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Russia's World Cup team has firepower, but will defense hold up?

Ryan Kennedy
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Alex Ovechkin (Jamie Squire/Getty Images) Author: The Hockey News

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Russia's World Cup team has firepower, but will defense hold up?

Ryan Kennedy
By:

The Russians named their first 16 players this morning and the names up front are staggering, as expected. But who is going to get the puck up the ice to Ovie, Geno and Tarasenko?

Slava Fetisov is not walking through that door.

OK, he might, since the legendary Russian defenseman is a big-time power broker back home now - but he won't be wearing skates. And the blueline is the question for the Big Red Machine as Russia unveiled its first 16 roster players for the World Cup in Toronto this summer.

The list of forwards so far is quite impressive, led by dominating scorers Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin and Vladimir Tarasenko. And I still haven't mentioned Pavel Datsyuk or Evgeny Kuznetsov. So there's no doubt that Russia will have the offensive talent to hang with anybody in this best-on-best tournament.

But the big question comes on defense. Russia has named just three defensemen today: Andrei Markov, Dmitry Kulikov and Dmitri Orlov. What this says to me is that the team's brain trust recognizes where its weakness will lie and wants more time to see if any other players can step up in the last quarter of the NHL season.

Not that the ceiling will be particularly high. Some of the names to consider include Alexei Emelin, Fedor Tyutin, Evgeny Medvedev, Nikita Nikitin and Nikita Zadorov, but none of them are having successful seasons (Zadorov is actually in the AHL right now) and it's unlikely any will even make the playoffs.

Russia will be solid in net thanks to Semyon Varlamov, Sergei Bobrovsky and Andrei Vasilevskiy, but it could all crumble due to the defense.

We've actually seen this in the recent past already. Russia was drummed out of the Sochi Olympics early and got blasted by Canada in the final of last year's World Championship, despite having great talent up front and in net. Because it doesn't do you much good to have Ovie and Malkin flying up front if no one can get them the puck.

This will be the big challenge for the Russians: what happens when their offensive wizards don't have possession? Orlov has good possession numbers in Washington, but he also plays sheltered minutes. Markov is aging precipitously and this hellish season in Montreal can't help matters as he plays out the string.

Not only that, but there are no weak teams here; unlike the Olympics or worlds. This defense will have to repel the likes of Sidney Crosby and Erik Karlsson and all the elite buddies those players bring along with them. Russia has not found an answer to the world's top players in the aforementioned Olympics and worlds and the challenge is great here.

On the upshot, this team will have loads of talent and some pretty decent chemistry. Ovechkin and Kuznetsov have played together at times in Washington this season, while Artem Anisimov and Artemi Panarin have been amazing with Patrick Kane in Chicago. Sub in a Russian super-talent for Kane (Datsyuk, Tarasenko, etc.) and you could have magic.

So if Russia wins, it will be through goal-scoring. The goalies can get the job done, but don't expect any one of them to be MVP of the tournament - they will be solid soldiers. That defense, though...it could be their ultimate downfall.

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Russia's World Cup team has firepower, but will defense hold up?