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.

Full Channel One Cup Preliminary Roster

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.

  • Chris Cerullo

    Well he might as well just come here now.

  • Matt Root

    Anyone else rooting for Admiral to take that 8th seed from Traktor? Hopefully that speeds up the Kuzya to Caps process.

  • Jack Conness

    Well, time to pack your bags and head to Washington!

  • JMW

    Are you really telling me that Radulov is better than Kuzya?

  • Fedor

    Do you think he’ll leave his team in the midst of a quest for the postseason? Do you really think so?

  • Alex

    If it does, I imagine Kuzya’s first game as a Cap will be March 8th against Phoenix, giving him about four days to pack up his stuff and move to Ovi’s house, train with and get to know the team, and make the necessary adjustments to prepare him for NHL-size rinks. Plus, he’ll be able to make his NHL debut in front of the home crowd and get a game under his belt before facing off against the Penguins.

  • Chris Cerullo

    No of course not. ‘Twas sarcasm.

  • Fedor

    That is if Traktor allows him to skip consolation tournament. Expecation is they will. Their GM seems to be very cooperative if Kuzya leaves.

  • dylan wheatley

    fantastic read, fedor

  • Fedor

    Sarcasm metter broken much. Sorry.

  • Fedor

    Thanks.

  • OVECHKING

    Fantastic research and reporting.

    On the downside… Kuznetsov’s play is quite concerning. We all know how Oates is when he is dealing with players who are not his favorite. One bad game from Kuzzya and he’ll be scratched.

  • OVECHKING

    Also, Fedor, do you have any information on how coach bill plans to pick Olympic roster? Will it be a direct split like last time around or will they just pick the best players?

  • http://www.russianmachineneverbreaks.com Ian Oland

    Radulov’s definitely got a better resume than Kuzya in every way imaginable. He may be clinically insane, but he’s definitely a leader for Russia.

  • OVECHKING

    All people in north america do when radulov’s name comes up is revert to a preconceived notion that he is a terrible player. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Even while he was out partying with a kostitsyn, he was Nashville’s best forward by a stretch. He’s the total package when it comes to a front line forward. He also, as Ian Oland points out, got the resume and experience.

    I hope this is just a message being sent to Kuzzya to get his act together. We’ll find out if he plays better leading up to the Olympics or just turtles.

    Double edged sword for caps fan though. Him playing better means that Traktor will also be better and make the playoffs, thus delaying his arrival to Wash most likely till 2014/15 season. Him playing worse means he wont make the Olympic roster and his development / play should also be concerning for caps fans. What type of guy do we want?

  • http://www.russianmachineneverbreaks.com Ian Oland

    I really don’t think that’s how it’s going to go, especially considering how badly this team has wanted Kuznetsov over here. My best advice: don’t be so pessimistic! I really think they are going to give Kuzya every chance to succeed because he could end up being a very important player for this franchise in the future.

  • OVECHKING

    I really hope you are right but you have to see where I am coming from. Oates has made more than a few questionable coaching decisions and his roster management / evaluation for talent is not ‘top notch’ per say. I only point to the continued support guys like brouwer and laich got (from icetime stand point) when there were other players out performing them. That’s a whole other issue.

  • Graham Dumas

    I’d like to clear the air a bit, if possible, and apologize for my part in taking things a bit far on Friday. I jumped into a discussion late and sideswiped you, which wasn’t cool. (Obviously you’re welcome to take or leave my apology, and I wouldn’t blame you for doing the latter.)

    Second, I agree with much of what you’re saying here, but I’m wondering if Oates is more at fault for what happened with Erat than for his relationship with Laich & Brouwer. I say that because those two had been valuable players in the past, and I think what Oates was trying to do was to tease that back out of them and not stomp on their throats for not playing up to par. With Erat, however, I don’t think he ever gave the guy a fair shake; same I think was true of Fehr, and I don’t understand why.

    I disagree, however, that Oates’s decision-making has been questionable. I can think of a few bench decisions that I would have done differently (not calling TO after icing at the end of Game 6 last year). But then again, I’m not an NHL coach. I also don’t have all the information that Oates does, which includes how much of what he does is his own decision, and how much is that of the front office.

    Second-guessing players is one thing, especially on individual plays. You can see the error, state the correction, and you can probably guess with reasonable certainty how the correction would have prevented the outcome. (Green, you pinched too much on the PP against Ottawa and got burned.) With coaches it’s different, because you don’t have all the info and more importantly, the decisions you’re questioning are not as clear-cut as a single play; it’s tough to isolate which move at what time would have had which result. It becomes a question of tactics versus strategy, and it’s a much harder call.

    That said, I’m glad to see some changes have been made, and I hope the results continue to improve as well.

  • http://www.russianmachineneverbreaks.com Ian Oland

    Yeah, seconded, Dylan.

    Obviously you are one of my best friends in the entire world, Fedor, but the growth in your writing over the last year or two has been really awesome to see. Way to go!

  • Fedor

    I think he’ll make an all-star top-9 (LW: Ovi, Kovy, Kulemin; C: Datsyuk, Malkin, Anisimov; RW: Tarasenko, Radulov, Semin, in no order) and then go by who he thinks will have the best instand chemistry and who he thinks he can rely on to contain opposition.

  • OVECHKING

    Its all good. I was only caught off guard by the “go argue with Vermont” comment. Ever since the washingtonpost paywall went up, the regulars have moved over to the CSNwashington chat boards. Vermont stayed behind. I cannot even recall the last time I had a debate with him. If you are looking for a more active community of caps fans to chat with on a daily basis I would recommenced CSNwashington to you. I’ve tried my best to recruits posters from NHL.com and other sites to transition to CSN in hopes of creating a larger community with diversified opinions.

  • Graham Dumas

    Oh yeah? I don’t read the wapo much for the same reason: don’t feel like paying for it. I should support the journalists, yeah, but I’m broke like everyone else, so there’s that. I just picked a name out of the air, and vermont was it.

    Anyway, I was set off by the “go rock the red, buy your season tickets” comment. I feel like there’s a contingent of fans who favor imposing economic sanctions on Ted and GMGM, like they’re the government of Iran. I saw that and lumped you in with them, which, again, is not cool. Shit gets aggro, and sometimes we forget whose side we’re really on (ie each other’s, the Caps’). And, like I said, I actually agree with a lot of what you said above (minus the pessimism–I get enough of that at work).

    I’ve been meaning to check out stuff on CSN more, but I really like the fan/chat/analysis community over here. It’s really accessible, and I love the fancy stats stuff. NHL.com sucks, though. THAT place is just straight up flame-war.

    In conclusion, thanks for being cool. Owe you a beer.

  • Graham Dumas

    Do you have any info or intuition about how much leeway Bill has to pick his own lines? I feel like in the past picking the Russian squad has been a bit of a political exercise. But you seem to indicate he’s got relative freedom; am I right?

  • OVECHKING

    As do I. The ‘rock the red’ was an unwarranted insult. I usually reserve that for caps fans who cheer Mike Green and Brooks Laich because they are marketed by the team as “core pieces”. They cheer them on not because of on ice performance (terrible as documented) rather because they “look good” or are “fancy members” of the caps community. I feel some of these fans are solely responsible for GMGM not ever contemplating moving guys like Green or Laich because they are “fan favs”.

    Happy Holidays.

  • Graham Dumas

    I gotcha. Likewise.

  • OVECHKING

    That was more specifically my question. Didn’t articulate myself clearly. Last time around, it was mandated to have half the team KHL half NHL… that really hurt the Russians imo as you had players who were not used to the fast close quarters north american game.

  • Fedor

    This is first time I hear about such exercise. Former coach Bykov loved KHLers. It was his call.

    Bill has absolute freedom in my opinion. That freedom comes from huge pressure. His bosses (aka Hockey Russia) sense the results may be very unpleasant so they leave him alone so they don’t have to share blame.

    It’s all about who’ll take the blame, and Bill is pretty courageous sticking to his system.

    This is just my opinion, but I think Russian roster choice is as much a political exercise as American or Canadian. In other words, it is not.

  • IM S.H

    (I’m Korean)

    Thank you, this is valuable reports

  • Roman Z.

    This continuity of events has been surprisingly entertaining (I did read your back and forth from the other thread lol). I’m glad everyone is friends now :)

  • Graham Dumas

    That’s really interesting. I was of the same impression as Ovechking, that the pressure to include KHL guys was coming from the top. I had no idea Bykov was such a fan of the league.

    Thanks for that, Fedor!

  • Graham Dumas

    Партизаны разных отрядов, а все равно враг–общий. :)

  • Roman Z.

    Haha, horosho ckazano!

  • Graham Dumas

    Че это? Я латиницу-то твою читать не буду! :р

  • Roman Z.

    lol ya davno uzhe russkim shiriftom ne polzouyuc, thats what living in North American does to you :(

  • Graham Dumas

    Ugh, I know! Every day I feel my Russian sliding off into oblivion… But headed there na Novy god, so hopefully will get a re-up!

  • Roman Z.

    Which city?

  • Graham Dumas

    Small town in Perm Krai. K tesche na bliny.

  • Roman Z.

    Ne ploho, rasskagesh potom!

  • Graham Dumas

    Word.

  • Fedor

    Russia is a country that is obsessed with winning, top to bottom. Russians want to win everything, everywhere. For a medal, all politics will step aside. They play those who they think (often not rightfully, underrating players they don’t see as much) will give them a better shot at it.