Even as Alex Ovechkin nears the end of his prime, he'll be a staple on Russia's 2016 World Cup squad. ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images)
Who cracks a hypothetical Russian roster for the 2016 Olympics? How many KHLers make the team? We attempt to navigate the difficult political exercise.
Only two teams left to forecast for the 2016 World Cup of hockey, and we've reached the murkiest entry. Team Russia is perpetually toughest to predict because politics play a role in the choices. How many KHL players will be honored for their loyalty to their country and make the team over superior NHLers? It's a delicate exercise.
I've given it my best shot below. Note the lack of right-handed shots on the blueline. It's typically better to achieve balance, but shockingly few elite Russian defenseman shoot right.
'Bob' should start for the Russians - if his oft-injured body holds up. We never know when his next injury will strike, and it's possible he'll want to rest up during the 2016 off-season. Assuming he plays, though, he's an outstanding choice between the pipes. For all his team's failures on home ice in Sochi, Bobrovsky posted a 1.15 goals-against average and .952 SP, with nearly identical numbers at the 2014 World Championship.
It's between Vasilevskiy and John Gibson for the unofficial title of world's best goaltending prospect, and Vasilevskiy has pulled ahead this season. The Tampa Bay Lightning waived Evgeni Nabokov for a reason. They believe Vasilevskiy has nothing left to prove in the AHL. He's the real deal, and he's only Russia's No. 3. This team is stacked in goal.
He's a perfectly capable starter if Bobrovsky doesn't work out. Varlamov was the main reason for Colorado's success last season, and he's hardly the reason for their struggles this season.
On the bubble: Igor Bobkov, Ilya Bryzgalov, Alexander Emerenko, Anton Khudobin, Andrey Makarov, Vasily Koshechkin
Cut from the same cloth as Darius Kasparaitis and Dmitri Yuskevich, Emelin is tough as nails. He's a good fit in a tournament played on NHL-sized ice surfaces.
He didn't make the 2014 Olympic squad, but we can't expect Russia to simply bring back every player from a team that failed to win a medal. The well-rounded, hard-nosed Kulikov will be 25 next summer and ready to make this team.
He'll be a cagey vet at 37 come September 2016. I still think Markov makes it, as the Russians lack true offensive defensemen now that Sergei Gonchar has aged out.
Combines veteran savvy with nice size and skating ability. The longtime KHLer logged big minutes in Sochi and at the 2014 worlds.
He feels forgotten up there on a terrible Edmonton team, doesn't he? Maybe the two-way defenseman can re-establish his chemistry with ex-Columbus teammate Fedor Tyutin.
He'll have to overcome several roadblocks to play at the World Cup at all. First off, he could be in jail if he's convicted of assaulting his wife. Secondly, the event is NHL-run, and Voynov is buried in the league's bad books. All things being equal, though, the Russians would need him for their top pairing. To be clear here: I'm not expressing opinion on Voynov – just predicting Russia would select him based on skill.
Nothing Tyutin does wows you, but he does a little bit of everything. He's fairly big, he can be a shutdown guy and he can chip in occasionally on offense.
Here's the boom-bust pick on Russia's blueline. It's a matter of if, not when, Zadorov becomes a true beast. Will it happen by next summer? Maybe, but blueliners his size take time to hit their stride.
On the bubble: Anton Belov, Sergei Gonchar, Alexei Marchenko, Nikita Nesterov, Ilya Nikulin, Dmitry Orlov, Anton Volchenkov, Nikita Zaitsev
Big, lanky and possesses a strong two-way game. He can center a checking line.
Coach Oleg Znarok likes Averin, who is coming into his own in his mid-20s and can be a depth center on this team.
Could the 2016 World Cup mark the Magic Man's final international tournament? Quite possibly, as the NHL may not participate in the 2018 Olympics, and he'll be 39 then. He hasn't played at the worlds since 2012, either. As long as his arms, hands and feet work, he's making this team.
It's a shame he'll never reach the milestones he could have in the NHL, but he's doing just fine in the KHL. He's still elite enough for Russia's top six, if not the first line.
He didn't sniff the Sochi squad but has since played his way onto the World Cup team. He's formed a powerhouse line this season with Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat. Plus he's still just 21.
The dazzling stickhandler's NHL breakout will come soon enough. He's still young. He also has a lot of international experience for his age, with 23 games at the worlds and 20 at the world juniors.
Just because he'll never score 30 goals again doesn't mean he can't contribute meaningfully. Kulemin has settled in as a good checking forward, strong as an ox on the puck.
Has been an elite player wire to wire for his entire career to date. He'll center Russia's top line, especially with Datsyuk that much older next summer.
Before anyone questions if this pick is a reach – don't forget, he made the 2014 Sochi squad during his rookie NHL season. Injuries have derailed his sophomore year, but he's still a monster power forward with a bright future. I'll move Nichushkin's left-handed shot to the left wing because Russia has a logjam of natural right wingers.
Not much needs to be said about Ovie. His physical peak is likely behind him, but he remains one of Planet Earth's greatest snipers.
The Russians will keep trotting the KHL's poster boy out there. He was inconsistent in Sochi, drawing the ire of Russian media for taking bad penalties in a loss to the U.S., but he sure does ignite the scoresheet on his home circuit. He's a virtual lock.
The way he's going with St. Louis during his breakout season, it wouldn't be a surprise to see Tarasenko emerge as the featured goal scorer on next year's Russian team. He'll flirt with 40 goals this year and 50 next year.
The legend's grandson made Russia's 2014 Olympic squad and absolutely lit it up at the worlds a couple months later with 16 points in 10 games. He's a solid two-way forward who can play wing and center.
Can play either wing and has absolutely lit it up with Metallurg Magnitogorsk in the KHL this year, playing his way onto Znarok's radar.
On the bubble: Ivan Barbashev, Alexander Burmistrov, Evgenii Dadonov, Mikhail Grigorenko, Sergei Kalinin, Denis Kokarev, Artem Panarin, Alexander Popov, Vadim Schipachyov, Sergei Shirokov, Alexander Semin, Alexei Tereshenko, Nail Yakupov
PRELIMINARY DEPTH CHART
Props to Andrey Osadchenko for consulting with me on these roster choices.
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