Team Russia shocked the world by coming back from a 3-0 deficit in the gold medal game against Canada to win the IIHF U20 World Junior Championship one year ago. Tremendous coaching, discipline, and a lot of luck made a good team great. Several players also proved that they were the real deal, including Dmitry Orlov (currently playing in Washington), Vladimir Tarasenko (Blues prospect currently ranked fifth in KHL in goals), Maxim Kitsyn (KHL’s Metallurg Novokuznetsk), Artemy Panarin (Vityaz), and — the youngest of the bunch — Evgeny Kuznetsov. Role players from last year’s team, Nikita Dvurechenski (KHL’s Vityaz), Anton Burdasov (third-line center on the KHL’s Traktor Chelyabinsk), and Nikita Pivtsakin (KHL’s Avangard Omsk), have also graduated to become full-time KHL players.
Unfortunately, age eligibility rules have forced a drastic change to Russia, who is looking to repeat as champions for the first time since 2002 and 2003. The only returning player is Caps prospect Evgeny Kuznetsov. Kuzya, the captain wearing #25, is sure to be a major key to success for the Russians. He’s played in the tournament before, scored, and assisted on clutch goals.
Kuznetsov’s been very successful at the professional level this year: he leads the KHL in game-winning goals (5), scored the game-winner in the Karjala Cup, and plays on the first line of the Russian league’s best team, Traktor Chelyabinsk.
How young is Team Russia this year? Consider that only two players on the team have recorded more than ten points in their KHL careers. Kuznetsov is the first, and the other is Zakhar Arzamastsev (Metallurg Novokuznetsk) who has tallied 11. Kuzya’s 65 career KHL points and five points with the Russian National Team make him the team’s go-to offensive player at even strength and on the power play. How will Kuznetsov — who is set to play center instead of his customary right wing — handle the pressure of being captain and being heavily scouted? We will see.
To replace other leaders on last year’s team, Head Coach Valery Bragin chose players who represented Russia at the U18 level last year and won the bronze medal. The new core is Nikita Kucherov (Central Sports Club of Army – Red Army), Mikhail Grigorenko (QMJHL’s Quebec Remparts), and Nail Yakupov (OHL’s Sarnia Sting) – three points leaders of that tournament, as well as draft-eligible goalie Andrei Vasilevsky (Salavat Yulaev’s MHL affiliate Tolpar Ufa) who topped last year’s U18 WJC in save percentage.
It seems to me that Russia will go with two lines stacked with high-scoring talent and two lines of role players. I predict one of these two lines will be Nikita Gusev (undrafted), Mikhail Grigorenko (2012 Draft eligible), Nikita Kucherov (drafted by the Lightning). They grew up playing together in the same system (CSKA) and show good chemistry. If their line works in Calgary, look for them to be one of the most dangerous trios of the tournament.
Two other players to be locks in the top-6 are, of course, Evgeny Kuznetsov and potential #1 draft pick on 2012 NHL Draft Nail Yakupov (#AvsFailWatch). The only spot left is arguable, though Boston Bruins’ draftee Alexander Khokhlachev has made a strong case to play on the first line.
Team Russia actually had to cut some of their offensive talent on Friday. Anton Zlobin, who is tied for fourth in goals in the QMJHL, and Vladislav Namestnikov, who was the only Russian drafted in the first round last summer (by the Bolts) were let go. Among the complementary players, one name that stands out is Jets’ prospect Ivan Telegin.
The most surprising cut, however, came at the back end. Guelph’s Andrei Pedan (a big, physical defenseman who sticks up for his teammates) was dismissed. Instead, the Russians went with only one player who plays in the Canadian juniors, defenseman Artem Sergeev of Val-d’Or. The team’s defense will also miss Red Wings’ draftee Alexey Marchenko, who is done for the year with a knee injury that required surgery. Zakhar Arzamastsev (KHL’s Metallurg Novokuznetsk), who went undrafted in the 2011 NHL Draft, will be Russia’s most experienced defenseman with 97 KHL games under his belt.
The Russians should be solid in goal with Vasilevsky, the Saskatoon Blades’ Andrei Makarov and Sergei Kostenko from Metallurg Novokuznetsk’s MHL affiliate, the Bears. The team will play their first game tonight at 10pm against Switzerland.
Will Mark Visentin lead Canada to gold? (Photo credit: Nathan Denette)
Just like every other year, Team Canada has the most talented roster of the tournament. The roster’s almost completely composed of first-round talents with a rack of CHL experience, despite the fact that the Canada’s best young players are in the NHL. Team Canada should be especially hungry this year since they haven’t won since 2009 (where they were champions for five straight years) and were embarrassed by Russia in the final period of last year’s gold medal game. They have lots of talent on the blue line and on offense, but their lack of a solid goaltender (Mark Visentin‘s five-goal meltdown in the third period of last year’s final) could prove to be costly. I expect them to be upset yet again.
Emerson Etem: Cowabunga, dude. (Photo credit: Bruce Bennett)
Jack Campbell enters his third WJC in net for Team USA and if he plays like he did in ’10, expect USA to be a frontrunner for the gold, especially with Anaheim Ducks’ prospect Emerson Etem leading the offense for the Americans. They don’t have John Carlson, but he might not be needed this time.
Jonas Brodin (Photo credit: Bruce Bennett)
Another candidate to upset the Canadians, Sweden is solid on defense featuring first-round picks Jonas Brodin and Oskar Klefbom. Sweden’s next great defenseman Adam Larsson and scoring threat Gabriel Landeskog are already playing in the NHL, so look for Mika Zibanejad to prove himself as a leader for the Swedes.
Mikael Granlund’s lacrosse goal against Team Russia last year netted him a stamp in Finland.
All eyes will be on Mikael Granlund during this tournament. The Wild prospect doesn’t have the supporting cast like Canadian and American leaders have, but Finland is still solid and could prove to be dangerous. Look out for 2013 Draft frontrunner Aleksander Barkov to start making a name for himself on the big stage. There’s a rivalry developing between the Finns and Russians and there’s a chance they’ll meet in the quarterfinals, just like last year. Russia won in a thriller then, and another Kuznetsov/Granlund showcase could be a really intriguing match-up.