THN Predicted Finish: 3rd
Russian teams are usually loaded with high-scoring forwards and although the country’s entry in the 2014 World Junior Championship still has mighty firepower, it will be the goalie who determines its fate.
Tampa Bay Lightning first-rounder Andrey Vasilevskiy, pictured above, will take part in his third WJC this year. In his prior two appearances, he posted goals-against averages of 2.01 and 1.81 and save percentages of .953 and .950. Through 18 games with Salavat Yulaev Ufa of the Kontinental League this season, he had a 2.27 GAA and .923 SP. Vasilevskiy has been playing against men at higher paces all season.
As good as the Russians’ offense is, it hasn’t carried the team to gold the past two years. In 2012, the Russians lost 1-0 to Sweden in the final and last year the Tre Kronor knocked them off in another low-scoring affair, 3-2. Winning teams in these events almost always need a goalie to steal a game or two and Vasilevskiy is as qualified as any Russian goaltender in a long time to do so.
Besides Vasilevskiy, only four players return from last year’s roster and one of them (goalie Igor Utinski) didn’t see any action. Left winger Anton Slepyshev and defenseman Andrei Mironov are two others and though neither was a key contributor, both will be expected to bring more to this year’s tournament as 19-year-olds. The most important returnee, though, is Mikhail Grigorenko, on loan from the Buffalo Sabres.
Uncharacteristically, no Russian finished in the top 10 in tournament scoring last year. But as a 19-year-old with NHL experience, it would be disappointing – and surprising – if Grigorenko didn’t crack that list. The Russians have a few other candidates to lead the team, though, including Ivan Barbashev, the top-ranked Russian available for the 2014 NHL draft according to International Scouting Services. The 6-foot-3, 185-pounder scored 62 points in 68 games with the Quebec League’s Moncton Wildcats in 2012-13 and has improved that pace with 34 points in 27 games so far this season. Another QMJHLer, Baie-Comeau’s Valentin Zykov, will be expected to carry a load and, since he’s been drafted (an L.A. Kings’ second-rounder), will have more pressure on him.
Though the Russians aren’t usually recognized for their blueliners, Sabres first-rounder Nikita Zadorov will be an imposing figure. Zadorov played seven games with the Sabres this season and had a good overall showing, but was returned to junior for developmental reasons.
There are some notable omissions from the roster, however. Oilers third-rounder Daniil Zharkov not only made last year’s team, but moved to the KHL this season after two years with the Ontario League’s Belleville Bulls. Sergei Tolchinsky, a Hurricanes signee who is among the OHL’s scoring leaders, wasn’t asked back. And Valeri Nichushkin would have been a leader on this team had he not stuck with the Dallas Stars.
So although the Russians still have firepower, they elected to leave some of it off the roster. As a result, it’ll be up to Vasilevskiy to make up the difference en route to gold.