For several years, the Canadian junior leagues have invited a Russian U20 squad to compete against the best that the CHL has to offer in the Canada/Russia Challenge. Every year, the tournament turned out to be quite disappointing, as the Russians time and time again failed to bring their "A" lineup to North America. North American fans did discover some new Russian prospects, including Washington Capitals goaltending prospect Semen Varlamov and Chicago Blackhawks property forward Igor Makarov, but these bright spots were few and far between.
So, after so many years of failing to achieve the goal of creating a practice round for the World Junior Championship in late December, how could the Russians be enticed to bring their full force to North America? As the Canadian officials have discovered, all it took is a lot of hard work and strong play to Russia‘s patriotism. Instead of holding a friendly tournament just for the sake of the two sides meeting each other before the WJCs, the two sides created an eight-game tournament called the Canada/Russia Super Series with four games held in Canada and four in Russia, Aug. 27 to Sept. 8. The games in Russia will take place at the brand new arenas in Omsk and Ufa, while the ones in Canada will take place in Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Red Deer and Vancouver.
Below is an examination of Russia’s squad, providing insight regarding the players who are expected to make an impact on the team travelling to North America.
Overall, the Russian squad is likely the best Team Canada has faced outside WJC competition, so this will be a very good warm-up for both teams. The goaltending is quite strong with Varlamov between the pipes, but defense drops off quite a bit after the top two or so pairings. Offensively, the Russians are spearheaded by none other than Alexei Cherepanov (NYR), though the roster also includes a number of unproven forwards beyond him. The team is quite competitive, though size remains a concern. It also remains to be seen whether this new group of young players, many of whom have little international experience and most of whom have never played with each other, will be able to gel into a cohesive, competitive squad, especially under the coaching of Sergei Nemchinov, who is has an undisputed playing record, but very little coaching experience. Team Russia’s full-time coach Evgeny Popykhin, now the head coach of HC Khimik, will not be leading this squad against Team Canada.
Undoubtedly talented Washington Capitals prospect Varlamov will be Russia’s starting netminder. He has enjoyed an absolutely sensational rookie season in the Super League. Varlamov has also delivered a strong performance for Russia’s national team at the U20 WJCs. Despite signing with Washington, Varlamov will remain in Russia for another season, so this tournament will likely be one of the few occasions for Canadian fans to sneak a peek at this talented young player.
The other two netminders named to the team are Vadim Zhelobnyuk and Sergei Bobrovsky. They are 89 and 88 born goaltenders, respectively, but as a starting goaltender for Russia’s U18 squad all of last year, Zhelobnyuk will likely get the first crack at the backup role and would have to really disappoint to lose that spot. He has also been tested in the Super League, though on a more limited basis when both of HC Dynamo (Moscow) starting goalies suffered injuries, and Zhelobnyuk put in a spirited and impressive performance in the handful of games he started for the big club. He did, however, not impress as much at U18 WCs, delivering a solid, but not outstanding performance, especially in the finals game against USA in the finals despite Russia’s victory. Bobrovsky is has been talked about in Russian hockey circles as the next talented up and coming netminder. The young goalie hails from Novokuznetsk, where he is yet to start a game at the Super League level and may not get the chance this year, considering he is currently behind Peteris Skudra and Oleg Romashko on the depth charts.
Overall, Russian goaltending will be a strong point if Varlamov can hold the fort. If he falters or succumbs to injury, Russia may have some troubles at this position, though it may not be disastrous for the squad.
The most noticeable members of this squad are Yuri Alexandrov, Ivan Vishnevskiy, Kiril Tulupov, and Vyacheslav Voinov. Both Alexandrov and Vishnevsky are highly-touted prospects taken early in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft. Vishnevskiy delivered a strong sophomore campaign in the QMJHL with the Huskies, signing a rookie contract with the Dallas Stars this summer. He should provide some significant offense for the Russian team and has already adjusted to the North American style of play. Alexandrov was the top-ranked Russian available in 2006. He has already been a consistent member of the U20 squad for over a season and is entering his third Super League season at just 19. To add to that he did not simply fill a U20 player role on the Super League squad and actually often skated on the top defensive pairing against seasoned professionals. A more all-around player, Alexandrov should provide leadership and stability at this tournament.
Tulupov is a big, physical defenseman who has also spent some time in the Canadian juniors, skating in the QMJHL for Chicoutimi. He will provide the needed size on Russia’s blue line. Finally, Voinov is one of the top 90 born defensemen who is not eligible for the NHL draft until 2009 and has already delivered one Super League season and has played for Russia’s U20 squad at just 16 years of age. Touted to be the next Russian defensive super star, Voinov should impress with his abilities at both ends of the ice.
Valery Zhukov will be another blue liner of note who will bring size and maturity to the Russian squad. While lacking Super League experience, he has spent two seasons skating in the High League (Russia 2) against professional players. Last season, he logged regular minutes on the second and third defensive pairings, helping his club ascend back into the Super League. At 6’2 and 186 pounds, Zhukov brings much needed size to the roster, though he will need to raise his game once again and play physical against the Canadian players, something he failed to accomplish a couple of years back at the U18 WCs. Igor Zubov is another defenseman worth mentioning, even though make no mistake – he’s nothing like Sergei Zubov. A reliable defenseman, Zubov does not stand out in any particular category, but will do the job and fill the holes where needed. He was brought up in the defensively-oriented Lada system, but now skates for HC Lokomotiv’s farm team, failing again to crack the Super League lineup.
Konstantin Alexeev and Alexei Grishin are two other blue liners who will add size and Super League experience to the Russian roster, if they make the final cut. Their lack of experience outside of Russia on the international arena may force them off the final roster.
Overall, the Russian defense thins out quickly after the first two pairs and even among them there is not as much physical presence as would be expected. Even with the top players functioning on all cylinders, Russia’s defense may struggle to contain the physically imposing Canadian squad.
Alexei Cherepanov (NYR), Andrei Popov, Evgeniy Bodrov, Mikhail Glukhov, Artem Anisimov, Aleksandr Ryabev, Maksim Mamin, Maksim Mayorov, Vyacheslav Solodukhin, Sergey Zachupeyko, Egor Averin, Sergey Korostin, Ilya Kablukov, Aleksandr Vasyunov, Nikita Filatov, Evgeniy Dadonov, Anton Glovatskiy, Kirill Petrov.
Overall, besides Cherepanov, Russia’s offense does not look all that imposing, but it still has a number of other potent weapons. It will, however, largely rely on a small group of players and will lack the size and international experience beyond the top two lines to effectively compete against the stronger and more experienced Canadian players.
Cherepanov should need no introduction to North American audiences, as he was one of the highest ranked Russian players in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft, projected by some to be selected in the top five. It was a shocker for many when he fell to 17th overall, where the New York Rangers happily selected the young forward. A talented playmaker with immense skill, Cherepanov is a game breaker who will be able to provide Russia the much needed offense at key moments. Unlike the Ovechkins and the Malkins, he will however need more support from his linemates, though with the right cast around him, Cherepanov can deliver an impressive tournament performance.
The core of the group will likely be formed around the talented HC Lokomotiv 88 born forwards Alexander Vasyunov, Artem Anisimov and Alexander Ryabev. Vasyunov struggled during his sophomore Super League campaign last year, but has come on very strong during this year’s preseason. He rediscovered his scoring touch and confidence which largely why the New Jersey Devils selected the young forward. Anisimov impressed late last season after remaining quiet for most of the year with a mediocre U20 WJCs performance and little ice time in the Super League. His strong Super League playoffs and a solid New York Rangers rookie camp earned him a contract from the team and the young forward will move to North America after the tournament to play. Ryabev is the least known of the players, though at one point was very highly touted. He did not enjoy a strong draft year and thus did not get selected.
Andrei Popov, Evgeny Bodrov, Mikhail Glukhov and Anton Glovatsky are the other more experienced talented forwards on the squad that should be paid attention to. Popov was slated to be selected in the first round of the 2005 NHL Entry Draft, but surprisingly had to wait until the seventh round when the Philadelphia Flyers picked him. He is one of the most talented 88 born players and has played quite well for HC Traktor first in the High League (Russia 2) and then in the Super League during the past two seasons. Bodrov has spent the past two seasons skating for HC Lada and has continuously impressed with his determination and speed. Glovatsky and Glukhov both spent their 2006-07 seasons with HC Metallurg (Magnitigorsk) and HC Khimik (Mytische) respectively. While not the squad’s top talent, they will be able to contribute on both ends of the ice and keep up with the Canadian players. Gloukhov may even surprise with his overall game and scoring touch, as he has become a solid contributor in the Super League with HC Khimik.
1990 born Kiril Petrov is another very young player on the squad who is worth paying attention to considering he was highly touted and made his Super League debut with HC Kazan last year at just 16. A clearly talented young player, he has yet to stand out at the higher levels of play, but is still considering one of Russia’s best up and coming young forwards.
Do not expect much offensively from the rest of the team, though the main reason Kablukov is present is for young center’s face-off skills and two-way abilities. The Vancouver Canucks prospect will provide Russia that hard-working element and a player who can be used in most situations – whether it is shorthanded or on the power play. He has impressed at both ends of the ice and it is his defensive game that will keep him on the roster.
Evgeny Dadonov is another offensively skilled player who performed well at the U18 level and will be tested for the first time at such a high level of competition. The Florida Panthers prospect has had some limited experience skating at a high level of hockey in the Super League with HC Traktor, though it is unclear whether his limited role with the Russian club has prepared him for the more physical North American hockey. Regarding the rest of the squad, the 89 born Maxim Mayorov was highly touted prior to the draft, but has yet to really play at the international level, but will bring size and skill to Russia’s roster, though it is unclear how much impact he will really have. He will likely have a quiet tournament on the third or fourth line.
Zachupeyko is a bubble player and did not surface anywhere in the Super League after his team HC Spartak fell apart due to financial difficulties prior to the 2006-07 season. He caught on with HC Salavat Yulayev and while he did put up respectable numbers for the club’s junior farm team, he did not skate in a single Super League game with his new club. He does, however, deserve high marks for his performance on the U18 squad a couple of years back. It is unlikely that Averin, Filatov, Mamin or Solodukhin will make the team. Sergei Korostin is already out due to injury. He was another player the team could have used for his great skill level and significant offensive upside.
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