World Junior hockey 2013: Russia aims for gold on home ice

Richard Wolowicz

Russia hasn't had a lot of success in international hockey tournaments on home ice, but are loaded with talent for this year's IIHF World Junior Hockey Championship. Can Grigorenko, Kucherov and Yakupov deliver the home team the gold medal?

Traditionally, the World Juniors has been a battle between Canada and Russia/USSR with all the other nations just scrambling for the other spot on the podium. In recent years, however, while that dynamic still exists, challenges from the USA and especially Sweden have made the tournament more wide open.

However, in 2013, it very much looks like Canada and Russia are the two headlining nations once again.

Russia is looking to win its first major international tournament on home ice since the split-up of the USSR, and this is Ufa's first turn hosting a major IIHF tournament. Russia is going to obviously be a focus for the next 14 months or so in international hockey, so get used to these time zone differences. Sochi will host this year's U18 World Juniors and, of course, the 2014 Winter Olympics.

Depth Chart - Forwards
Left Wing Centre Right Wing
Yaroslav Kosov* Alexander Khokhlachev* Nail Yakupov*
Daniil Zharkov Mikhail Grigorenko* Nikita Kucherov*
Vladimir Nichushkin Yevgeni Moser Maxim Shalunov
Vladimir Tkachyov Kirill Kasputin

Yes, Russia is going with only 11 forwards. It's an unconventional choice, but in a tournament like this, having a fourth line at even strength isn't too importnat, and this will allow coach Mikhail Varnakov to double shift his elite players like Oilers first overall pick Nail Yakupov, Sabres prospect Mikhail Grigorenko, Panthers prospect Yaroslav Kosov and Lightning prospect Nikita Kucherov.

Most of all, this is a core of players that has played a lot of hockey together, from the U18 level to last year's U20 tournament and the Canada-Russia Summer Series. The combination of familiarity and elite skill will be tough to defend against.

There is skill and size throughout the lineup, and no shortage of options on the powerplay. If nothing else, Russia is going to give the fans in Ufa a show. The team was sufficiently talented that the decisions not to include players like Anton Zlobin or Anton Slepyshev is hardly worth criticizing, although going with 11 forwards doesn't give them a lot of options should injuries hit the team.

Key Player: Nail Yakupov is putting up goals and points in the KHL as a 19 year old, and could see his icetime increased with only 11 forwards at Russia's disposal. This is his tournament as much as it is anybody's, and it'd be shocking to not see him near the top of the scoring race at the end of the tournament.

Depth Chart - Defense
Left Defense Right Defense
Nikita Nesterov* Albert Yarullin
Kirill Dyakov Artyom Sergeyev*
Nikita Tryamkin Alexei Vasilevski
Andrei A. Mironov Pavel Koledov
Yaroslav Dyblenko

Because Russia decided to only take 11 forwards, it decided to take nine defencemen. This should keep the defence fresh and allow them to use some players in special teams exclusive roles, but I'm not entirely sure how one would juggle 9 D in a lineup. It'll be interesting to see how Varnakov manages his bench, and it is possible we see some D take shifts at forward as well. Nesterov, Yarullin and Sergeyev are the team's top defenders, and will log minutes in all situations.

Most of the others play regularly in the KHL, with perhaps the most notable cut from the team being Nikita Zadorov, a hulking 17-year-old playing in the OHL and likely to be a high draft selection. While these depth players may not be well known, they are already professional players, with the added advantage of being familiar with Ufa's ice surface, which tends to be harder to adjust to for defensemen.

Key Player: Artyom Sergeyev has played a lot of minutes in the QMJHL and for Russia's national team both last year and in the Summer Series, but as the lone CHL player on the back end it'll be interesting to see how he adapts his game. He's the key for Russia being able to match up well defensively against other team's top attackers, giving Russia two very strong defensive pairings, so his adaptability to the big surface is a must.

Goaltenders
Andrei Makarov*
Andrei Vasilevski*
Igor Ustinsky

Russia is the only team in the tournament that is returning both its goaltenders from last year's tournament, and they're both of high quality considering their performances for the national team in the past year. Makarov nearly stole Russia a gold medal last year with a 60-save performance in the gold medal game, while Vasilievski put up tournament All-Star quality numbers until he was pulled in the semifinal vs. Canada to preserve a victory in the midst of a late collapse.

Vasilievski is by far the better prospect, but Makarov has given Russia little reason to doubt him, though he's got a reputation for being incredibly streaky in his performances. It appears like Makarov will get the first chance this year, but should he fail he'll be more than ably relieved by Vasilievski, who is a dominant crease presence.

Tournament Outlook

Russia is in the "Group of Death" with Canada, the USA, Slovakia and Germany, so the team is by no means guaranteed an easy path to the medal games. Winning the group would set them up quite nicely with an automatic semifinal berth, and will definitely be the goal of the team.

Russia has had some very tough quarterfinal games in recent years, being upset by the Swiss in 2010, and needing overtime the past two years against Finland and the Czech Republic to advance. Avoiding the quarterfinal is definitely in the team's best interest.

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