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With eye on the podium, Russia continues bringing talent back home

Alexey Marchenko was the latest Russian defenseman to leave the NHL to sign in the KHL, and Russia's Olympic team could benefit big time from the additional help on the blueline.

For fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Tuesday’s reports of Alexey Marchenko’s departure, which came a day after it was announced the rearguard had been placed on waivers, wasn’t really headline news. After all, Marchenko, who suited up in 11 games for the Maple Leafs, wasn’t really set to be a top-four rearguard for Toronto next season and hadn’t even yet signed a contract to return to the team next season.

For fans keeping a watchful eye on the upcoming Olympics, though, news of Marchenko’s three-year contract with the KHL’s CSKA Moscow means the Russian blueline will be that much stronger in Pyeongchang.

While Marchenko isn’t going to strike many as a top talent, the 25-year-old has shown over the past few seasons that he can be a contributor against some of the world’s best. Since breaking into North America in 2013-14, Marchenko has suited up in 121 NHL games, notching four goals and 21 points, while adding another six goals and 38 points in 104 AHL contests. Those numbers may not be commensurate with some of the top NHL regulars, but it’s clear that Russia sees him as a potential national team member. Look no further than the past World Cup of Hockey.

On a star-studded roster that included the likes of Pavel Datsyuk, Alexander Ovechkin and Vladimir Tarasenko, Marchenko was brought along to be a member of Russia’s blueline and played in all four games for his home country. And as a former member of the U16, U17 and World Championship squads, the hope, no doubt, is Marchenko can bring his NHL and international experience to the Russian blueline at the Olympics.

Adding NHL-calibre talent, even if it's middling at best, to the blueline is important for Russia, too. While there has never been any doubt about Russia’s ability to produce dynamic offensive squads, the blueline has always been a sore spot for the nation when compared to others in best-on-best play. However, with the lack of NHL talent, it actually appears as though Russia could be set to assemble the best defense in the tournament, especially given the other additions the blueline has made.

First, in early July, Nikita Nesterov returned to Russia when he signed a three-year deal with CSKA Moscow. The 24-year-old is far from an all-world defender in ability, but he’s definitely a useful hand with offensive upside who skated in 48 games for the Montreal Canadiens this past season, scoring four goals and 17 points in the process. And the signing that followed, and the real coup for the Russian blueline, was Ak Bars Kazan’s two-year pact with Andrei Markov. Despite his age — he’ll be 39 in December — Markov remains a gifted power play quarterback and reliable rearguard. Automatically, he gives the Russian defense a piece that possibly no other national team will have without the help of NHL talent: a bonafide NHL-calibre top-three defenseman.

And while it’s not help on the blueline, none of this is to mention that forwards Mikhail Grigorenko, Stanislav Galiev and Sergei Kalinin have also inked deals to head back to the KHL this summer. Are they all-star talents? Assuredly not. But Grigorenko (10 goals, 23 points with the Colorado Avalanche in 2016-17), Kalinin (two goals, four points with the Devils) and Galiev (21 goals, 40 points with the AHL’s Hershey Bears) all add to the depth the Russian national team can offer, a depth that far outweighs that of any other country.

And Marchenko’s signing, just like that of Markov, Nesterov, Grigorenko and so on, is simply another part of the plan the Russian Hockey Federation has had since the NHL announced it wouldn’t be sending players to the 2018 Olympics. Following the NHL’s early April declaration, the RHF released a statement saying it would attempt to keep its top talent in Russia and persuade top Russian free agents to play in the KHL, giving them the opportunity to suit up in Pyeongchang — an opportunity they seemingly won’t have in the NHL cut.

Russia hasn’t medalled at the Olympics, let alone stood atop the podium, in more than 15 years. Not since 1998 has Russia won a silver medal. And it’s been more than two decades since a gold medal was awarded to the nation. Russia is planning on changing that in February, though, and it’s starting with bulking up by brining any and all potential national team members home.

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