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Does Kazakhstan have the talent to avoid going from darling to disaster at world juniors?

Kazakhstan was the talk of the tournament, the lovable underdog, at the 2018 World Junior Championship. But the good times might stop rolling when the 2019 tournament comes around.

The darlings of last year’s WJC, Kazakhstan rode those good vibes to a relegation-round victory over a listless Denmark in Vancouver. But the challenge to stay up in the top rung of the tournament will be even greater in the Czech Republic.

The bad news is Kazakhstan has lost its top five scorers from last year’s event, including the team’s two best defensemen. The good news is there were enough underclassmen on the squad that Kazakhstan will have substantial carry-over this time, so there’s a nice dose of experience to draw from.

While Kazakhstan had no problem scoring against Denmark, the round robin proved to be more difficult. When facing traditional hockey powers, this program is still overmatched, and Kazakhstan’s most important games this year will be against Slovakia (who drilled them 11-2 in Victoria) and Switzerland. A quarterfinal berth is possible, but unlikely.

Should Kazakhstan pull off a round-robin upset, it will need returning guns such as Andrei Buyalsky, Maxim Musorov and Dias Guseinov to be at their best up front. Musorov has seen some KHL action with Barys Nur-Sultan this season, while Guseinov has been a point-per-game player in junior with Snezhnye Barsy Astana. That program is basically the host site of the national team, so chemistry shouldn’t be a problem for this group.

On the back end, lanky 6-foot-4 David Muratov holds intrigue, but offense is not part of his game. Goaltending, which is crucial for any minnow team in this tournament, holds no sure thing, though the returning Vladislav Nurek has been
excellent for Ust-Kamenogorsk of the MHL, Russia’s top junior league.

Make no mistake, however: Kazakhstan is the underdog of this tournament.

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