Winter Olympics 2014 preview: Russia men's hockey team

Ovechkin: The face of the 2014 Olympics - Bruce Bennett

We're taking a look at some of the top medal contenders for the Olympic medals in men's hockey this year, and next up is perennial favourite Russia. You may have heard that they are hosting this year and hockey is kind of a big deal there, so this team is going to be a focus whether they flourish or flounder in Sochi.

Roster

NAME POSITION AGE LEAGUE TEAM
Artyom Anisimov C 25 NHL Columbus Blue Jackets
Pavel Datsyuk "C" C 35 NHL Detroit Red Wings
Ilya Kovalchuk LW 30 KHL SKA St. Petersburg
Nikolai Kulyomin RW 27 NHL Toronto Maple Leafs
Yevgeni Malkin C 27 NHL Pittsburgh Penguins
Valeri Nichushkin LW 18 NHL Dallas Stars
Alexander Ovechkin RW/LW 28 NHL Washington Capitals
Alexander Popov C 33 KHL Avangard Omsk
Alexander Radulov RW 27 KHL CSKA Moscow
Alexander Svitov C 31 KHL Ak Bars Kazan
Alexander Syomin RW 29 NHL Carolina Hurricanes
Vladimir Tarasenko RW 22 NHL St. Louis Blues
Viktor Tikhonov C/RW 25 KHL SKA St. Petersburg
Anton Belov D 27 NHL Edmonton Oilers
Andrei Markov D 35 NHL Montreal Canadiens
Yevgeni Medvedev D 31 KHL Ak Bars Kazan
Nikita Nikitin D 27 NHL Columbus Blue Jackets
Ilya Nikulin D 31 KHL Ak Bars Kazan
Fyodor Tyutin D 30 NHL Columbus Blue Jackets
Vyacheslav Voinov D 24 NHL Los Angeles Kings
Alexei Yemelin D 27 NHL Montreal Canadiens
Sergei Bobrovski G 25 NHL Columbus Blue Jackets
Semyon Varlamov G 25 NHL Colorado Avalanche
Alexander Yeryomenko G 33 KHL Dynamo Moscow

Strengths

The Russians boast four all-world forwards, who would all make anyone's national team. Evgeni Malkin, Alex Ovechkin, Pavel Datsyuk and Ilya Kovalchuk have all been common sights near the top of various statistical categories in the NHL over the past 6-10 years or so, and remain the top players for the Russians as they look to duplicate what Canada did four years ago by winning Olympic gold in their home country's warmest city. The forward depth is pretty solid all around, with players like Alexander Radulov and Alexander Semin. Filling out the frontline offensive roles are youngsters like Vladamir Tarasenko and Valeri Nichushkin, who will be either playing on an offensively gifted fourth line or ready to step up in case of injury.

From the blueline, Andrei Markov can help out significantly on the power play, and Vyacheslav Voinov has seemingly emerged as the top defensive talent from Russia. Both should be able to log significant minutes. However, it's in goal where Russia is at it's best defensively, as both Sergei Bobrovsky and Semyon Varlamov have emerged as high end NHL starters in recent years.

Weaknesses

The Russians have some notable deficiencies on their blueline, and are betting on familiarity rather than assembling the best possible eight talent wise will work out in a short tournament. Six of their defenseman form three obvious pairings based on club play: Tyutin with Nikitin, Markov with Emelin, and Nykulin with Medvedev. That leaves Belov, the star of last year's World Championships, to pair with Voinov, their best defenseman. Which will make the best pairing, and is it really enough to counter the strong forward groups that Canada, Sweden, USA, Finland and the Czech Republic can offer? Also, do their forwards possess enough two-way talent outside of Datsyuk to match up with the best? Artyom Anisimov and Nikolai Kulemin are excellent defensive forwards, but the team went a bit overboard searching for another defensive forward by naming Alexander Svitov to the roster. Svitov is clearly the team's "Rob Zamuner", as he only plays third line minutes in the KHL, while former Winnipeg Jets centre Alexander Burmistrov sits at home despite being the best forward on Svitov's club.

Luckily for the Russians, some injuries have helped them make better choices, like adding Alexander Semin, but unfortunately they have left off some deserving players like Dmitri Kulikov and Dmitiri Kalinin on defense in favour of familiarity. They were also unable to add star in the making Yevgeni Kuznetsov this year due to him battling several injuries. Some other roster choices, while not as glaringly bad as Svitov, seem influenced by fickle things like sky-high shooting percentages (Alexander Popov over teammate Alexander Perezhogin, for example).

One other notable roster challenge Head Coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov will have to deal with, is to refrain from getting to know the players on a first name basis. Yelling "You're on, Alex!" could very well cause a Too Many Men penalty.

X Factor

The X Factor for Russia will definitely be with how they handle the pressure of winning on home ice. After a tough group schedule that places them with USA, Slovakia and Slovenia, Russia will have to be ready for the elimination rounds. One game schedules definitely makes winning against Canada or Sweden much more possible for Russia, but will home ice be a help or a hindrance?

Also a key x-factor: captain Pavel Datsyuk's health. He remains on the team despite being currently out with injury.

In total, Russia remains a dangerous club, with a lot of speed and puck skill, and they can ice the world's best PP unit. However, they have far from a perfect roster, and will likely need a bit more help from their capable goaltenders than Sweden or Canada are expected to require.

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