As the hosts of this 2013 Under-18 World Junior Championship, the Russians would love to prove that they are the best hockey country of the world. They won their last gold from this event in 2007, but last year failed to reach a medal position. As you know, hockey always carries a huge importance in Russia, but now, with the tournament on their own soil, they will probably make an even bigger deal out of this tournament. Unfortunately, the Russian Hockey Federation hasn't released the final roster as of this writing, but there are some names that should be in the mix once the WJC gets underway.
This time, only two players with previous U18 WJC experience could be in the lineup, but they stayed with their respective clubs for the playoffs. One of them is Valeri Nichushkin, who is often referred to as the next big thing coming out of Russia. The 6'3“, 201-pound forward is one of the key players of his hometown team, Traktor Chelyabinsk, in their KHL playoff run. After 19 post-season games, he is only one point behind his teammates Yevgeni Kuznetsov and former NHL player Jan Bulis. Last year, he had only two goals, just like giant defenseman Nikita Zadorov, another 1995-born player from the previous season. Zadorov, 6'5“ and 229 pounds, is with the OHL's London Knights right now, a team with a good shot at making the Memorial Cup Tournament next month.
Strengths: Technical hockey at its best. That's what Russia can give you every time you watch them, but only if they want to. Some gifted players have made it to the NHL and some more are coming. There might be only one Pavel Datsyuk or Alexander Ovechkin, but the entire country is filled with boys who want to be just like them and possess the talent. There is sure to be highly skilled players on Russia's roster at this U18 WJC.
Weaknesses: Russians would be perfect, but, fortunately, the world is made up so no one is, which means we have an exciting competition every year. What makes them imperfect? A lack of both discipline and a willingness to battle hard. These are weaknesses that Russia has often displayed at these tournaments, shortcomings that they will have to overcome to advance to the gold medal game.
Key player: With Zadorov unable to participate and Nichushkin a potential late arrival, it will be up to Pavel Buchnevich to lead the team through the event. He is deadly if you let him operate with the puck near your net. The native of Cherepovets already has some KHL experience with his hometown team, Severstal Cherepovets. He appeared in twelve regular season games this year, collecting two points for a goal and an assists, and stayed with the team for six post-season games in which he was held without a point. In Sochi, his national team will depend on him making big plays.
Who NHL scouts will be keeping a close eye on: Not only will Buchnevich definitely be drafted this year, but also other Russian players. The scouts will be watching Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds winger Sergei Tolchinsky as he had 51 points in 62 games in his OHL rookie season. Another newcomer to the Ontario Hockey League, Nikolai Goldobin, will try to show the scouts that he could be a first round talent. With the Sarnia Sting, he averaged a point-per-game in his rookie campaign in Canada. From the younger players eligible for the future U18 WJC's, Yevgeni Svechnikov from the Kazan junior team scored seven goals in six games at the Under-17 WHC, while defenseman Dmitri Sergeyev is a potential first round pick for the 2014 NHL Draft, and Ivan Barbashev was almost a point-per-game player in his rookie OHL season. And of course, if Nichushkin arrives, he is likely to draw the most attention from the scouting gallery.
Unexpected gem: If Buchnevich fails to step up in this tournament, there are other players that could lead the team. 17-year-old forward Maxim Lazarev from Kazan can be one of those leaders. The scouts will be watching him as he played well at the U17 WHC earlier this season and features a great skill set.
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