Make no mistake: Kazakhstan faces an arduous task if the team hopes to stay in the top rung of the world juniors. The winners of last year’s Div. I-A grouping earned promotion through that tournament victory, with Belarus going the other way. But getting to the top level and staying there are two very different things, especially now that relegation is determined by a best-of-3 series (so you can’t fluke your way to survival with one good game at the end).
The Kazakhs will have experience in Victoria, thanks to 10 players still eligible from last year’s entry, but no NHL draft picks. Of course, the top-level competition will be much steeper as well, but at least this crew will have some chemistry to build off.
Leading scorer Artur Gatiyatov and defenseman Valeri Orekhov return, with Orekhov spending most of this season in the KHL with Barys Astana. The diminutive Gatiyatov has been one of the leading offensive threats on Astana’s junior team, where a lot of Kazakhstan’s WJC candidates are playing. All in all, four of the team’s top six scorers from last year’s Div. 1-A tournament can suit up in Victoria, which will help proceedings.
In net, Kazakhstan can rely on Denis Karatayev, who played the majority of games for the team last year and will undoubtedly lean on that pressure-packed experience moving forward. Another option is Demid Yeremeyev, Karatayev’s battery mate with Astana’s junior team. Yeremeyev actually has the better save percentage back home and a slight edge in appearances.
A key for Kazakhstan will be to suppress the urge to get starstruck by the big names around them. Some solid teams are trying to take their place in next year’s WJC, so the Kazakhs will have to be dialed in from Day 1. Most crucial will be their showdown with Slovakia and, failing that, a fight for their lives in the relegation series.