Team Russia leans heavily on KHL talent – and remains our gold medal pick

Matt Larkin
kovalchuk

The hosting Russians have released their 2014 Olympic roster and there’s an immediate contrast between their approach and that of their fellow European frontrunner, the Swedes.

My boss, Jason Kay, pointed out today that Sweden’s roster was familiar, chock full of NHLers. Team Russia has 10 players currently employed by the Kontinental League.

The top two goaltenders were locks: Sergei Bobrovsky and Semyon Varlamov. Bobrovsky has followed up a Vezina Trophy-winning 2012-13 with a highly pedestrian 2013-14, which has been abbreviated by a groin injury. Varlamov is suddenly in position to steal the No. 1 gig. He’s having the far better year and the assault charges filed by his girlfriend have been dropped. Without speculating on his innocence, the point is that the distraction is gone or at least reduced. The starter looks like a coin flip. The No. 3: not Evgeni Nabokov, not Ilya Bryzgalov, not Andrey Vasilevskiy. The spot goes to Alexander Yeryomenko of Dynamo Moscow.

Russia’s blueline lacks flash but includes plenty of capable, well-rounded veterans who move the puck well. Andrei Markov will quarterback the power play and his Montreal teammate Alexei Emelin overcame a bad start to 2013-14 to make the team anyway. The Russians will need Emelin’s fearless, gritty play against big power forwards. Columbus teammates Fedor Tyutin and Nikita Nikitin make sense as a pairing as well, so it appears GM Alexei Kasatonov is going for quick chemistry here. Emerging young star Slava Voynov is the squad’s most dynamic young blueliner and should see a ton of minutes. This should be a star-making tournament for him. The faces aren’t all familiar for North Americans, as Evgeny Medvedev and Ilya Nikulin made the squad too. Once again, we have teammates here, as both play for Ak-Bars Kazan.

At forward, let’s start with the key snubs. Alexander Semin’s poor season in Carolina cost him a spot. Last season’s hot NHL rookie, Nail Yakupov, is laboring through a nightmare sophomore campaign and lost out to this year’s hot NHL rookie, the beastly man-child Valeri Nichushkin. Across the pond, there will be some outrage over Kasatonov not including Evgeni Kuznetsov. The Capitals prospect graced the cover of THN Future Watch as the sport’s top prospect two years ago. He reportedly stayed in the KHL specifically to buoy his chances of making the Sochi team. Ouch. He missed two months with a shoulder injury to start the season, however, and hurt his leg two weeks ago as well.

The home side still boasts some of the sport’s most electrifying offensive talent. Alexander Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin and Pavel Datsyuk alone make the team good enough to beat anyone on any given night. We can’t forget about Ilya Kovalchuk, who terminated his gargantuan contract with the New Jersey Devils to bolt for the KHL this season, nor repeat defector Alexander Radulov. Both players have been out of sight, out of mind in North America but have the ability to star on the world stage with their scoring ability.

Viktor Tikhonov and Vladimir Tarasenko add more speed and youth to the forward corps, and strong-like-bull Nikolai Kulemin will be tasked with a defensive role.

With a whopping 10 KHLers on the team, Russia confirms the conspiracy theory that it would favor those who chose to play the pro game close to home. The lack of NHLers also makes this team hard to assess. Here’s a quick look at the KHLers you may or may not know, excluding Kovalchuk and Radulov:

Alexander Yeryomenko, G: Decorated KHL veteran goalie, tiny (5-foot-10, 165) and quick.

Evgeny Medvedev, D: Big, mobile veteran with a heavy shot.

Ilya Nikulin, D: Physical blueliner who also plays a lot on the power play and puts up strong offensive numbers.

Denis Kokarev, F: Small and KHL numbers have underwhelmed, but proven playoff performer.

Alexander Popov, F: Smallish veteran is Avangard Omsk’s leading scorer.

Sergei Soin, F: Expected to play more of a shutdown role, as is Kokarev.

Alexei Tereshenko, F: Shifty, smooth-skating center who can play an offensive or defensive role.

Viktor Tikhonov, F: A 2008 Coyotes first-rounder with good scoring touch, he was a KHL first-team all-star last season.

Compared to a star-studded roster like Canada’s, Team Russia may look underwhelming on paper, but this remains THN’s gold medal pick. The Russians can score with anyone, the goaltending is good enough to steal games when hot and the D, while definitely the team weakness, has at least been built to maximize chemistry. And we can’t underestimate the lift these players will get on their home soil. Their passion and compete level will never be higher.

 

FORWARDS HT/WT Birthdate TEAM
Artem Anisimov 6’4″/200lbs 5/24/88 Columbus (NHL)
Pavel Datsyuk 5’11″/198lbs 7/20/78 Detroit (NHL)
Denis Kokarev 5’10″/174lbs 6/17/85 Dyn. Moscow (KHL)
Ilya Kovalchuk 6’3″/230lbs 4/15/83 St. Petersburg (KHL)
Nikolai Kulemin 6’1″/225lbs 7/14/86 Toronto (NHL)
Evgeni Malkin 6’3″/195lbs 7/31/86 Pittsburgh (NHL)
Valeri Nichushkin 6’4″/202lbs 3/4/95 Dallas (NHL)
Alex Ovechkin 6’3″/230lbs 9/17/85 Washington (NHL)
Alexander Popov 5’10″/181lbs 8/31/80 Omsk (KHL)
Alexander Radulov 6’1″/200lbs 7/5/86 CSKA Moscow (KHL)
Sergei Soin 6’0″/185lbs 3/31/82 Dyn. Moscow (KHL)
Vladimir Tarasenko 6’0″/219lbs 12/13/91 St. Louis (NHL)
Alexei Tereshenko 5’11″/183lbs 12/16/80 Kazan (KHL)
Viktor Tikhonov 6’2″/189lbs 5/12/88 St. Petersburg (KHL)
DEFENSEMEN HT/WT Birthdate TEAM
Anton Belov 6’3″/185lbs 7/29/86 Edmonton (NHL)
Alexei Emelin 6’2″/219lbs 4/25/86 Montreal (NHL)
Andrei Markov 6’0″/204lbs 12/20/78 Montreal (NHL)
Evgeny Medvedev 6’3″/198lbs 8/27/82 Kazan (KHL)
Nikita Nikitin 6’3″/217lbs 6/16/86 Columbus (NHL)
Ilya Nikulin 6’3″/216lbs 3/12/82 Kazan (KHL)
Fedor Tyutin 6’2″/216lbs 7/19/83 Columbus (NHL)
Slava Voynov 6’0″/190lbs 1/15/90 Los Angeles (NHL)
GOALIES HT/WT Birthdate TEAM
Sergei Bobrovsky 6’2″/190lbs 9/20/88 Columbus (NHL)
Semyon Varlamov 6’2″/209lbs 4/27/88 Colorado (NHL)
Alexander Yeryomenko 5’10″/165lbs 4/10/80 Dyn. Moscow (KHL)

Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blogFor more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazineFollow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin