Russia wins with youth

By Eugene Belashchenko

While the Russian national junior team is competing at the 2007 World Junior Championships in Sweden, the senior national team that will compete at the World Championships in April is also taking shape.

The Russian team’s overall performance this season has been nothing less than impressive. The Russians were undefeated during the Ceska Poistovna and the Karjala Cup tournaments in the Czech Republic and Finland respectively. The team also finished on top during the recently concluded Channel One tournament in Moscow despite losing one game to the Swedes in a shootout. The winning ways came with a change of the guard in the coaching staff and the elevation of young players to new roles within the team’s ranks.

The team is now lead by former Soviet forward great Vyacheslav Bykov, who landed in Switzerland instead of seeking his fortune in the NHL during the latter days of the Soviet Union. There he spent many productive seasons with his long-time Red Army linemate Andrei Khomutov. More importantly than his point production had been his exposure to the Western approach to hockey that involved professionalism and, equally important, flexibility and trust. Bykov has brought this approach to the Russian national team, treating players as professionals and entrusting them with being responsible off ice and not having to be confined to the training base to avert any problems, as has often been the case with the national team and is still a practice used by Russian hockey clubs. In addition to the treatment of players, Bykov also brought back the European style of aggressive and imaginative play that has at times been missing from the recent Russian national team. Finally, he brought in or promoted to the Russian national team a number of young, promising players.

The Towering New Breed of Russian Goaltender

The most obvious player to be named first among the new faces of Russia’s national team is the team’s towering starting goaltender, Vasily Koshechkin. A Tampa Bay Lightning prospect, Koshechkin came on strong last season when his Super League club, HC Lada, ran into financial problems and was forced to release a number of key veteran players. Koshechkin took over admirably on a depleted team and established himself as one of the best Russian goaltenders. The coming out party was a long time coming for the ‘83-born goalie, as he has been a back up with Lada for more than four seasons before finally being given a shot to start. While not being pelted with many shots during the international competition thus far, Koshechkin has managed to establish a stable presence behind his team and make several impressive saves. He has proven amazingly flexible and maneuverable for someone with a 6’7 frame, making it almost impossible to score low on this goalie when he quickly goes into a butterfly. Still, Koshechkin does have weaknesses and his tendency to stay deep in the net, as well as his reaction time, will need to improve to compete against NHL calibre talent.

Currently competing with Alexander Eremenko, Koshechkin has thus far secured the starting position on Russia’s national team. However, he will likely have to surrender the spot come April if any one of Nikolai Khabibulin, Ilya Bryzgalov or Evgeny Nabokov become available in the NHL. While Nabokov and Bryzgalov are unlikely candidates when considering the current success of their respective clubs, Khabibulin appears to be a prime choice given that his team, the Chicago Blackhawks, seems unlikely to gain a playoff birth. Goaltending legend and current Russian Hockey Federation president Vladislav Tretiak has stated that he personally plans to speak to Khabibulin to try to win his commitment to Russia’s national team. Still, Koshechkin backing the national team at just the age of 24 will be no small feat, and may help him raise his game another level.

Improving Defensemen

On defense, Russia’s mainstays are Atlanta Thrashers property Ilya Nikulin and Vancouver Canucks prospect Kiril Koltsov. Koltsov has become Russia’s top offensive defenseman, and, in addition to being reliable defensively, he consistently joins on the offensive rushes. A smooth skater, Koltsov has very impressive puck control, usually carrying it up the ice himself and often past the opponent’s blue line. He has a very quick release on his wrist shot and can shoot with great precision. There are times where Koltsov does need to do less with the puck and let the others in on the offensive rush. Overall, the ‘83-born Canucks’ prospect will continue to be Russia’s top defenseman while enjoying a key role representing his country at the World Championships.

Nikulin is another stand out defenseman on the Russian squad. The 24-year-old rearguard has improved significantly over the past couple of seasons. He has improved his mobility and has become more reliable in his own end. Possessing solid size, Nikulin has become more assertive with his frame, though it remains difficult to call him a physical presence. Offensively, Nikulin often plays the role of a power play quarterback and, while he does not venture far from the blue line, he has consistently scored with his hard slap shot while also impressing with his passing. Despite upgrading his skating, Nikulin is still not very fast and could stand to further improve his speed, though that may not happen. He remains one of Russia’s top defenseman, continuing to play on the top defensive pairing with the wealthy 2006 champions, HC Ak Bars, making Nikulin a near certain member of the squad that will compete at the World Championships.

Anaheim Ducks prospect Maxim Kondratiev is another member of Russia’s national team. The ‘82-born defenseman returned to Russia from the AHL earlier this season and has consistently been in Russia’s line-up during EuroTour competition. He has shown significant offensive upside and proved to be very capable carrying the puck up the ice. In spite of Kondratiev’s skill and offensive upside, he can at times be a liability defensively. A fast skater, Kondratiev still has trouble recovering from some of his defensive lapses in the neutral zone. On the national team he consistently skates with his HC Lada defensive partner Alexei Emelin, who in his own right is a promising young defenseman. But the two at times appear to be Russia’s weakest defensive pairing as the communication between the two players tends to collapse.

Emelin is known for his physical and defensively reliable play. As a result, this ‘86-born defenseman is one of the youngest members of Russia’s senior national team. His performance has been more uneven than that of Kiril Koltsov or Ilya Nikulin, as he has enjoyed games where he was a physical threat and ruled the defensive zone, but had other games where he struggled to keep control of the crease. Offensively, Emelin has not participated very much, instead backing up the more offensive-minded Kondratiev. Both defensemen will likely skate for Russia at the World Championships, either on the fourth defensive pairing or in separate pairings.

Young Offensive Talent

Offensively, Team Russia primarily consists of players with a good deal of Super League experience, though this does not by any means indicate the age of these players. Most of the team’s top players were either born in the 80’s or late 70’s, including former Pittsburgh Penguin Alexei Morozov (who is looking to return to the NHL next season), and former Tampa Bay Lightning forward Alexander Kharitonov.

The team’s most pleasant surprise has been the play of former Ottawa Senators prospect Petr Schastilivy, who has come through in the clutch on several occasions with his deft speed and puck handling. Schastilivy’s impressive breakaway shorthanded goal against the Finns at the Channel One EuroTour tournament underlines his hard work this season. Known as a gifted but underachieving sniper even in North America, Schastilivy has appeared to put his game together on both the Russian and international levels. Thus far he is one of Team Russia’s key scoring leaders.

Washington Capitals prospect Ivan Nepriayev already has three years of international experience at the senior level and has been getting increased duties with Russia this year. A hard working power forward, Nepriayev is one of the few Russians who consistently drives towards the net and into traffic. He has not been as productive offensively this season as he was in previous seasons, but his work ethic and speed have made him an important member of the squad. The young forward has also taken some unnecessary penalties, which fortunately did not cost his team any victories.

Nepriayev continues to develop, but, considering the past several seasons, his upside has been reduced somewhat to that of a supporting third line forward who can contribute offensively while filling a more defensive role. His NHL future remains unclear, however. Nepriayev recently shared in an interview with RussianProspects.com that he would love to try his ability in the NHL but has been unable to come to an agreement with the Capitals due to the club’s inability to offer him a better contract than that of a fifth round selection. Considering the comfort level and high salary he enjoys in Yaroslavl, Russia, a move to North America for significantly less money would prove problematic. Still, Nepriayev will again be an important piece of Russia’s national team.

In addition to the “seasoned” young members of Team Russia, Toronto Maple Leafs prospect Nikolai Kulemin and New York Islanders prospect Igor Volkov are two newcomers. The ‘86-born Kulemin came on strong last season, when he skated with Evgeni Malkin for HC Metallurg (Magnitogorsk) and at times on Russia’s Under-20 and senior national teams. The young forward possesses above average speed and a good skill set, though his main trademark is his great work ethic and determination. He scores the hard working goals for Russia and does not shy away from traffic or from his defensive responsibilities. Kulemin has proven to be a capable third-line player for Russia this season and, while not scoring much, he has had scoring chances and has proven to be capable defensively. He will continue to grow and improve, hopefully becoming an important piece of Team Russia’s foundation for years to come.

Igor Volkov is a proven sniper in the Russian Super League who is known for his speed and his skill, and for scoring goals in bunches for HC Salavat Yulayev. Despite his scoring success in Russia, he has not received many invitations to join Russia’s national team. This season, however, he is finally getting a real taste of international play. His play has improved throughout the last two EuroTour tournaments and accordingly he has received more ice time, moving from being the spare forward at the Karjala Cup to becoming a full team member at the Channel One tournament. Still, it is unlikely that the young forward will make Russia’s World Championship squad, though he will undoubtedly be invited to training camp.

Volkov continues to develop into a capable sniper, but his style is largely European. He will need to prove he can skate under physical pressure and through traffic. This season has been an important one for Volkov’s development, as it has been the first time his club has become one of the league’s powerhouses rather than an overachieving underdog on which he has consistently been the top scorer. Increased club performance has lead to increased expectations and a higher level of competition for roster spots on Salavat. Thus, despite his past achievements, Volkov has had to prove with his game that he is one of the team’s top snipers. While his production is down, Volkov has held up well under pressure this season, with his national team invitation having further reiterated his impressive potential.

Alexander Nikulin is another talented, young forward worth mentioning as a bright star on Russia’s senior national team. Nikulin performed very well at the Ceska Poistovna Cup and in Russia, but unfortunately suffered a leg injury at the Karjala Cup tournament that has sidelined him for the past two months. While with the Russian national team, he showcased his soft touch, vision of the ice and passing ability. Nikulin did not shy away from physical contact and drove well through traffic. Defensively he was usually solid. But despite Nikulin’s hard work, he needs to further improve in this area as at times he would hesitate to completely replace a defenseman who went forward, leading to the occasional defensive lapse. Overall, Nikulin has an immense upside. Should he recover and regain his form in time, he should be skating for Russia at the World Championships.

What Does The Future Hold?

Several young Russian players are poised to make the senior national team in the coming season. Their ranks include the young and talented Ilya Zubov, who already skated for Russia last season and almost made the World Championship squad before being one of the last cuts. He has struggled this season since the disintegration of his team from last season, HC Spartak. He was then moved to HC Khimik, but struggled to consistently earn ice time on a wealthy club that is well stocked with talent.

Vyacheslav Buravchikov and Yuri Alexandrov are a pair of rearguards who have enjoyed significant success, not only at the junior level, but also in the Super League. They will be on the short list for EuroTour competition for the upcoming season. The talk has also begun regarding talented ‘89-born center Alexei Cherepanov and his prospects for skating with the senior national team. Despite his success in the RSL, however, Cherepanov needs to continue developing while solidifying his Under-20 squad spot before earning one on the senior national team.

In net, talented goaltender and Washington Capitals prospect Semen Varlamov is widely expected to be the future of Russian goaltending. He has come on strong in the Super League with HC Lokomotiv and, depending on his performance at the 2007 WJC, he may even earn a tryout for the Sweden Games EuroTour competition being held in February. He is currently the only young netminder in Russia to hold a starting job, though others worth mentioning are Ivan Kasutin and St. Louis Blues prospect Konstantin Barulin, who are backups with HC CSKA and HC Khimik, respectively. Minnesota Wild prospect Anton Khudobin has not been consistent in his first season with significant Super League action, so it is difficult to say if he will be able to adjust and further develop.

Copyright 2006 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.