Russia still not producing goaltenders

By Alessandro Seren Rosso

Although Russia keeps producing forwards at the highest level, the same can’t be said of the role that has always been a problem for them: the goalkeepers.

The latest WJC confirmed that Igor Bobkov, drafted by the Anaheim Ducks, is a legit NHL prospect, but behind him there is really not much. After getting the best goalie honors at the 2009 U18 WC in Fargo, Bobkov performed very well at this year’s WJC even if he remains still a couple of years from the NHL in terms of proper development. His backup goalie at the WJC was the large goaltender Ramis Sadikov, who went overlooked at last year’s draft, but might get selected after showing some good moments in his rookie season in the OHL, especially if teams like his 6’4”, 230 lbs. frame.

After Alexander Pechursky (PIT)’s departure to North America, only a few drafted goalies play in the KHL and none of them has a true impact on the league. Apart from Bobkov, the only junior drafted player is Sergei Gaiduchenko (FLA), who serves as Lokomotiv Yaroslavl’s backup. Two other good drafted goalies are Konstantin Barulin (STL) and Vasily Koshechkin (TB), but hardly could qualify as true prospects as they are respectively 26 and 27.

This is truly not good news for a country which has struggled in producing quality goaltender in a consistent quality. To explore the reasons for this we asked Mikko Eloranta, the former Boston Bruin and Los Angeles King who now heads a goaltenders school in Stupino, in the Moscow region. He worked in the past with such goalies like Bobkov and Semyon Varlamov (WAS) as well as goalies coach for Lokomotiv Yaroslavl and CSKA Moscow.

“There are too many old school coaches in Russia,” Eloranta said. ”They can’t think things beyond. Also there are coaches who are just skipping and cheating in teaching orders…this isn’t a 100 meter run! Many teams are not playing solid defensive play, only offensive. They can’t teach proper defensive play, or we can say they don’t understand the actual meaning of defensive play. This way of playing actually helps your forwards, especially if you got good blue liners who can move well the puck. But after all I think that all is going in a better way for them.”

But there are some other good goalies that probably would have been drafted if not for the recent development of Russia-NHL relationships. Stanislav Galimov is among them. The 22-year-old goalie plays for KHL reigning champion Ak Bars Kazan and he is at his third season with the team. He played an instrumental role in last year’s playoff run as he had to step in to replace injured Fredrik Norrena and he finished the playoff race with a GAA of 1.67 with a .926 save percentage. This year he kept on playing well, but Ak Bars’ management is more keen toward foreign players for the starting goalkeeper role and thus they iced this year former NHL goalie Mikael Tellqvist and Petri Vehanen.

But an undrafted player who made so far an even better impression is Sergei Bobrovsky.

”He is a very good goalie,” Eloranta said. ”He is one of the top young guns in Russia. He has got the same skills set as [Semyon] Varlamov.”

Bobrovsky, 21, is a starter RSL/KHL goaltender for the past three seasons, and has competed at the 2007 Super Series as well as the 2008 WJC, in which he got a bronze medal and was among the best three players for his team according to coaches. Bobrovsky isn’t a big goalie at 6’1”, 180 lbs., but he is a very athletic goalie who can handle very well the pressure as he plays for Metallurg Novokuznetsk, one of the weakest teams in the KHL and thus he gets his fair amount of shots night in, night out.

“He has all the tools to break out, and not only in Novokuznetsk, but also in a big club,” Eloranta said.

Bobrovsky will be a free agent this summer. No NHL sniffs, but SKA St. Petersburg has been vocal in their interest toward the player. They are the same team interested in signing Ilya Kovalchuk.

Probably Russia needs to change a bit its approach toward goaltender development. Only in the latest few years the teams got specific coaches with youth team duties as well. But another positive sign is the opening of different hockey schools throughout the large country’s territory.

“This kind of business is kind of new in Russia. I like very much working here," Eloranta said. "We got top coaches at our academy. We also do school camps. It was hard on the start and it was hard to make it bigger, but now, after six years, we made it. We are accomplishing our mission to make goalies better.”

Eloranta also shared his impressions about the drafted goalies in Russia.

“Igor Bobkov is a very good goalie," he said. "He could have been a first-round talent. We already know Karri Ramo (TB). Even if he opted to play in the KHL this year he could be a starter in the NHL. Konstantin Barulin (STL) is a good goalie and has already very good experience. Sergei Gaiduchenko (FLA) is yet another good young netminder, but the question is if he can play at high level in the NHL too. Vasily Koshechkin (TB) has a very good size and has potential too, but I feel like something is missing in his game.”