(courtesy of (Photo by Andre Ringuette/HHOF-IIHF Images)
It had always been a dream of mine to go to the World Junior Championships to watch some of the best young talent in the world assembled on their respective national teams. Along with my trip to the games, FRWG is starting a new section of the site that focuses on Russian prospects from around the world, so what better place to start an article than with the Russian National Junior team.
This event once showcased the likes of Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin who were the last ones to bring Gold for Russia at the World Juniors. Needless to say, this Russian team had some shoes to fill, considering they organized a lackluster effort the year prior, failing to bring home a medal.
Last year’s team was labeled as a Choking Hazardwith the antics the team pulled in the Bronze Medal qualifying game against the Swiss. In the last minute of the game, the Swiss’s “comeback kid”, Nino Niederreiter scored with 33 seconds remaining in regulation and then fired a wrister past unsuspecting goalie, Igor Bobkov to win the game in OT.
So coming into this World Junior Championships in Buffalo, with new coaching, players, and talent, I expected Russia to play with an edge that Russia hadn’t played with in quite some time. I mean, they couldn’t disappoint again…could they?
Well, sorry to burst your bubble Russian fans, but this year’s Russian team looks and plays worse than last years with all hope of a medal relying on the game against the Czechs today. I was fortunate enough to go to both opening games for Russia against Canada and Sweden, respectively. Both games were for naught as Russia dropped the first decision 6-3 to the Canadians and a 2-0 shutout loss to the Swedes. And before reading any further, let me forewarn you that I do get VERY critical.
Russia’s problems stemmed from a variety of different reasons. To begin, Russians have always been known to play a finesse style of game with tremendous stickhandling, fluid skating, creative plays, tricks, passes, and, ultimately, goals. Physicality is a word that is not frequently uttered in the Russian locker room. In both games, Russia’s lack of physical play was blatantly evident being outmuscled, outskated, outcoached and outplayed in all three zones.
Mentally, Russia was out of the games before they even started. They were giveaway machines throughout the game versus Canada in particular, playing very nonchalantly and giving up the puck to some of the top Canadian players in the world for easy shots and scoring chances. Russia played a bit more tamed against the Swedes but also ran into the same carless plays that led to their demise. Take into consideration that the Swedes were backed by an absolutely stellar performance by the Ottawa Senators phenom goalie prospect, Robin Lehner, and you have a recipe for disaster.
Most of the Russians on the team, with the exception of Igor Bobkov, are used to playing on an international surface. The larger international-sized rink provides more room for fancy play that the Russians are used to. Over in North America, this style of game might be considered suicide. In this case, suicide isn’t much of a stretch considering the outcome of each game.
Just two days preceding the first games of the tournament, two of Russia’s young hopefuls, Vladislav Namestnikov and Nail Yakupov, were cut from the team.
I, having wanted to see both in the tournament as well as believing they had a spot locked up on the team, was highly disappointed in Russian hockey’s “higher-ups.” Namestnikov, a native of Voskresensk, made a big decision last year deciding to come to the CHL’s London Knights instead of stay back home in the KHL.
Taking the road less traveled by Russian players, he has burst onto the scene putting up 29 points in the first 33 games of the OHL season, stirring the pot and putting his name amongst some of the players who are favored to go in the first round of this year’s NHL Entry Draft. Yakupov hails from Nizhnekamsk and has been nothing short of spectacular for the Sarnia Sting with 48 points in 33 games fighting for a chance to get selected first overall in the 2012 draft.
These two were snubbed at the chance of playing for the National team in favor of players who “play” on a normal basis in the KHL. And by “play” I mean, “sits on the bench/gets demoted to their local MHL team.” Namestnikov and Yakupov may have not single-handedly changed the outcomes of each game, however, they certainly deserved to the opportunity, and could have been beneficial. Why beneficial?
While they may not be the biggest and most physical players to ever lace up a pair of skates, they do have the advantage of knowing the ice surface that they have been accustomed to. They can certainly put up numbers, as shown by their stats in the OHL, but they can also counteract plays by teams like Canada and America having played on the same sized rink and playing against some familiar faces.
But I digress. Enough of me chewing out the team, coaching, and upper management. Let me focus more on the positives of individual players that I was able to watch. Coming into the tournament, the big names on team Russia were Tarasenko, Kuznetsov, and Orlov. But as bad as the Russians played there were some surprising players that made a bit of a name for themselves.
Vladimir Tarasenko was, arguably, the most positively talked about Russian player in last years NHL draft class, and now I know why. Tarasenko, the 16th overall pick of the St. Louis Blues, was one of the best players on this Russian team. Not tremendously big, Tarasenko stands at an even 6 feet tall, but uses every bit of it to his advantage.
Aside from the tremendous stickhandling that he possesses, Tarasenko was able to use his body to get in between the defender and the puck, cut to the outside and force his way into the crease for a scoring opportunity. He surely isn’t afraid to throw his body every once in a while, which is unusual for Russian players. He has a blistering shot that was showcased a few times in both games and has the ability to attract defenders to him, leaving teammates wide open to put a puck on net.
While he has played very well, he hasn’t put up the points that were expected of him. With only 3 points in 3 games, Tarasenko needs to score big against the Czechs to even have a shot at a medal this year. Tarasenko is likely to join the Blues after his contract with his hometown team, Novosibirsk Sibir, is up. Keep an eye out for him, as he is sure to make a big splash and turn into a legitimate first line goal scorer for the Blues organization for years to come.
Evengeny Kuznetsov was another player that attracted some interest. Kuznetsov was a late first round pick of the Washington Capitals, an organization known for its acceptance of Russian players. Kuznetsov may not have been the most offensive players on Team Russia, but he was one of the most noticed. The kid is a stickhandling machine.
So smooth with the puck, he was able to deke around defenders like Swiss cheese. While the glam and glitter stood out, what I was most impressed with was his two-way game. On more than one occasion, Evgeny was able to forecheck well enough to pickpocket the Canadian and Swedish players, turning the opposite way for a scoring rush.
His quickness can be deceptive at times since he didn’t use it too often, but with his long strides he was able to reach a top speed with ease. Don’t be fooled by his skating either. It is just as enthralling to watch him stickhandle, as it is to watch him skate. The Capitals lucked out on this pick. Kuznetsov will likely follow the same path as Tarasenko by coming over when his contract expires in the KHL. I could see him playing on the first line, but he would have to make a real solid impression on the Caps staff in order for him to be put on Ovi’s line so soon.
Orlov wasn’t as noticeable as I would’ve have liked him to be. Another pick of the Capitals in 2009, Orlov was the best defenseman for the Russians, and that isn’t saying much. He picked up 2 assists in the Canada game so the offense is obviously there. He was able to move the puck out of the zone and has great vision on the ice. He doesn’t try to be too fancy with the puck and always looks for the open man.
A pass- first defenseman, Orlov is also capable in his own end. He certainly wasn’t afraid to use the body against the skilled forwards of Canada and Sweden and was able to clear the puck out of the zone quickly, unlike a few other players on Russia’s backend. I don’t Orlov will overtake Alzner, Carlson, or Green as the top 3 defensemen in the organization, however he certainly has the skill set that could make him slide into the top 4.
The biggest surprise of the tournament has been 2nd line forward, Nikita Dvurechenski. He is currently second in the team in points with 4 (2 goals and 2 assists). Showing miraculous stickhandling skills, Dvurechenski turned defenses inside out and helped the Russians stay in the game against Canada until the 3rd period.
His wrister was very apparent, as he was able to snipe it by Olivier Roy to tie the game up. His two way game was even better than Kuznetsov’s since he could catch unsuspecting players on the forecheck. The only knock on him would be his physical play. It was nonexistent as both the Canadians and Swedes ran right through him. It was as if he let them take advantage of him.
Nikita has been passed over in the previous two drafts but he may garner some interest if he keeps his offensive game up for the duration of the tournament. Russia has run into some huge problems this year, in a tournament where they have 3 gold, 6 silver, and 5 bronze medals. With an 8-2 win against Norway yesterday, Russia’s hopes of being a contender for any medals rests on tonight’s game against the Czech Republic.
Of late, Russia has shown that it can choke with the flip of a switch, and the way they have played in this tournament, this year doesn’t seem to be an exception. The Czechs are a very solid team with great young talent so the Russians will need to build off their 8 goals but also (and I stress this) PLAY DEFENSE.
But enough of being pessimistic and critical, with high expectations placed on their shoulders, Russia was projected as one of the top teams in this tournament. It has become theirs to lose and it is certainly looking like it is playing out that way.