The 2014 Olympics cannot come soon enough. For me this is one of the more exciting tournaments in hockey and I would value it on par with the Stanley Cup Finals. I really appreciate the whole country vs country competition a bit more than a city versus city scenario.
The Summer Olympics have come to an end and Russia finished 3rd in overall medal count. Summer is nice and all, but Russia and Canada care the most about the Winter Olympic Hockey gold – that is the ultimate prize. The passion of these two countries to show who is the most dominant nation has been on display ever since 1954. Soviet Union, or the Red Army as Russia was known back then, mostly dominated the international play. This was due mostly to the lack of NHL stars or Canada’s best players participating in the Olympics. To settle the score, Canada and Russia held a Summit Series, which had a recent anniversary game with the best young kids from both countries that ended in both teams taking two games each.
While Grant Herschell took a look at the possible Canadian Olympic squad roster for the 2014 Sochi Olympic Games, I will take a look at the possible Russian squad.
Russia recently became the number one ranked team by the IIHF after winning the 2012 World Championship. The World Championship roster contained the following players:
The starting goalie for the team was Semyon Varlamov, who went undefeated with a 1.77 GAA and posted SV% of 93.9. His back up was Konstantin Barulin who went 2-0 with .50 GAA and a SV% of 98.48.
Wait, what? Who are most of these guys? KHL superstars, that is who! The reality is that due to relatively decent paychecks cut by the KHL these days, we have less and less Russian hockey talent in the NHL. The trend will likely not change, especially if the new CBA has any say on the entry-level contracts and how early a player truly can get “paid”.
While the hyped up stigma that Russian young players are all about the money, the reality is a bit more…well, realistic. If you get paid more to play at home where they know what the hell Borscht is, why leave? On the other side of this Russian coin we have a positive impact on the hockey scene in Russia. More money being pumped into camps and more youth is playing hockey again.
But before I get carried away on a KHL versus NHL and the unfair rep Russian players get, let us do some fantasy work and draft an Olympic roster for team Russia. I will use the same rules as Grant used. (Currently over-18 player pool)
One good advantage to having the Olympics in Russia is the ice. Most of the Russian players play on it every day and are used to the more room that is available on the European ice surface (big fan of it being introduced in the NHL). The problem here is who to pick. I mean last year the NHL only had 24 Russian players. T-w-e-n-t-y f-o-u-r. (I had to double check this statistic). What is worse is the fact that only four of them scored more than 60 points. Malkin, Datsyuk, Kovalchuk, and Ovechkin were able to eclipse the 60-point mark with Semin trailing behind at 54 points. Granted these five are not chop liver, but in the grand scheme of things it is looking kind of desperate. I mean Canada can lace up Stamkos, Giroux, Spezza, Neal, Tavares, Thornton, Eberle, St.Louis, Staals(all of them), and Sharp, Richards, Jamie Benn, and well the list goes on and on. They have 29 players who had more than 60 points and the 30th guy with 59 points was Rick Nash. Boo-Hoo, right?
So where do we get a roster to match Canada, and how did we win the last World Championship?
Well, Russia won because they can score and have a very underrated defensive game. The puck possession game eliminates the touches that the opposition gets and limits the opponent’s chances. Having said that I would probably suggest a roster along these lines:
Forward Line 1- Kovalchuk (LW), Malkin (C), Yakupov (RW)
Forward Line 2- Ovechkin (LW), Datsyuk (C), Semin (RW)
Forward Line 3- Radulov (LW), Shipachyov (C), Perezhogin (RW)
Forward Line 4- Shirokov (LW), Grigorenko (C), Zherdev (RW)
13th Forward – Alexander Popov
Now we can see a lot of offense from all four lines and this will create some interesting match-ups. The roster is dependent on the growth of two high-end picks from this draft in Mikhail Grigorenko and Nail Yakupov. Russia also has a very strong talent pool coming out next year, so things can still change. I see this roster putting intense pressure on any defensive corp. Semin, Ovie, and Datsyuk really lit it up at the Worlds and Malkin just killed it in the NHL and the Worlds. Yakupov has the hockey sense and that elite ice vision to dish the puck out while Kovalchuk has one of the heaviest and quickest wristers in the league – this math just works. Radulov is dominating the KHL and that is saying something (here is some mouthwash, Nashville fans, to wash out that bad taste he left in your mouths). Grigorenko is another young gun question mark. He did not have the best Canada/Russia challenge this summer, but he will play enough North American hockey to hopefully develop into a solid top-4 or top-6 player by the 2014 Olympics.
The defensive unit will probably be even younger than our forwards:
Defense Line 1- Markov, Nikitin
Defense Line 2- Kulikov, Voynov
Defense Line 3- Nikulin, Volchenkov
7th Defenseman- Orlov
The biggest question mark on the back-end has to be Markov. Can he be healthy enough to play? Gonchar will be too old to anchor the powerplay and we have enough talent to do that for us. Kovalchuk can man those duties on the first unit with Markov. The upside of the Russian D here is huge. With the KHL pumping money into the Russian hockey system we have started to develop more and more talented players, who also spend more time playing in North America. There has never been more money involved in hockey in Russia then it is today and the talent pool reflects that. With Kulikov looking to claim number two spot on the Panthers’ defensive depth chart and with Voynov and Volchenkov having played very well in the playoffs for the LA Kings and Devils, I see a defensive unit that will blossom just in time for the 2014 Olympic Games.
The weakest point in my opinion for the Russian Olympic team is the goaltending. Goaltending a year ago would have been a done deal. We had Bryzgalov. But after the less than perfect season last year (I’m being too kind, I know), I am not so sure. We do have some younger goaltenders coming into their own with Varlamov leading the charge. He performed in almost dominating fashion during the IIHF World Championship going with eight wins and zero loses. His NHL numbers are not as great but he only had one year as a full timer on a rebuilding Colorado squad, so there is room to improve. Bryzgalov would need to bounce back to claim the number one Russian goalie spot back from Varly. Andrei Vasilevski is another young prospect who has played well in the international competitions. He posted excellent numbers in U18 tournament in 2011 and at WJC in 2012, finishing both tournaments with an average GAA of 2.32 and SV% of .958. Unless he takes over a number one spot in the NHL in the next two years with some Vezina type play, which is highly doubtful since he is only 18, he will be the third guy in.
Goaltenders- Varlamov (starter), Bryzgalov (back-up)
3rd Goalie- Vasilevski
So while looking at the above line up and comparing to what Canada can ice, it seems a bit weak. The Russian National team has an X-Factor. No, not the vodka that may or may not be in their waterbottles, but in their new head coach, Zinetula Bilyaletdinov. He has an old school Soviet, defensive, puck possession coaching style, which helped Russia go 12-0 in the 2012 IIHF World Championship. This should be no surprise as he played defense for one of the most dominant Red Army teams to take the ice. Playing for them from 1973 to 1988 he got to play with the best of the best in the history of Russian hockey. You know what he can do that apparently no USA head coach has been able to do for the past two years? Motivate Alexander Semin! Semin had 5 points for him in 3 games. He also showed up in the Gold Medal game with 2 goals and 1 assist. So if he can get these guys playing to their potential during a World Championship, I am sure he will get them jumping through hoops for the Olympic games.
So there you have it. My opinion on the 2014 Russian Olympic squad. With a bunch of names that most North American fans have never heard of, but will surely remember after the 2014 Olympics!