Wrapping Up Russia’s World Juniors
This past Friday, Canada secured a 17th World Juniors gold medal with an exciting 3-1 victory over Sweden, silver medalists for the 11th time. A few hours before that, the United States had secured the bronze, the country’s sixth, by beating Czechia 9-3. However, for Team Russia the tournament was long over by that point; a disappointing quarterfinal exit to the host U.S.A. team meant that Russia’s run of seven straight podium appearances came to an end. Read on, as the we look at the whys and wherefores.
We last checked in with the World Juniors on the eve of Russia’s quarterfinal clash with the Americans, and that game would turn out to be a close one. Kieffer Bellows gave the U.S. an early lead, although that was cancelled out midway through the first period by Marsel Sholokhov. Before the end of the opening 20 minutes, the hosts were ahead again, as Kailer Yamamoto beat Vladislav Sukhachyov in the Russian goal. The 2-1 score persisted until early in the third period, when — on a spectacular end-to-end rush — Andrei Altybarmakyan brought the Russians level again. However, with under eight minutes to go, Team U.S.A. went in front for the third time, on a bullet of a shot by Bellows for his second goal of the game. This time, there would be no equalizer, and a last-minute empty-netter by Joey Anderson added the final detail to a 4-2 American win. And that was it for Russia’s medal streak at this event.
So what went wrong? Something certainly did — Russia’s performance in the group stage, while not entirely dire, had contained some warning signs, and the quarterfinal loss to the U.S. was by no means an upset by the time it arrived. One major problem was the team’s powerplay, which tallied just once in 20 opportunities at these World Juniors, for a tournament-worst five percent success rate. That meant that despite a decent penalty-kill (85%, fourth-best at the tournament), Russia still finished up at -2 on special teams. So that was one major issue.
I mentioned in the post-group-stage update that Team Russia’s goaltending had not been very good, but looking back on the tournament as a whole, we can see that it was at least coming together; that factor ended up not being as significant as had earlier appeared. Vladislav Sukhachyov replaced Alexei Melnichuk two periods into the tournament-opening 5-4 loss to Czechia and played every minute thereafter. Sukhachyov struggled in his first two starts, versus Switzerland and Belarus, although Team Russia ended up winning both those games. Ironically, he was then very good in losses to Sweden and the U.S.A., making 40 saves in each of those games; certainly no blame for the defeats could accrue to him. Sukhachyov, from the SKA St. Petersburg system, finished with a .904 sv%, fourth-best at the tournament among goalies who played enough to qualify.
Perhaps the biggest problem was that Team Russia, this time around, lacked a world-class talent up front; unlike last season’s World Juniors, there was no Kirill Kaprizov or Ilya Samsonov to seize the tournament by the scruff of the neck. Much was expected, including by me, of young Andrei Svechnikov of the Barrie Colts, but Russian coach Valery Bragin opted to slow-play his budding star a bit. Svechnikov did just fine, with a team-leading five assists though no goals in five games, but he was not the difference-maker that many had anticipated. That’s ok; these were his first World Juniors, and he will very likely be back, and better.
After a disappointment of this nature, some attention will likely be payed to players who were not on the roster. With the tournament being held in Buffalo, would more North American-based players have helped? Perhaps. Svechnikov’s line-mate in Barrie, Alexei Lipanov (35 gp, 11-18-29) was a late and somewhat surprising cut from the roster, while Kirill Maximov (or Maksimov) of the Niagara IceDogs does not seem to have been considered at all, despite scoring 25-18-43 in 36 games this season. Big winger Nikita A. Popugayev, who earned two-plus seasons of experience in the Western Hockey League before returning to the CSKA Moscow system this past autumn, might have been another to consider.
On the other hand, the players from Canadian junior leagues whom Bragin did select had very mixed fortunes at this tournament. German Rubtsov of the Acadie-Bathurst Titan did alright, if no better than that (5 gp, 1-3-4), while Dmitry Sokolov of the Sudbury Wolves was ok as well at 1-2-3 in five game. However, Victoriaville Tigres forward Vitaly Abramov scored just one goal (and no assists), while posting a team-worst -4, and defenceman Dmitry Samorukov of the Guelph Storm achieved just one assist and went -3. The other Canada-based defenceman, Artyom Minulin of the Swift Current Broncos, failed to record a point but at least went even in plus/minus for the tournament. So perhaps “more North American-based players” is not the answer either, or at least not a complete one.
There were some bright spots, to be sure, in addition to Svechnikov’s performance as provider. Klim Kostin, the St. Louis Blues prospect now playing for the AHL’s San Antonio Rampage, led the team in goals and points (5 gp, 5-3-8), while Lokomotiv Yaroslavl’s Artur Kayumov was a somewhat surprising offensive threat with three goals and two assists in five matches. That tied him for second on the team in goals, with SKA St. Petersburg prospect Alexei Polodyan (5 gp, 3-1-4). And I would be remiss not to mention another SKA youngster, defenceman Vladislav Syomin; though he blotted his copybook a little bit by getting ejected from the quarterfinal game for a check to the head, he scored 1-3-4 at the tournament, and was the only Russian rearguard to record more than a single point.
All those numbers, however, are solid rather than sparkling, and therein may lie the answer as to why Russia’s medal streak at the World Juniors is over. Given the nature of the tournament, even the strongest hockey nations will sometimes simply have a year when the talent isn’t available, and that seems to have been the case with Russia this time around. If this was indeed something of a transitional year, next season should see some improvement. I have already mentioned that Svechnikov has a good chance to be back, but so do Kostin and the promising Samorukov. We will see who else emerges in the next twelve months, and whether the Russian Hockey Federation decides to leave the team in the care of Bragin, or search for a new coach in the hopes of starting a new medal streak.
Thank you for reading!