Team Russia 2007 WJC preview

By Sergei Balashov

The 2007 World Junior Championship is going to be a lot different for Russia, which has been sending strong teams to the tournament. After being represented by squads that featured superstars Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin (PIT) over the past few years, this time we’ll see a group of unproven rookies led by a couple of recently emerged candidates for future stardom. Adding even more intrigue to it, the Russian Ice Hockey Federation has continued its tradition of appointing walking question marks as head coaches for the junior teams. This year’s dark horse is Evgeni Popikhin, who’s never worked as a head coach before holding an assistant coach job under Vladimir Yurzinov in Yaroslavl.

Among the tough tasks the new man in charge is going to contend with on his way to success are bringing together the under-performing team which includes inconsistent forward Alexander Bumagin (EDM) and defenseman Vitaly Anikienko (OTT) who sometimes lacks motivation to play to his fullest; working out efficient strategic schemes fit for players of a roughly similar mindset as this squad is full of solid playmakers like Anton Krysanov (PHO) and Gennadi Churilov; and, finally, preparing the players with little to no postseason experience for crucial elimination round games.

Being an unproven coach he is, Popikhin is expected to make his best effort at the tournament to prove his value and be considered as a leading candidate for the RSL head coaching jobs which will open in offseason. Most of the players find themselves in a similar situation whether we’re talking about impressing the scouts and bringing their draft value higher, winning trust of their RSL coaches or just trying to follow Nikolai Kulemin’s (TOR) path and finally get noticed on the international arena.

The team is expected to be led by Alexei Cherepanov, the sensational rookie from RSL team Avangard. Being only 17 years of age, he is already regarded as his team’s best player and the top Russian prospect eligible for the upcoming draft. He could even be the best prospect in the entire draft right now, given the still wide-open field. He’s been getting involved more and more with the coaches giving him the nod to play in the last minutes of the game counting on him to become the deciding contributor and giving him more time on special teams. Cherepanov is his line’s pure attacker often waiting for a forward pass on the blue line and then either rushing all the way to the goal or starting intricate passing combinations, picking out the best way to finish.

Despite strong performance in the RSL, Cherepanov’s value is still questionable as he hasn’t been tested on the international level with many experts still putting the praises he’s receiving to a doubt. The WJC is expected to provide us with the answers to the burning questions on Cherepanov and will most certainly set his stock for the draft.

The Washington Capitals are one of the teams that will be taking a very close look at Russia ’s performance as the starting goaltender will be none other but Semen Varlamov on whom the Caps spent one of their two first round picks past summer. It’s hoped the he can grow into an NHL starter in a few years in view of Olaf Kolzig’s looming retirement. Varlamov got plenty of opportunities to show what he’s all about this year after becoming his team Lokomotiv’s starting netminder. He responded well by posting solid numbers in the 18 games he played, notably a 2.10 GAA and a .923 save percentage. Everyone is waiting for him to prove his worth in the postseason games which are a completely different story for every goalie, however playing at the international level can do to him what it did for Tuukka Rask (TOR) whose sensational performance in Vancouver last year earned him the status of a potential elite NHL netminder.

The players to watch on defense include Pavel Valentenko (MON) who has progressed into one of Neftekhimik’s best defensemen this year. He might not be fit for the modern system as he tends to play rough taking more penalties than necessary, but his confident play and ability to maintain physical presence on defense make him a worthy addition to any team. Vyacheslav Voynov will attract some attention after seeing more and more ice time with his RSL team Traktor.

The final roster will be determined based on the results of the team’s exhibition games. So far, they have played two, looking solid against Krylia Sovetov and Khimik. They managed to beat one of RSL’s best teams Khimik 5-3 with Bumagin being one of the best players on the ice. He’s been having a mediocre season with Lada having just three points on his record, however he seems to be more comfortable on the junior team posting a goal and an assist in two games against the very same teams he has to face on a regular basis.

Blackhawks prospect Igor Makarov is also getting in shape and regaining the scoring touch which allowed him to score five goals in 28 games with SKA. His playmaking abilities have not been there, yet he is still a solid team player and a contributor on both ends of the ice.

Overall, this year’s championship is seen as the best chance for most, if not all the players to upgrade their status and prove their worth along with helping their rookie coach to complete this mission.

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