Coming off a second-place finish at last year’s IIHF World Junior Championship, Team Russia is expected to contend for gold at this year’s tournament. This year’s formidable squad is comprised predominantly of 19-year-olds. The Russians come in with the single best player in the competition, Evgeni Malkin of Metallurg Magnitogorsk, who will also suit up at the 2006 Olympics. Secondary scoring will not be a problem, though some questions remain in terms of the team’s back end, as well as the goaltending.
Coaching: Sergei Mikhalev will be behind the bench here in British Columbia, a first for the Russian Super League veteran, whose day job is with Salavat Yulaev. Vladimir Popov will be his assistant. The Russian coaching staff has made no secret about its strategy of relying very heavily on Malkin. Look for Mikhalev to use the dynamic forward in every key situation, though the Russian braintrust should be careful not to burn Malkin out before the Final Round.
Goal: Returning netminder Anton Khudobin of the WHL’s Saskatoon Blades should take on the top job in the Russian nets. The 19-year-old backstop has put up a respectable 2.70 GAA in 23 games this year, and he posted a .901 save percentage in last year’s tournament. The butterfly-style keeper will probably not see the volume of rubber he did last year, but will need to be sharp when called upon. Backup duties should fall to Ivan Kasutin. Neither goalie looked great against Canada in December 22 in Kamloops, allowing four goals apiece, but one shouldn’t read too much into an exhibition result.
Defence: Team Russia’s defence corps will be lead by Ottawa Senators draft pick Kiril Lyamin, a smooth skating 19-year-old who stood out as Russia’s top rearguard at last year’s U-18 tournament. Alexander Emelin is the team’s lone returning defenceman from the 2005 silver medal squad, and the Montreal Canadiens product will be expected to anchor his team’s backline and provide some leadership. Most of Russia’s defenders currently play in the Russian Super League, and their ability or inability to adapt to the smaller North American ice surface will impact where this team finishes.
Forward: The Russians have had little problem generating offence in past IIHF World Junior tourneys, and this year’s squad will be no different. Bolstered by a wealth of returning forwards from last year’s silver medal team, the Russians will look to Malkin as the catalyst of their attack. A 19-year-old second overall pick of the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 2004 NHL entry draft, Malkin plays a complete all-around game, drawing comparisons to Peter Forsberg and a young Sergei Fedorov. He is a certified game-breaker. The Russians will also look for contributions from two gifted snipers, Alexander Radulov and Sergei Shirokov, to help carry the team’s offensive load. Radulov has a lethal shot, and the Nashville Predators’ 15th overall pick in 2004 has amassed 71 points in just 31 games this season with the QMJHL’s Quebec Ramparts – three points shy of his totals for the entire 2004-2005 campaign. As the ninth-leading point getter in last year’s world junior tournament, Sergei Shirokov will again look to use his tremendous shot and speed to bolster the Russian attack.
Projected Results: Russia has been considered a tournament favourite from the get-go for good reason. With two highly skilled forward lines at their disposal, the Russians will be dangerous at even strength, but even more efficient on the power play. The Russian are favoured to finish atop Group B in Round Robin play, where they’ll face Sweden, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Latvia. With few question marks surrounding his team’s roster, Mikhalev will have to focus on getting his players to gel as a cohesive unit to assure a medal finish. This year, anything less than a berth in the finals would have to be counted as a disappointment.