Forwards and goaltending shouldn’t be an issue for Russia. But will a lesser-known D-corps prove to be the soft middle?
THN is rolling out team previews, twice a day, for each of the eight teams taking part in the World Cup.
- Sunday, Sept. 18 vs. Sweden
- Monday, Sept. 19 vs. North America
- Thursday, Sept. 22 vs. Finland
IIHF World Ranking: 2nd
THN’s Prediction: 6th
Who says the Cold War is over? Long before the World Cup began, the Russians made noise by including Slava Voynov on their roster. Voynov, who pleaded no contest to a domestic assault charge in 2015, is under suspension from the NHL, and the league vetoed his inclusion.
Looking at Russia’s D-corps, trying to bring Voynov back to North America was about much more than politics and saber-rattling. The Russians will live and die by their blueline. With Voynov out, their best defenders are Alexei Emelin and Dmitry Kulikov – unless Andrei Markov pulls off a stunner and reverses the effects of aging. Otherwise, there are a lot of green soldiers, such as Detroit’s Alexey Marchenko, Tampa’s Nikita Nesterov and Toronto’s Nikita Zaitsev. The trio has a combined 164 games of NHL experience.
There is also the stubborn matter of including KHLers on the roster. Not that World Cup organizers care, but these players are below NHL caliber and often struggle when confronted by the elite NHLers (Sidney Crosby and Jonathan Toews, for example) who play in this type of short event. While the Russians have faith in them based on their KHL play, where will they hide them on the ice in Toronto?
The Russians selected three such forwards. Elsewhere up front, the picture is far rosier. Vladimir Tarasenko is in his prime, Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin are still all-world, and more help is ascending from the kids. Just think of a team that counts Artemi Panarin, Nikita Kucherov and Evgeni Kuznetsov as second- or third-liners and you’ll understand how ridiculous the Russian attack is. Most importantly, this looks like a group that could gel nicely, assuming they row in the same direction. Neither Ilya Kovalchuk nor Alex Radulov made the cut, so the personality conflicts will be kept to a minimum. And no doubt there will be a great push to bring glory to Pavel Datsyuk, whose NHL career is done. How fun would it be for him to bring a title back to Russia with him?
In Oleg Znarok, the team has a bench boss who has been named KHL coach of the year multiple times – and longevity is difficult in that league. He has also helmed the past three Russian squads at the worlds, medalling each time (though the returns have been diminishing).
In goal, Znarok will face tough decisions. Sergei Bobrovsky played well at the most recent worlds, but Semyon Varlamov is just as capable. To complicate matters, young buck Andrei Vasilevskiy proved himself ready after taking over for an injured Ben Bishop during Tampa Bay’s run to the Eastern Conference final this past season. It’s a good problem to have, but Znarok must choose wisely.
This is likely to be the last hurrah for PAVEL DATSYUK on North American soil, and the World Cup is certain to have fans wishing he would have hung on for one last season in Detroit. Datsyuk has always been a brilliant two-way player, but he had the best international tournament of his career at the 2016 World Championship, tallying one goal and 11 points. Playing alongside many of the same players in Toronto, Datsyuk is poised for a terrific swan song.
The World Cup won’t be called as tightly as an IIHF tournament, but opposing teams should be on their best behavior against Russia. Alex Ovechkin as the power play triggerman is frightening enough, but there are six players on the squad who scored eight-plus power play goals in 2015-16. Ovechkin (19), Vladimir Tarasenko (12) and Evgeni Malkin (11) each finished in double digits. It’s a lethal dynamic that could blow games wide open.