Team Russia U18 World Championships review

By Alessandro Seren Rosso

Despite icing a roster that didn’t blow anyone away, Team Russia finished the U18 World Championships with a silver medal, losing to Team USA in the final.

“In general, only a few people believed that we would reach the finals," said the tournament’s All-Star Team forward Vladimir Tarasenko, who was arguably Russia‘s top player and one of the best overall in the tournament. "They said that Russia could reach only fifth or sixth place. But I think that we proved that we are a good team. We gave a good reply to all those who didn’t believe in us. Yes, we were tired by the final match, but we have an united team with no separations like first, second-class players.”

If the Russians clinched the second silver medal in a row after last year’s on home soil, it means the players on the roster played with good focus and good motivation given by coach Vladimir Plyuschev.

Signs of great confidence arrived especially from one player, goalkeeper Igor Bobkov. There may never have been such a solid performance by a Russian goalie in a junior tournament, especially in the U18. When Team Russia won the gold medal back in the 2007, they were backstopped by Vadim Zhelobnyuk – who represented Russia in this year’s WJC – and his play was good but nowhere near Bobkov’s. Not even Simeon Varlamov (WAS) could claim such great stats: Bobkov now has a combined .927 save percentage with a 3.33 GAA, but in the medal round’s start he stopped 44 shots in the quarterfinals and 51 in the semifinals allowing only one goal, thus registering a stellar .989 in the last two games prior to the finals.

Even if it’s early to throw any comparison with Varlamov, the 6’5 goalie has showed flashes of greatness. As his size suggests, he covers the net very well and it’s extremely hard to beat him low as he’s got two long pads to stretch for the low-angle saves. Add to it a quick glove and his excellent save percentage is explained. Like many young Russian goalies, Bobkov lacks some technique, but he surely has a lot of room in front of him to improve.

“[The Americans] were readier in the second match against us, they had a very high morale," Bobkov said. "And they were playing at home, with full crowd that was never silent.” Bobkov, like most of his teammates, was a first timer in playing in front of such attendance.

Bobkov’s stats look now even more impressive if we consider the defense playing in front of him. Despite featuring a top prospect like Dmitri Orlov in the first unit, the Russian back line looked like the weak part of the team. Not selecting two interesting available players like OHL‘s Evgeny Molotilov and SKA St. Peterburg’s Georgi Berdyukov (injured a month prior), Plyuschev built a defensive corps by pairing a stay-at-home kind of defenseman with a more offensive one. Orlov’s partner in the first line was unimpressive Andrei Sergeyev, who mostly covered the zone allowing offensive rushes to Orlov. The latter had a great tournament at both ends, with a +7 and four points, including an eye-catching goal against Sweden with a great shot from the left circle glove side. Orlov is one who probably would be thought of as first rounder for 2009 if an agreement on player movement was signed by the NHL and the IIHF, and he has all the tools to become a top-four defenseman in a North American team with the potential of a power-play specialist. He should work on his slap shot, but his reading of the game, anticipation, hockey sense, skating and defensive play hint that he might be a steal in the next draft.

Russia’s top scoring defenseman though wasn’t Orlov, but the almost unknown Nikita Zaitsev. The 6’1, 185 lbs player from the Moscow Soviet Wings is a right-shooting blue liner with a physical edge and a good eye for the breakout pass. He had one goal and four assists in the tournament.

But just as usual, Russia’s most prominent role was played by the attack line. With two strong, complete troikas, Plyuschev has such weapons that are very hard to match by the opponents as well as very hard to contain. Oddly enough, just one player out of the top six forwards is 2009 eligible, team captain Sergei Chvanov. The center plays on the first line with the very dynamic duo made up of Kirill Kabanov and Vladimir Tarasenko. Tarasenko was Russia’s best player and top point scorer with his 15 points in seven matches. Gifted with a big talent that allows him to spark the offense anytime he hits the ice, the Sibir Novosibirsk right winger has game-breaking abilities and turning-heads stickhandling that make him one of the finest prospects in sight of the 2010 NHL Entry Draft. His defensive play and will to backcheck is also above the average for a Russian young player and this will surely raise his stock next spring.

His linemate Kirill Kabanov has been excellent too, even if the pair were silent in the semifinals and final scoresheet. But scoring "only" 11 points in the tournament, the Spartak Moscow dangler Kabanov, who has always considered a front runner for the first overall pick in the 2010 draft, has been outscored by the 1992-born Evgeny Kuznetsov, who recorded an impressive amount of 13 points in the tournament’s seven matches.

Standing at 6’0, 174 lbs Kuznetsov still looks skinny, but he’s not even 17 and has time in front of him to fill out. Even if Bobkov was awarded as Russia’s MVP in the semifinals match against the Finns, Kuznetsov might be considered the game’s hero thanks to his four points. In that match he showed all his repertory: first he stickhandled through the opponent defense directly causing Maxim Kitsyn’s first goal of the match, then he stepped out in person to back hand in a rebound for the 2-0. At the 58th minute with a great pass, he fed Alexander Burmistrov for the 3-0 and one minute later he went on a quick two-on-none rush with Maxim Kitsyn and gave his linemate the 4-0 empty-net goal.

Center Alexander Burmistrov and left winger Maxim Kitsyn complete the team’s second line. This troika clicks very well as they form a text book ensemble with a playmaker, Burmistrov, a power forward, Kitsyn and an all-around forward as Kuznetsov. Unfortunately they didn’t manage to spark it up in the tournament’s last game as the Americans did a great job in contain them.

“Just like I was expecting, the match was intense. Our offensive game wasn’t going right,” admitted head coach Vladimir Plyuschev.

“We were inferior, that’s all," added Sibir’s Tarasenko.

The bottom six forwards, underplayed by Vladimir Plyuschev who relied mostly on the top two trios, featured a good crop of skilled forward, but they aren’t on the same level of Tarasenko, Kuznetsov and others. Not surprisingly the unique player who scored a goal off these lines is Ufa’s forward Sergei Ankudinov. Confident with the puck on the blade and a good skater as well, Ankudinov caused the penalty shot converted by Kuznetsov in the quarterfinals against Sweden with an irrepressible rush in the offensive zone. Nikita Dvurechensky, who some scouting agencies put very high on their European rankings, saw limited action and was left scoreless in the tournament.
Overall, the Russians had a good tournament. The 1991 class was meant not to be so strong and thus a silver medal was beyond the expectations. Plyuschev’s team made it through especially thanks to the younger players, most of them being 2010 eligible, and next year the team will count on excellent returnees like Kabanov and Kuznetsov.
The players who most likely gained a good boost for the upcoming draft are Orlov and Bobkov, whose performances surely attracted a lot of attention from NHL scouts attending the tournament. Orlov has already declared that in the next season he wants to stay in Russia and crack Metallurg Novokuznetsk’s lineup.