Team Russia was stacked with talent at the 2006 World Championships in Riga, Latvia. It was no surprise to see solid performance from proven superstars such as Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin (PIT), but it wasn’t all about them. A few young players like Nikolai Kulemin and Alexei Mikhnov (EDM) emerged as team leaders and reliable clutch performers that carried the squad in the most crucial situations. They considerably boosted their value making the media finally notice them and make up for the lack of attention before.
Below is a look at how each of them fared at the tournament.
Nikolai Kulemin, RW (undrafted)
Age: 19; Height: 6’0; Weight: 198 lbs
Kulemin’s career underwent a meteoric rise over the past year as he progressed into one of Metallurg’s leaders, made the national team for the World Juniors and the World Championship in Riga.
Coach Vladimir Krikunov put him on the prime scoring line with his Metallurg teammate Malkin and NHL star Ovechkin. Kulemin faced a great challenge as he was risking being overshadowed by his stellar linemates, but he complied with his tasks and provided all the help Russia’s top forwards needed. He played confidently and demonstrated great work ethic. He easily beat opposition defenders one-on-one, looked strong behind the net and kept his head cool when he was looking out for a destination for his passes. Kulemin didn’t invariably look for Malkin or Ovechkin to get open; instead, he was making sure he did what was best in every given situation.
Krikunov decided to play Maxim Sushinski with Ovechkin and Malkin on power play, though Kulemin probably would have been a better fit.
Kulemin proved he was an excellent big-game player when he scored the two game-deciding goals in Russia’s semifinal against team USA at the World Juniors but didn’t see much ice time in the quarterfinal game against Czech Republic. He looked as good as anyone on the ice playing with confidence even when he was under severe pressure. Kulemin posted four points (1 goal, 3 assists) in seven games with just two PIMs and a solid +5 rating.
Kulemin has seen his value increase dramatically and could find a suitor in the NHL soon.
Evgeni Malkin, C (Pittsburgh Penguins)
Age: 19; Height: 6’3; Weight: 185 lbs
Not much needs to be said about Malkin. The World Championship was one of his chances to once again prove his worth and he passed this test with flying colors. He clearly was the go-to player on this team. Malkin finished first with nine points (3 goals, 6 assists) in seven games and team-best +7 rating but it’s not about his stats. He was easily getting past two or three defensemen, his passes arrived right when his linemates, primarily Ovechkin, were in the best positions to score. Ovechkin wasted a few golden opportunities set up by Malkin in the game against Czech Republic when he missed the open net twice.
Malkin’s exceptional vision of the ice, combined with his incredible hockey sense was always putting him a few steps ahead of his opponents. It seemed like he knew what was going to happen on the ice in the next moment and make his decisions using this Gretzky-esque predictability. Malkin had no problem dealing with the excessive time he had to spend on the ice; it seemed like he wasn’t fatigued even after taking a series of protracted shifts.
Even though Russia had to face a lot of weaker opponents such as Kazakhstan, Ukraine, and Switzerland, Malkin still got the compelling experience of playing on the international level. He showed he could fit into any game plan, any line and fill any spot on the special teams.
The Penguins shouldn’t regret not winning the draft lottery back in 2004 as they might have ended up with the better player after all.
Kirill Koltsov, D (Vancouver Canucks)
Age: 23; Height: 5’11; Weight: 185 lbs
Koltsov was put on Malkin’s line and had to play with Vitali Atyushov. Koltsov played in his usual offensive style that includes quick raids into the opponent’s zone and hard shots from the slot. It turned out that the first line was brimming with speed, shooting and passing skills so it would make more sense for Krikunov to move Koltsov to another line, however, he didn’t do that.
Koltsov had no points in the six games he played and finished with a +7 rating and 27 PIMs which included one game misconduct.
As an offensive defenseman, he was expected to fare better than that but his contribution isn’t estimated by mere numbers. Koltsov was helping Malkin and Ovechkin by joining his team’s offensive efforts and distracting the defense to clear up some space for the speedy forwards. Koltsov seems to be the perfect player for quarterbacking a power-play unit but Krikunov didn’t use him in that capacity nearly enough. He was successful at connecting with the forwards on the long passes to give the offense a quick start. Koltsov tended to avoid traffic and emphasized his technical ability, just like he always does. He didn’t need to perform physically to smother the forwards and get them into tight coverage creating giveaways and robbing them off the puck. Koltsov is able to read the game well, which often results in intercepting passes and disrupting the offense.
Despite being often misused, Koltsov demonstrated all of his best qualities at the championship. He is expected to bolster team Russia’s defense for many years to come if he doesn’t let his attitude have an impact on his game.
Denis Kulyash, D (Nashville Predators)
Age: 22; Height: 6’3; Weight: 214 lbs
Kulyash had a lot to prove at the World Championship after missing the Olympic Games despite receiving an invitation.
He played on the line with Grigorenko (DET), Gorovikov and Mikhnov (EDM), which didn’t have as much talent as Malkin’s line, but probably had the best chemistry. Kulyash topped team defensemen with three goals in seven games, all of them coming on power plays. However, he had just one assist and a relatively poor +1 rating. He was a very valuable special teams performer. He was on the second power play unit and was trusted with a simple mission to wait for the puck and shoot it as hard as he can. Still, none of his efforts proved to be crucial as just one of his goals came in a game against a solid opponent when he opened the scoring against Slovakia.
Kulyash has other strengths besides his slap shot. He has an intimidating size (6’3 and 214) and is a good hitter with good positioning and defensive awareness. However, his passing ability and hockey sense need general improvement.
Kulyuah and Vadim Khomitsky (DAL) were team Russia’s best balanced defensive pairing which, however, lacked consistency. Despite having better productivity, Kulyuash was overshadowed by Koltsov, who was more valuable to the team in the critical situations.
Alexander Semin, LW (Washington Capitals)
Age: 22; Height: 5’11; Weight: 175 lbs
Alexander Semin spent most of the tournament on the line with Mikhnov (EDM) and Nashville’s Denis Arkhipov. His performance at the World Championship was reminiscent of that of Ilya Kovalchuk at the Olympics. Semin was one of Russia’s two players to score a hat trick after netting three goals in Russia’s first outing against Kazakhstan but did pretty much nothing after that. Being the top scorer on his line, he often found himself on the receiving end of most passes but he was out of luck and under tight coverage after putting an unexpected three-goal performance and making the opposition wary of giving him too much space. Semin was inclined to shoot from every more or less suitable position, he tried to speed towards the net to get into a better scoring range but with his movements being clogged by the defensemen, he had trouble doing that.
Besides playing the first fiddle on his line, Semin was also responsible for leading the second power-play unit. He performed quite well and was the main reason behind Mikhnov’s impressive breakout.
Semin finished with six points and a +4 rating in seven games. His trip to Riga can be deemed successful and it’s obvious that the time he had to spend in Russia was beneficial as he matured and gained the much-needed experience of being a leader.
Igor Grigorenko, RW (Detroit Red Wings)
Age: 22; Height: 5’10; Weight: 180 lbs
Grigorenko posted only three points (1 goal and 2 assists) in seven games. His productivity was impeded by his explicit emphasis on his individual performance. He tended to neglect his teammates being in better scoring positions and try to do it all by himself. He demonstrated excellent puck control and deking skills, but still hurried when he was under coverage. Grigorenko was responsible defensively though, often filling in for the defenders that were abandoning their regular positions to go on offense.
Grigorenko was good in battling for the puck along the boards and did not shy away from hits. He stirred up enough trouble on power plays but only converted on one of his chances. His lone goal came when his team had a one-man advantage against Ukraine.
His style seems to have been affected by the lack of talent on his Super League team, Severstal, as he relies on himself a bit too much. He can become more of a team player and contribute more under the right coaching.
Alexei Mikhnov, LW (Edmonton Oilers)
Age: 23; Height: 6’5; Weight: 230 lbs
Mikhnov turned out to be a winner in this tournament despite his team going down in the quarterfinals. A solid power forward with excellent size (6’5 and 230 lb), Mikhnov was able to dominate his opponents in front of the net which proved to be a big advantage on special teams. He didn’t see any setbacks during the course of the championship and was reliable on offense as well as on defense.
He turned out to be the perfect clutch player as he scored the game-winning goal in a tough game against Slovakia and tied things up in the last round robin game against Sweden to help Russia avoid a loss. However, he did even more in the quarterfinals. As Russia was still down by just a goal in the waning seconds of the third period, none other than Mikhnov replaced the pulled goalie as an extra attacker and, finding himself open in front of the net as all the defense accented on keeping Malkin and Ovechkin in check, scored the goal that sent the game into overtime. Being surrounded by talented forwards such as Semin and Arkhipov certainly helped Mikhnov who had enough space to work with, but his contribution shouldn’t be underestimated. He demonstrated tremendous awareness and physical play. Mikhnov has a very good speed for a player of his size, which, in combination with his above average stickhandling skills make him one of the best power forwards in Russia.
Mikhnov posted a total of six points in seven games. He was second on the team with four goals, trailing only Ovechkin who had six and the luxury of having Malkin as his centerman.
The Oilers have to make another push to lure Mikhnov into the NHL in view of his outstanding performance at the Worlds.
Georgi Misharin, D (Minnesota Wild)
Age: 21; Height: 6’0; Weight: 198 lbs
Misharin joined the team to fill in for Koltsov after the latter was disqualified after confronting a linesman in the game against Slovakia. Misharin played in the last three games of the round robin and had one assist with four penalty minutes.
Misharin didn’t spend that much time on the ice as he was more of a filler. He was responsible defensively, demonstrated above average vision of the ice, but sometimes had a hard time covering the speedy forwards that he had to face. He did not participate in Russia’s quarterfinal game.
Vadim Khomitsky, D (Dallas Stars)
Age: 23; Height: 6’2; Weight: 190 lbs
Khomitsky got rid of his bad habit of taking unnecessary penalties with just two PIMs in seven games. He played physical defense but kept it clean and stayed out of trouble. He proved to be a reliable defenseman who still had some flaws. Khomitsky is a solid hard-hitting defender with a good size (6’2 and 190 lbs). He has to work on the offensive side of his game. Khomitsky is a good skater with a good enough shot and passing ability to contribute on offense, however he prefers to stay back and patrol his team’s zone. Khomitsky was valuable on power play and penalty killing for Team Russia.
Copyright 2006 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.