The Belarusians are back in the elite division at the World Junior Championship after making their last appearance at the 2007 WJC tournament, when the team’s stars were Sergei Kostitsyn and Mikhail Stefanovich. This time around, Team Belarus does not have such stars in their lineup, but instead has more depth down the roster. But the ultimate goal is the same: to avoid relegation at all costs.
Last year, the Belarusians had a good ride in Italy, winning the WJC Division 1A championship. Unfortunately for them, most of the players from that team are now graduated and will not be able to represent their country in 2016. This will be a big loss, especially true of a player like Dmitry Ambrozheichik who produced 12 points in five games at last year’s D1A tournament to help elevate his country to the top level.
Somewhat oddly for Belarus, their best player on the roster this year may come from the defensive corps. Ottawa 67’s import defenseman Stepan Falkovsky is definitely the star of the team. The imposing defenseman (6’7”, 225 lbs.) is having a strong rookie season in the OHL and should be a key player for Belarus at both ends of the ice. With his size and his big slapshot, Falkovsky will certainly be used on special teams, too. A player of similar size is Matvei Bozhko (6’7”, 235 lbs.), but he is not at the same stage of development as Falkovsky, and is not expected to have a prominent role on the team.
Team captain Vladislav Goncharov is an interesting offensive defenseman who is having a very good season in the Belarus Extraleague. Goncharov is gifted with good puckhandling and skating skills, tools he has shown both with his club and with the national team. He was an alternate captain with Team Belarus at the U18 level, and is expected to be a leader in the true sense of the word. One of the two alternate captains will be Daniil Bokun, a returnee from last year’s team who is playing in Belarus in Dinamo Minsk’s system.
It is hard to actually gauge the level of this team’s defense because of the limited exposure that they have had. That being said, many players play in the Dinamo Minsk system (which comprises teams in both Russia and Belarus), which should be helpful for this WJC team’s chemistry.
One of the most promising prospects for Belarus is Dmitry Buinitsky, a returnee from last year’s team and the only player with significant pro experience as he is currently skating with Dinamo Minsk in the KHL. He has yet to score his first goal, but he is a pass-first type of player with good hockey IQ and strong skating ability. Buinitsky is expected to be the go-to forward for this team, and if the team wants to avoid relegation, he has to score in the games that will matter. Buinitsky will have the chance to play in next year’s WJC as he is a ’97-born.
Generally speaking, the Belarusians lack a bit of size up front, but this could be less of a problem than is expected. Considering the most likely scenario, the team will have to give its best against Denmark to avoid relegation, so being smaller than players from Team Canada or Team Russia may be not a huge problem considering the ultimate goal for this squad.
Another interesting player up front will be Danila Karaban. An alternate captain, Karaban can play both center and wing and has a good nose for the net. He was the author of the lone Belarusian goal in the exhibition game against Canada a few days ago, and this may be a good indicator of his ability. The Belarusians will no doubt count on Karaban to provide whatever offense he can muster at this tournament.
Speaking about chemistry, an interesting duo could be one made up of the Patsenkin twins. They play in the MHL B with Yunost Minsk and have put up good statistics there, but the level of competition is quite low so their performance in that league is not much of an indicator of how they will perform at the WJC. The twins, Alexander and Alexei, will most likely be iced on the team’s second line, but they will need an effective center to help them perform at their best. Team chemistry can be very important in such a tournament, even more so for a team like Belarus, who needs to give their best in only one or two games in order to avoid relegation.
Considering the roster of the team, and also the rosters of the opposition, Belarus will have no other goal than to avoid relegation. Belarus can only count on a few very good players and some good chemistry, but they will have some problems with their goaltending and a general lack of size. All in all, they along with Denmark are the best candidates to compete in the relegation round, with Belarus hoping to avoid a return to Division 1A play.
Follow Alessandro Seren Rosso on Twitter via @AlexSerenRosso