The Russian Men’s Team at the Olympics
With no game for the Russian women’s team today, and the men’s tournament set to start on Wednesday, this seems the perfect opportunity to leap in and take a close look at the lineup that Head Coach Oleg Znarok has put together for the Russian men’s side. Of course, with the NHL sitting out these Games, the KHL was the top league to draw from when Olympic rosters were being drawn up. And that means that it is Team Russia that enters the tournament as the overwhelming favourites. So who has been entrusted with the task at hand, and can they do it? Read on…
- Vasily Koshechkin (Metallurg Magnitogorsk)
- Igor Shestyorkin (SKA St. Petersburg)
- Ilya Sorokin (CSKA Moscow)
Well, we know that the 34-year-old Koshechkin will be Russia’s starter for this tournament, at least to begin with, ahead of precocious youngsters Shestyorkin and Sorokin. All three goalies have been pretty much even in KHL play this year (Koshechkin has a .931 sv%, with the other two both at .930), but coach Oleg Znarok is known to prefer experience when the pressure is on. And Koshechkin, a towering figure at 6’7″ and 245 lbs., has been a spectacular playoff performer, which may be an important thing in a short tournament like the Olympcis. Over the last two KHL seasons, he has played 36 post-season games, and posted a .944 sv%; he was also, and deservedly, named the 2016-17 playoff MVP. Shestyorkin, simply because he plays for Znarok at SKA, may have a slight edge for the second-string role, but it is a very small advantage if so.
- Vladislav Gavrikov (SKA St. Petersburg)
- Bogdan Kiselevich (CSKA Moscow)
- Alexei Marchenko (CSKA Moscow)
- Nikita Nesterov (CSKA Moscow)
- Vyacheslav Voinov (SKA St. Petersburg)
- Yegor Yakovlev (SKA St. Petersburg)
- Artyom Zub (SKA St. Petersburg)
- Andrei Zubarev (SKA St. Petersburg)
Russia’s defence group has already had an injury to contend with; Dinar Khafizullin was forced off the roster early on and replaced with his SKA team-mate Yakovlev. Yakovlev will likely not suit up for the opening game against Slovakia, which will leave the under-rated Kiselevich as seventh d-man. The pairings for Russia at these Games will likely be set up along club lines, as Gavrikov joins up with his SKA team-mate Voinov, and CSKA’s Nesterov and Marchenko form another duo. The third pairing looks back to St. Petersburg, and the pleasantly alliterative Zub and Zubarev.
Voinov, the disgraced former L.A. King who “self-deported” from the U.S. after his conviction on domestic violence charges, is the top point-producer in this group. His stat line of 39 gp, 9-14-23 in the KHL this season is good but not great, which suggests that this is a “hold-the-fort” crew rather than guys who can be expected to chip in up front in a big way. On the other hand, they all hail from the two KHL teams with the best defensive record this season (SKA have conceded just 92 goals this season, and CSKA are even better with only 83 GA), so they are likely to be fully up to the task of supporting Koshechkin in the net.
- Sergei Andronov (CSKA Moscow)
- Alexander Barabanov (SKA St. Petersburg)
- Pavel Datsyuk (SKA St. Petersburg)
- Mikhail Grigorenko (CSKA Moscow)
- Nikita Gusev (SKA St. Petersburg)
- Ilya Kablukov (SKA St. Petersburg)
- Sergei Kalinin (SKA St. Petersburg)
- Kirill Kaprizov (CSKA Moscow)
- Ilya Kovalchuk (SKA St. Petersburg)
- Sergei Mozyakin (Metallurg Magnitogorsk)
- Nikolai Prokhorkin (SKA St. Petersburg)
- Vadim Shipachyov (SKA St. Petersburg)
- Sergei Shirokov (SKA St. Petersburg)
- Ivan Telegin (CSKA Moscow)
The names of Kovalchuk and Datsyuk are the ones that leap out at NHL fans — those two were among the very best in the world at the height of their powers, although both are past their hockey prime at this point. Nonetheless, they remain formidable talents, and Kovalchuk (53 gp, 31-32-63) is currently first in the KHL in points and second in goals. Datsyuk has struggled with injury this year, but has still contributed 35 points in 37 games. The 23-year-old former Buffalo and Colorado prospect Grigorenko appears to the be the lucky fellow who will line up alongside the two legends, even though Grigorenko’s 10-13-23 in 45 games has him only seventh in points among CSKA’s forwards this season. It will be an interesting line to watch, however, and not least because this is likely the last time that we get to see Kovalchuk and Datsyuk on Olympic ice.
The other Russian line that will garner a lot of interest at these Games is the one composed of Gusev, Shipachyov, and Kaprizov. Gusev and Shipachyov have been partners on the top line at SKA for several seasons now, first with Artemy Panarin and then later with Yevgeny Dadonov as their third (both Panarin and Dadonov are in the NHL now, and thus unavailable). This season has seen them alongside Sergei Plotnikov most of the time, but he was refused a Games invitation by the IOC. No worries: lining up with Gusev and Shipachyov will be probably the best young player in Russian hockey today, in the 20-year-old Kaprizov. Kaprizov has scored 15-25-40 in 45 games this season, which will be a nice complement to the excellent Gusev’s 53 gp, 22-40-62 (Gusev trails only Kovalchuk in KHL points in 2017-18, and that by one). Shipachyov has scored 9-16-25 in 21 games since returning from his attempt to make the NHL, so this trio has a great deal of firepower.
As for the other two lines, they will be called upon to do a little bit of everything, but mostly not to give up goals. Prokhorkin, Shirokov, and Barabanov are probably the de facto “third line,” as they can provide a bit more offence than the trio of solid lock-down forwards Telegin, Andronov, and Kalinin. For the time being, Kablukov is the odd man out, and like defenceman Yakovlev he will probably not suit up for the game against Slovakia.
So where does all this leave Sergei Mozyakin? The KHL’s all-time leading scorer, and probably the best player of the post-Soviet era never to have appeared in the NHL, Mozyakin missed a full month with injury this season, and is no longer young (he will be 37 by season’s end). However, despite all that (plus the off-season departure from Metallurg of his long-time line-mate Danis Zaripov), he still sits tenth in KHL scoring at the moment (42 gp, 19-23-42). All indications from Znarok are that he intends to use Mozyakin as a 13th forward, inserting him where needed — especially when Russia is on the powerplay. While I think that Mozyakin is worth a spot on one of the regular lines, it is not the worst idea; his game is based on finding space and exploiting unwary opponents, and 5v4 gives him extra opportunity to do so.
Datsyuk will captain the team in South Korea, with Kovalchuk and Andronov as Assistants.
Much has been made, and will continue to be made, of the fact that all but two members of the Russian team, including the coaching staff, come from either SKA St. Petersburg or CSKA Moscow (Metallurgists Koshechkin and Mozyakin are the exceptions). The idea behind this strategy, a throwback to the heyday of Soviet ice hockey, is of course that the players will be more familiar with each other. There is a certain logic to it, as well, particularly as SKA and CSKA are far-and-away the two best teams in the KHL.
However, the strategy comes at a cost, and if things go awry in South Korea, critics will point to the absence of a number of worthy Olympic candidates from “lesser” teams, especially on defense. Former Habs great Andrei Markov, now of Ak Bars Kazan, may be 39 years old, but he is still the top-scoring Russian blueliner in the KHL this season (53 gp, 5-26-31), and would look very good on the Olympic team’s powerplay. I could mention others: a former national team captain in wily old Ilya Nikulin at Dynamo Moscow, a player quietly having an excellent season in Avangard Omsk’s Yevgeny Medvedev, and Avtomobilist Yekaterinburg’s up-and-coming young star Nikita Tryamkin, who at least made Znarok’s short-list as a possible injury replacement. All four of the defenceman mentioned here have put up more points than Voinov this season, although to be fair all four have played more games.
There are fewer names that jump out among the absent forwards, with Ak Bars’ Vladimir A. Tkachyov likely at the top of the list (like Tryamkin, he was at least named as a reserve player in case of injury). Had Znarok chosen to cast his net a bit wider, he might have brought in forwards such as Spartak’s Alexander Khokhlachyov or Severstal’s Dmitry Kagarlitsky, both of whom have been key on teams making their first serious playoff bids in some time. A long-shot candidate might have been Amur Khabarovsk’s young Alexei Byvaltsev, enjoying a stunning breakout season at 23 with a stat line of 18-23-41 in 54 games (his previous career best, set last season, was 14 points in 56 games). However, the choice of team-building strategy has been made, and as I mentioned it has some logic behind it as well.
So roll on the men’s Olympic hockey tournament! The Russian team will begin its campaign on Wednesday, with a Group B match against Slovakia. Game 2 is Friday, versus Slovenia, before round-robin play wraps up on Saturday against the United States. Make no mistake, the pressure is on Znarok and his side; the combination of their nearly-undisputed favourite status plus the situation involving the Russian team’s very presence at these Games (officially, as you are all bored of hearing by now, they are “The Olympics Athletes from Russia”) mean that it could not possibly be otherwise. But this team is certainly more than capable of taking home the gold medal (that “favourite” status is legitimate), even if a short tournament can hide a host of surprises. In any case, it should be great fun!
Thank you for reading!