Vladimir Tarasenko. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
As usual, the Russians are loaded at forward. But, as usual, their other positions leave some question marks. Will this team disappoint yet again, this time at the World Cup?
Larry David said it best during his
Saturday Night Live hosting gig earlier this month: "Stop, stop, you're going to be disappointed." Is that the best mentality to take with the Russians for the 2016 World Cup of Hockey? They tantalize us on paper at every international tournament but have fallen well short of expectations in recent years. We picked them to win gold as host nation at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, and they didn't even medal. Then again, despite the Olympic flops, they have won four of the past eight world championships. It's rarely a question of talent, especially at the forward position, which somehow seems to have gotten even stronger. But is depth at the other positions, namely defense, a bugaboo yet again? Here's my projected 2016 World Cup roster for Russia. As a reminder, teams must name at least 16 of their 23 players by the March 2 tournament-wide roster announcement date, with the balance of players named by June 1.
Sergei Bobrovsky Should have just as strong of a claim to the Russian crease as anyone, but a litany of soft-tissue injuries put 'Bob' on shaky ground. Will he be healthy enough to play? Will he want to risk another injury if he is?
Semyon Varlamov Varlamov isn't the poster child for durability but looks that way compared to Bob. 'Varly' has fluctuated between good and great over his past few seasons with the Colorado Avalanche and should be considered the favorite for No. 1 duty representing Russia.
Andrei Vasilevskiy Vasilevskiy has a higher ceiling than Bobrovsky and Varlamov and should see more opportunities to start for Russia in the years to come. For now, though, merely making the team is a nice vote of confidence. He's still just 21.
On the bubble: Anton Khudobin, Alexei Murygin, Ilya Sorokin
Alexei Emelin Almost every viable contender to crack Russia's blueline is a left-handed shooter, so we can throw out the idea of pairing defensemen according to which way they shoot. Emelin could find a home on either of the top two pairings in a shutdown role thanks to his physicality.
Dmitry Kulikov Nothing against Kulikov, but it's an indictment of Russia's defense when he projects as the team's best, most well-rounded defenseman. He's a perfectly solid top-four guy, rugged enough, willing to block shots and quite mobile. But Russia would be much more comfortable with him as a No. 3 or 4. Instead, they'll need him to play huge minutes.
Andrei Markov Markov can provide veteran leadership and run the power play. He still averages almost 23 minutes a game with the Montreal Canadiens, so he can handle a good workload for Russia.
Evgeny Medvedev Talk of him struggling in his debut NHL season was premature. Medvedev isn't flashy but has settled in as a steady presence who moves the puck swiftly and accurately on breakouts. Healthy scratches be damned. He can handle a top-four role in Russia's shallow D-corps.
Dmitry Orlov Orlov took longer to bloom than expected but has tapped into his offensive potential and is enjoying a moderate breakout year with the Washington Capitals. His scoring ability will play nicely on the power play – maybe on the second unit if the Russians decide to play four forwards. Orlov is still a bit raw, so he's better suited to the third pair. Coach Oleg Znarok can deploy Orlov in more favorable situations.
Fedor Tyutin His play has regressed this season, but he deserves a mulligan since almost every Columbus Blue Jacket has struggled in 2015-16. Tyutin's size can still come in handy as the seventh D-man.
Nikita Zadorov The gargantuan Zadorov is the type of blueliner who matures slowest, a la Zdeno Chara, but Zadorov's potential remains vast. The Russians would be thrilled if he elevated his play to the point they could use him in high-leverage shutdown situations. He's not even playing in the NHL right now, as the Colorado Avalanche demoted him to AHL San Antonio for more seasoning. He's thus a risky choice, but he'd bring something no other Russian blueliner could bring.
On the bubble: Anton Belov, Denis Denisov, Alexey Marchenko, Nikita Nesterov, Nikita Nikitin, Ilya Nikulin, Ivan Provorov, Slava Voynov
Artem Anisimov Feels odd to separate Anisimov and Artemi Panarin, but Anisimov makes for a nice checking-line center. He's long and rangy, he kills penalties, and he's a shorthanded goal-scoring threat.
Alexander Burmistrov I like Burmistrov as a complementary piece, the 13th forward, well-rounded enough to slot into an offensive or defensive role.
Pavel Datsyuk 'The Magic Man' will be 38 by the time the tourney rolls around. He's not the superstar he once was, but he's still a stellar two-way pivot. He'll receive scoring-line duty and important defensive minutes. He remains a crucial piece of this team.
Ilya Kovalchuk Kovalchuk turns 33 in April but still snipes at a high level in the KHL. His situation with SKA St. Petersburg is strange to the say the least, as he's been removed from practices and placed on an individual training regime, but it's hard to picture this team without him. He represents Russia in some major international tournament pretty much every year. He'll be there.
Nikita Kucherov Kucherov has the talent to play the right wing in Russia's top six but doesn't have seniority on his side. He hasn't played for his country since the 2013 World Junior Championship and has never cracked Russia's roster for the Olympics or the worlds. He's too good not to make the World Cup squad but may see fewer minutes than veteran staples like Alexander Radulov.
Nikolay Kulemin Edit the 30-goal season out and it's easy to understand what Kulemin is. He's a checker with a reasonable amount of skill, and he's extremely strong on the puck. A nice fourth-line piece.
Evgeny Kuznetsov Better to put Kuznetsov with his teammate Ovie? Maybe. But it's hard to see Kuznetsov leapfrogging juggernauts Datsyuk and Evgeni Malkin just yet. He can center a dynamite new-star line between Panarin and Kucherov. That would be a matchup nightmare for most opponents.
Evgeni Malkin We know what we get with 'Geno.' It would be nice to see him play a full NHL season, which he hasn't since 2008-09, but he remains elite when he does take the ice. He's your No. 1 center for Team Russia.
Vladislav Namestnikov We know Namestnikov can score, and he's underrated in his defensive acumen. He can fit on a lower line, no problem. Even though he typically profiles as a center or left winger, he's produced in spurts on Steven Stamkos' right wing in Tampa Bay this season.
Alex Ovechkin Ovie is Ovie, still the world's best goal scorer. Moving on.
Artemi Panarin The silky-handed Panarin has benefited greatly from playing with Patrick Kane, sure, but he's augmented Kane's game, too. He's arguably the most fun name to slide around Russia's depth chart, as it feels like he'd mesh favorably with just about anyone right now.
Alexander Radulov Still highly regarded as a KHL superstar. If he doesn't make the team, it would almost degrade the league, and the Russian brass aren't about to do that. Count on Radulov.
Vladimir Tarasenko Tarasenko is almost as important as Ovie on this team. Russia will need Vlad to fill the net in a prime triggerman assignment. The question is whether to create a super line, with him and Ovechkin sharing the ice, or distribute them across two deadly units.
On the bubble: Evgeny Dadonov, Mikhail Grigorenko, Sergei Kalinin, Sergei Mozyakin, Valeri Nichushkin, Alexander Perezhogin, Sergei Plotnikov, Alexander Popov, Vadim Schipachyov, Alexander Semin, Alexei Tereshenko, Viktor Tikhonov, Nail Yakupov, Danis Zaripov
OTHER WORLD CUP ROSTER PROJECTIONS Feb. 17: Team Finland
http://www.thehockeynews.com/blog/projected-world-cup-2016-roster-team-finland/ Feb. 18: Team Sweden
http://www.thehockeynews.com/blog/projected-world-cup-2016-roster-team-sweden/ Feb. 19: Team North America
http://www.thehockeynews.com/blog/projected-world-cup-2016-roster-team-north-america/ Feb. 23: Czech Republic
Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin