Russia at the World Juniors
First of all, a very Merry Christmas to all celebrating today! Secondly, the weekly women’s hockey update will be along
tomorrow on Wednesday, with news of the upcoming Under-18 Worlds and other matters. Tomorrow, however, will also see the opening faceoffs of the 2017-18 World Junior Championship, in Buffalo, New York, and that is the focus of tonight’s post. Read on, for a look at the Russian roster!
Team Russia’s coaches made their final decisions in the last day or two; five players (defencemen Alexander Alexeyev and Artyom Maltsev plus forwards Alexei Lipanov, Danil Veryayev, and Vitaly Kravtsov) fell victim to the last round of cuts. Team Russia had earlier played two pre-tournaments games, defeating Denmark 4-2 in the first and just getting by Slovakia 3-2 via the shootout in the second. And with that, it is on to the tournament proper.
The 23-man final roster can be seen here, and below is a quick bit about each of the players on it, and some thoughts on line combinations and the like. Players marked with an asterisk were part of last year’s World Juniors team.
- Mikhail Berdin (Sioux Falls Stampede [USHL]): He’s currently third in the USHL in sv% (18 gp, .932), and
- Alexei Melnichuk (SKA-Neva St. Petersburg [VHL]): The SKA prospect made his KHL debut this season, and has posted a solid .926 sv% in the second-tier VHL (14 games played).
- Vladislav Sukhachyov* (Chelmet Chelyabinsk [VHL]): Sukhachyov comes out of the excellent program at Chelyabinsk’s Sergei Makarov Hockey School, and has a .930 sv% in 20 game with Chelmet this season.
An interesting choice for Head Coach Valery Bragin; all three ‘keepers have things to recommend them, and they are close to the same age (born between March and June, 1998). Usage during Russia’s pre-tournament games suggests that Bragin prefers Berdin and Melnichuk, but we will see.
- Nikolai Knyzhov (SKA-Neva St. Petersburg [VHL]): Knyzhov is a defensive-minded type from the SKA system, who did very well in that role (no points, but +5) for the Russian Selects during this fall’s Super Series tour of Canada.
- Nikita Makeyev (CSKA Moscow [KHL]): A playmaking rearguard, Makeyev has a goal in 14 KHL games with very limited ice-time this season. However, he has been lighting it up in the VHL for Zvezda Chekhov (10 gp, 2-6-8).
- Artyom Minulin (Swift Current Broncos [WHL]): Another player who can pass the puck with aplomb, Minulin is coming a 2016-17 season of 50 points (42 assists) in 70 games for the Broncos. He’s a little of that pace in 2017-18, but not much (32 gp, 5-14-19).
- Dmitry Samorukov (Guelph Storm [OHL]): An all-round defenceman with some attacking ability, Samorukov is one to watch for sure. Had a tough adjustment period to the OHL last season (67 gp, 4-16-20), but is already up to 4-11-15 in 32 games in 2017-18.
- Alexander Shepelev (Chelmet Chelyabinsk [VHL]): A team-mate of goalie Sukhachyov in the Traktor system, Shepelev has scored 2-5-7 in 23 VHL games this season.
- Vladislav Syomin (SKA-Neva St. Petersburg [VHL]): A big kid (6’3″, 207 lbs.) with something of a mean streak. Syomin was third in the junior MHL last season in PiM (156 in 55 games), and has 55 in 18 VHL contests in 2017-18. He also has six points, though (3-3-6), which suggests he’s not at all one-dimensional.
- Anatoly Yelizarov (Salavat Yulaev Ufa [KHL]): The former Edmonton Oil King joined Salavat Yulaev this off-season, and has, as expected, seen limited ice-time so far (14 gp, 0-1-1, 6:30 TOI/gm.). He’s mostly on the defensive side of the blueline ledger.
- Yegor Zaitsev (Dynamo Moscow [KHL]): All-round defenceman Zaitsev, who will captain Russia at this WJC, has been a full-time KHLer this year, albeit for just 9:30 per night. He has two assists in 25 games, which, given his age and ice-time, will do just fine.
This is a somewhat inexperienced blueline group as far as international experience is concerned, although we should not forget that six of them are in pro leagues this season, and several have seen time in the KHL.
If we can judge by the pairings we’ve seen so far in practice and in pre-tournament games, the duo of Samorukov and Makeyev will be the scoring threat from the back, while team captain Zaitsev will be alongside Knyzhov as a more defensive-minded unit. The rest will fit in where and how they may, and one of the big questions will be the deployment of Minulin, who also represents a potent play-making threat.
- Andrei Altybarmakyan (SKA-Neva St. Petersburg [VHL]): Altybarmakyan has gotten himself into 14 KHL games with SKA this season, though no points for him yet. In the VHL, he has scored 7-6-13 in 20 games, which is excellent; he’s a real scoring threat.
- Vitaly Abramov (Victoriaville Tigres [QMJHL]): He’s possibly the best pure scorer in this group, with 45 points (17-28-45) in 29 games in the “Q” this season after 104 in 66 games in 2016-17. Very much of the “small and skilled” school (he’s 5’9″, 172 lbs.).
- Georgy Ivanov (Loko Yaroslavl [MHL]): Ivanov is very much a two-way forward, or even a defensive one, although he does possess some scoring in his game. He’s had 13 games of KHL experience this year, earning two assists.
- Artur Kayumov (Lokomotiv Yaroslavl [KHL]): He’s actually kind of a smaller version of Ivanov, although with better goalscoring ability. He made his KHL debut last season, and has a goal and an assist in 16 games in 2017-18.
- Klim Kostin (San Antonio Rampage [AHL]): One of the more famous names in the Russian lineup, and now part of the St. Louis Blues organization. Kostin has scored 2-9-11 in 26 games in his first year in North American pro hockey.
- Mikhail Maltsev (SKA St. Petersburg [KHL]): He plays just 8:21/gm for SKA, but has five KHL assists in 17 games. Maltsev has also scored 2-5-7 in 11 VHL games this season — good numbers in both leagues.
- Artyom Manukyan (Avangard Omsk [KHL]): Just 1-1-2 in 24 games in his rookie KHL season, but recall that Manukyan (see picture above) won the junior MHL’s scoring title last season with a line of 39-66-105 in just 60 games. He can certainly score, and is a very important part of this team!
- Alexei Polodyan (SKA-Neva St. Petersburg [VHL]): In his first pro campaign, Polodyan has a line of 1-1-2 in 13 VHL games. He did, however, score 63 points in 51 games in the MHL last season, good for eights in the league; he’s a decent scorer, if not of Manukyan’s level.
- German Rubtsov* (Acadie-Bathurst Titan [QMJHL]): Rubtsov has had an ok season, with 25 points in 25 games for two teams in the QMJHL, but that’s slightly disappointing after he arrived in the league and scored 22 points in 16 games late last season. Still, he’s a very good all-round forward.
- Marsel Sholokhov (Traktor Chelyabinsk [KHL]): Barring one spectacular season in U17 hockey, Sholokhov has never been a tremendous scorer, and he still awaits his first KHL point after 45 games over three seasons. Will be relied upon mostly in defensive situations.
- Dmitry Sokolov (Sudbury Wolves [OHL]): A good sniper — he had 48 goals in 64 games a year ago for the Wolves, although he’s a little off that pace in 2017-18 (32 gp, 18-16-34). A real fireplug of a player at 5’11”, 220 lbs.
- Andrei Svechnikov (Barrie Colts [OHL]): He’s still only 17, but may be Team Russia’s best player already, with a line of 14-7-21 in 16 games for Barrie this season (time was lost to injury). A very impressive goalscorer, and he’s widely expected to be a top-three pick in the 2018 NHL draft.
The big question is: with whom will Svechnikov line up? He spent a lot of time at training camp with his Barrie Colts team-mate Alexei Lipanov, which made some sense, but Lipanov was a late cut from the roster. The third player in that group was either Kostin or Manukyan, depending on the day; either of those should do just fine for the tournament, and we wait to see who will take Lipanov’s spot (or whether the coach prefers a Svechnikov-Kostin-Manukyan line, which could be devastating to opponents). It will be a very important decision.
Two of the other lines appear fairly set, judging from the training camp. The three SKA prospects Altybarmakyan, Maltsev, and Polodyan should line up together, and should also enjoy some familiarity with each other’s in-game habits. Rubtsov, Abramov, and Sokolov, all three currently playing junior hockey in Canada, are another trio that seems fairly set at this moment.
Behind the bench, as mentioned, will be the 61-year-old Bragin, taking charge for the World Juniors for the fifth time (not consecutively, I should note). He is an expert youth coach, having also led the Russian Under-18 team, and the team is likely in good hands with him; it was Bragin who led them to gold the last time the tournament was held in Buffalo.
This roster will require some coaching, as it lacks a little bit in the experience department (a number of players are making not only their WJC debuts, but their Russian national team debuts at any age level). And although we should not put too much store in pre-tournament game results, Team Russia’s performance was far from dominant in both of their exhibition games. However, the talent level on the team cannot be seriously doubted; there are some players here capable of grabbing the World Juniors by the scruff of the neck if things go right.
At each of the last seven World Junior Championships, and in 12 of the last 13, Russia has finished on the podium — that’s the good news. The bad is that on only one of those occasions, in 2011 in Buffalo with Bragin in charge, did they win the gold medal. The quest to continue the medal streak, and break the gold drought, will begin on Tuesday against Czechia; Switzerland, Belarus, and Sweden will be Russia’s other opponents for the group stage. Given the unpredictable nature of the World Juniors, picking pre-tournament favourites is a fool’s errand, but this Russian team looks quite capable of being back amongst the leaders once again.
Thank you for reading!