2014 WJC Review: Russia cops second straight bronze medal

By Alessandro Seren Rosso

Pavel Buchnevich - Team Russia

Photo: Team Russia forward Pavel Buchnevich celebrates his clinching goal in the 2014 WJC quarterfinal match vs. Team USA, a game won by the Russians, 5-3 (courtesy of ANDREAS HILLERGREN/AFP/Getty Images)

For the second year in a row, Team Russia came back home from the World Junior Championship with a bronze medal, once again beating Canada to earn that medal. If this can’t be considered a disaster, it cannot be considered a great success, either.

Truth be told, Russia had a strange tournament. The first couple of games were played against inferior teams like Norway and Switzerland, and it showed on the scoreboard as they easily won these games, 11-0 and 7-1, respectively. But then Mikhail Varnakov’s team didn’t manage to convince in any of the remaining games played, regardless of the score, with the exception of the game against the U.S. where a couple of two-man advantages helped in advancing the Russians to the semifinals.

That said, the WJC once again provided some good viewings of Russian prospects and this kind of feedback will surely not be ignored by NHL executives and scouts. Many criticisms have been addressed to Russian head coach Mikhail Varnakov and his style, which allegedly does not suit Russian players very well, and his permanence with the team in the future is under question.

Most Valuable Player

Of course, this award belongs to Andrei Vasilevsky. The goalkeeper played extremely well in every single game and stood out as the only Russian player who really could win a game for his team. He didn’t receive any official award, but he didn’t look significantly worse than Oscar Dansk (CLB) or Juuse Saros (NAS), even posting a better save percentage than the Swedish goalie. The Tyumen, Russia native is having a strong rookie season in the KHL and his contract will run out next April. The large goaltender has never hidden his desire to play in America, so the Tampa Bay Lightning can reasonably expect their 2012 first round pick to sign a contract with them this offseason. But with Russian players it is often a shot in the dark as to whether they'll follow through on their desire to move to North America, so this remains to be seen.

Unsung Hero

Damir Zhafyarov was the top player not belonging to the team’s first unit and he also had good statistics, posting six points in seven tournament games. Zhafyarov is having another good season in the KHL with struggling Metallurg Novokuznetsk, one of the league’s weakest teams (with seven goals and 11 points in 29 games), and is still undrafted. His size (5’9”, 152 lbs.) most likely is what scared off NHL teams during his selection year, but this year he played very well and it did not look like he was struggling due to his size. Zhafyarov, however, has not had a great deal of experience playing on the smaller North American ice surfaces. Zhafyarov’s contract will run out next April so it will be interesting to see where he is going to play next season.

Best Forward

The top line had a solid tournament, even if much more could be expected from players of their caliber. The line made up of Mikhail Grigorenko (BUF), Anton Slepyshev (EDM), and Pavel Buchnevich (NYR) didn't often carry the play, even if they regularly appeared on the scoreboard. Out of the three, the best player was Buchnevich, whose intelligent play was not always matched by Grigorenko’s performance. The much awaited Buffalo Sabres’ prospect did not have a very good tournament overall. Sometimes he looked a bit out of place and did not look as good as other leading Russian players have looked in the past (like Evgeny Kuznetsov or Vladimir Tarasenko did in 2011 and 2012), and many thought that this was not enough for a player who already has more than 40 NHL games under his belt. Buchnevich had points in almost all games and was instrumental in the quarterfinal game against the U.S. His puck skills, speed, and high hockey IQ surely weren't overlooked by the New York Rangers' scouts. Buchnevich’s deal with Severstal Cherepovets will run out in 2015 and he has never hidden that he wants to honor the contract before jumping overseas.

Best Defenseman

Nikita Zadorov had a good tournament and his two goals were most of what was needed to take out the reigning WJC champions from the USA in the quarterfinals. His strong play also guaranteed him a place on the media's WJC All-Star Team. Zadorov was instrumental not only in the game against the U.S., but his play was very strong during the whole tournament so his inclusion on the media All-Star Team was well deserved. He was also among the top +/- players on the team, being +4. If he keeps on progressing like that, he will be a force in the NHL for the Buffalo Sabres. Zadorov has returned to the OHL and next year could crack the Sabres’ roster.

Undrafted player worthy of a second look

It was a good tournament for Andrei Mironov. The 19-year-old defender played on the first defensive pair with Nikita Zadorov and tallied four points in seven games while posting a +3 rating. Mironov is a defensive defenseman with good size (6’2”, 195 lbs.) who plays a gritty style with some offensive abilities, so it is surprising that he was twice undrafted. He has already won a Gagarin Cup title with Dynamo Moscow and this year has a good chance to win another one since his team is among the KHL leaders. Mironov has a good role in the Dynamo lineup and has been a reliable defenseman in pro hockey for two years. Mironov recently signed a new two-year deal with Dynamo Moscow.

Russia WJC Video Interviews & Podcasts

Mikhail Grigorenko, 12/31/13 vs. Sweden

HF Podcast, Russia vs. USA Quarterfinal, 1/2/14

Nikita Zadorov, 1/2/14 vs. USA

Mikhail Grigorenko, 1/2/14 vs. USA

HF Podcast, Sweden vs. Russia Semifinal, 1/4/14

HF Podcast, Canada vs. Russia Bronze Preview, 1/4/14

Mikhail Grigorenko, 1/5/14 vs. Canada

Follow Alessandro Seren Rosso on Twitter via @AlexSerenRosso