World Junior Thoughts
The 2017 World Junior Championship is a few days in the past now — time enough to have digested matters and come up with some thoughts. The United States prevailed in the end, winning a truly fantastic gold medal game 5-4 in a shootout over Team Canada. As for Russia, coach Valery Bragin’s youngsters could console themselves with the bronze medal after overcoming an excellent Swedish team in the third-place game. Read on, for some thoughts and comments on Team Russia’s tournament as a whole.
Team Russia’s 2016-17 World Juniors came to a happy, or at least happy-ish, end early in overtime of the bronze medal game. With just 30 seconds of the extra frame elapsed, Swedish forwards Jonathan Dahlén and Alexander Nylander got caught all betwixt and between at their own blueline. In nipped Denis Guryanov to collect the loose puck, skate in unopposed on Felix Sandström, and slip a backhand shot under the Swedish netminder. 2-1 the final score, and while the medal was bronze and not gold or silver (Russia had lost a heart-breaking semifinal to the Americans, 4-3 via the shootout), the Russian players did not seem to mind in that moment. Guryanov’s opportunism meant that Russia’s young men went home from the World Juniors with medals around their necks for the seventh straight year, five of them including this one under the tutelage of Bragin.
Guryanov’s goal also ensured that a heroic performance by goalie Ilya Samsonov did not go unrewarded. The Metallurg Magnitogorsk stopper, playing by all appearances on only one-and-a-half good legs, had performed wonders to keep Russia in the game, particularly through a torrid opening period when his team was outshot 15-3 by the Swedes yet got to the intermission with the score still 0-0.
In addition to the bronze medal, Russian players took home some individual honours from the tournament. Kirill Kaprizov and Samsonov were both named to the All-Star team, while the former was further singled out as the Best Forward of this year’s competition.
Kaprizov did indeed have a heck of a tournament. Team Russia’s captain scored nine goals in seven games to lead all tournament snipers and set a record for tallies by a Russian in one World Juniors, and his 12 points tied him with Sweden’s Nylander for top spot in that category. No particular surprise that Kaprizov should stand out; the 19-year-old is scoring nearly a point per game for Salavat Yulaev Ufa in the KHL (37 gp, 15-15-30). The Minnesota Wild took Kaprizov in the fifth round of the 2015 NHL draft, and that looks right now like a steal of a pick.
Kaprizov’s Salavat Yulaev team-mate Mikhail Vorobyov set an odd tournament record with a scoring line of 0-10-10 in seven games. That’s the most points ever in one World Juniors by a player who did not score a goal. The previous mark of nine was set by a number of players, most recently Finland’s Olli Juolevi in last year’s tournament. Vorobyov’s ten assists led the competition, and put the 2015 Philadelpia Flyers draft pick in a tie for fourth overall in points.
Speaking of the Flyers: Philadelphia’s prospect forward German Rubtsov, who has seen time in both the KHL and the junior MHL for Vityaz Moscow Oblast this season, suffered a badly broken nose during the tournament and will undergo surgery. Furthermore, it was reported today that the 18-year-old has had his Vityaz contract cancelled by mutual consent of the parties, and will be joining the Chicoutimi Sagueneens of the QMJHL in the near future.
We should mention also Guryanov. The Dallas Stars draft pick put up 4-3-7 in seven games, but three of his goals came when they mattered most. He scored twice in the semifinal against the U.S., once to give Russia a 2-1 second-period lead, and then again, after the Americans had recovered to get their noses back in front, to level the game at 3-3 and send it to extra time. And we have already mentioned his medal-winning overtime tally against Sweden.
Among Russia’s defencemen, it was Yegor Rykov of SKA St. Petersburg who particularly stood out. He led the Russian rearguard corps in scoring (7 gp, 1-6-7) and tied for the team lead in plus minus (+7, tied with Kaprizov). Montreal Canadiens prospect Mikhail Sergachyov had a quiet tournament on the scoresheet, recording only a single goal and no assists in seven games, but it was not for lack of trying; the Windsor Spitfires defenceman led Russia’s blueliners in shots on goal with 16.
And finally we come to Samsonov. The 19-year-old Metallurg goalie (and Washington Capitals prospect) currently owns the ninth-best save percentage in the KHL (.936 in 19 games), and brought that strong play to the World Juniors. His start, it must be said, was shaky — five goals against on 37 shots in the opening game against Canada — but he recovered nicely from there to post the tournament’s second-best save percentage at .930 in six games (Finland’s Veini Veihvilainen, .931 in six games, was tops in that category). And we have already mentioned his performance against Sweden in the third-place game.
While a medal of a brighter colour was certainly the desired result at this tournament, it is hard to be too critical of Russia’s performance. Yes, the opening-game loss to Canada was far from the team’s best outing. Some may also look askance at Russia’s third-place finish in the Group A standings with a 2-2 record, behind the U.S. and Canada and ahead of Slovakia and Latvia. However, the experienced Bragin knows full well by this point that under a tournament format like that used in the World Juniors, Team Russia can afford to use the first round to work out the kinks before getting down to business in the knockout games. And while we must in fairness say that the Russians were a bit lucky to get the better of Sweden in the bronze medal match, by the same token they were somewhat unlucky in losing the semifinal shootout to the Americans, and in thus missing out on a chance to play for gold.
Of course, seven straight appearances on the tournament podium shows an admirable consistency (it is the longest such streak currently active). The medal haul since 2011 has been one gold, three silvers, and three bronzes, and Team Russia, under Bragin’s guidance once again, will look to add to that total when the 2017-18 tournament takes place in Buffalo. Of note, if perhaps not of significance: it was there that Russia’s medal streak began in 2011, when they won gold with a famous third-period comeback against Canada.