Kuznetsov is unlikely to don red, white, and blue anytime soon. The Russian team that is. What did you think I meant? (Photo credit: Alexei Kudenko/RIA Novosti)
The Russian National Team has listed 33 players for its preliminary roster at the Channel One Cup, an annual international tournament for pro European players to be held in Sochi on December 19-22. In a surprise to many observers, including me, Evgeny Kuznetsov is not on the roster.
The young forward, a veteran of the World Juniors and World Championships with Sbornaya, seems to have fallen out of coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov‘s good graces. Even when Kuznetsov was playing well, Bilyaletdinov hadn’t hesitated to put Kuznetsov on a checking line. In the last 18 months, now that Kuznetsov is struggling, he seems to have lost his spot altogether.
Previously, Kuznetsov had explained that his decision to wait to come to the Capitals was to secure a spot on the Russian Olympic team this February. That decision is looking a bit less wise right now.
Kuznetsov has been hot-and-cold lately, going from ten points in seven games to zero points in three, and Bill is not impressed. As a coach who preaches patience, discipline, accountability– what North Americans might call “playing the game the right way”, Bilyaletdinov doesn’t need anymore offensive talent on his Olympic squad. Kuznetsov is shaping up to be the odd man out.
Kuznetsov wasn’t added to last year’s National Team roster until two games of the group stage were left. With limited ice time and while playing next to defensive-first players, Kuznetsov earned just five points in twelve games in the last two EuroHockeyTours (9 games in 2012-13, 3 in 2013-14), an underwhelming total considering he raked up nine points in twelve games in his first two seasons with the national team.
I had been confident that the mounting pressure would force Bilyaletdinov to select the most flashy offensive players available– including Kuznetsov, but it appears that the former Jets and Coyotes assistant coach is holding fast, which may make him a target if something goes wrong in Sochi in February. If the Russians fail to medal at their home Olympics, people will ask why some of the KHL’s most exciting players were left at home and why they chose to rely on grinding coaching tactics instead? It’s a big risk for Bilyaletdinov, who might see himself replaced by a more offensive-minded, more flexible, less demanding coach should he fail.
But there aren’t many other distinguished Russian coaches nowadays. Most powerhouse teams and overachievers in the KHL are coached by foreigners– including Mike Keenan for Metallurg Magnitogorsk, John Torchetti for CSKA Moscow, Mark French for Medvescak Zagreb, and more.
Bilyaletdinov, who won the Gagarin Cup twice with Ak Bars Kazan, is the kind of coach who likes to exploit his opponents’ weaknesses. That’s why his Ak Bars were so tough to watch: the team didn’t do a whole lot offensively, but they still found ways to win. The downside of this system was revealed by Team USA at the last Worlds. Despite having an inferior team, Joe Sacco “out-Billed” Bill, and Team Russia couldn’t come up with a response to a team that frustrated just as much as they did.
Will that suffocating style of play work with twelve stars as his forwards? The presumptive answer is no. Something’s gotta give– either some of Russia’s offensive talent would be left off the roster, or the coach would modify his philosophy. The latter hasn’t happened yet, and Kuznetsov seems to be the victim of the former.
Leonid Vaysfeld, Avtomobilist Ekaterinburg GM and former TV analyst, spoke with R-Sport’s Semyon Galkevich about the snub:
You should never settle and Kuznetsov shouldn’t abandon his Olympic dreams. We don’t know the reason why he wasn’t re-called. Maybe the shoulder still bothers him. Maybe coaches think there are several players better than him at his position. Or Bilyaletdinov decided Evgeny shouldn’t play at the Channel One Cup, but will take him to Sochi.
It’s unlikely that Kuznetsov is any worse than some of the forwards who got the call. Arguments could be made for a handful being as talented as the 21-year-old Chelyabinsk native. Stars like Ilya Kovalchuk and Alexander Radulov are practically locks. Alex Burmistrov and Viktor Tikhonov have an inside track. The league’s leading scorer, veteran Sergei Mozyakin, isn’t one of Bill’s favourites, but he stands a chance to make the team as well.
These guys, as well as two-way or defensive forwards like Alexander Perezhogin, Sergei Plotnikov, and Sergei Soin, look like contenders for Olympic spots. Though, given Bill’s preferred style, it wouldn’t surprise me to see an obscure name to sneak onto the roster, due to be released in early January.
Goalies: Konstantin Barulin, Alexander Eremenko, Vasily Koshechkin
Defensemen: Yuri Alexandrov, Evgeny Ryasensky, Maxim Chudinov, Evgeny Biryukov, Denis Denisov, Nikita Zaytsev, Andrey Zubarev, Bogdan Kiselevich, Evgeny Medvedev, Ilya Nikulin
Forwards: Alexander Burmistrov, Mikhail Varnakov, Alexey Tereschenko, Mikhail Glukhov, Ilya Kablukov, Ilya Kovalchuk, Artemy Panarin, Viktor Tikhonov, Vadim Shipachev, Enver Lisin, Sergey Mozyakin, Alexander Perezhogin, Alexander Popov, Sergei Plotnikov, Nikolai Prokhorkin, Alexander Radulov, Sergei Soin
Some may argue that the roster we see now is for the purpose of getting to know certain players better before the Olympic roster is set. That has happened before, but it’s not the case this time. Were this a roster built for evaluation, we’d see obvious omissions, like Kovalchuk or Radulov, who are sure things for the Olympic team. This roster seems to have every KHL player with a chance of making the Olympics– except for Kuznetsov. It’s hard not to see this as a bad omen.
While Kuznetsov’s offensive prowess is impressive, it may not warrant a top-nine spot. That’s a high bar to clear on a team with Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Malkin, Pavel Datsyuk, Ilya Kovalchuk, Alexander Radulov, Alexander Semin, Vladimir Tarasenko, and Artem Anisimov. And since the fourth line will certainly consist of grinding, two-way forwards that Bilyaletdinov loves, it’s beginning to look like Kuznetsov will have some free time in February.