to make the Boston Bruins roster next summer. The young center didn’t have great stats in his KHL stint with Spartak, with two goals and seven points in 26 regular season games, but he looked solid and the team is among the worst in that league. He has to improve his work at the face-off dot, however.
While talking about forwards, Valery Nichushkin definitely raised his stock for the 2013 NHL Draft. Not only did he score a beauty of a game-winning goal in the bronze medal game against Canada, but he was solid throughout the whole tournament, even if he scored just two points. He detracted from his good performance with the game penalty he was handed in the round robin game against Canada, but after the one-game ban he got back and delivered. Nichushkin is a large player with an NHL body, and this will certainly help him to adapt to the more demanding NHL game. Recently, Nichushkin scored his first KHL goal. Nichushkin still has two other WJC's in front of him.
Yaroslav Kosov (FLA) is another forward that had a good tournament, with Kosov registering four points. While he got most of his points in just one game, scoring a hat trick against Germany, Kosov worked hard during all the games and delivered a good overall performance. Maxim Shalunov (CHI) didn’t play as well as he did during the Subway Super Series and notched just two assists in six games.
On the blueline, the most prominent players were Albert Yarullin and Nikita Nesterov (TBL). Probably not drafted due to what is now called the “Russian Factor”, Yarullin scored a goal in the first three consecutive games and finished the tournament with five points. The Kazan, Russia native is an interesting two-way defenseman with good leadership qualities. Nesterov didn’t score any goals and had a couple of big mistakes, but his overall performance was definitely good and once again he showed that he is a very good junior player with excellent potential. Nesterov’s current contract will run out on April 30th.
The Russian goaltending was mostly excellent during the WJC. For the second year in a row the goaltending tandem was made up of Andrey Makarov (BUF) and Andrey Vasilevsky (TBL). Vasilevsky was probably the best of the two and he played very well during the playoff phase. Makarov did allow five goals to Team Canada during the bronze medal game, but his performance wasn’t as weak as it might appear from the statistics. Vasilevsky will be eligible for the 2014 WJC, which will be held in Sweden. He recorded his first KHL shutout in his first full KHL game. Vasilevsky had already played a couple of games as a backup, where he was able to log some good minutes before earning his first start. He will most likely be the starting goalie for Team Russia at next year's WJC. In four years, Vasilevsky played an impressive 25 games during the U-18 and U-20 WJC's, experience that few goalies from any country have had at the junior level.
Follow Alessandro Seren Rosso on Twitter @AlexSerenRosso