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2016 World Hockey Championship: Team Russia preview

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Team Russia will count a healthy mix of NHL and KHL players on home ice, and seek their first gold medal on home soil in 30 years.

Matej Divizna/Getty Images

Russia will have a front-loaded team at the World Championship, and will look to rely on it's forwards and goal-scoring rather than a balanced lineup with strong shutdown defenders.

Habs fans will get to see how Alexei Emelin plays, as it could endear him to find his form for next year or possibly increase his trade value, giving Marc Bergevin a solid bargaining chip for what should be a busy summer. We'll also get a close-up look at Vadim Shipachyov, who might be looking to jump to the NHL as a free agent like his former teammate Artemi Panarin did last year. Montreal has been one team closely linked to Shipachyov in the talks of his potential destinations.

Russia picked up a silver medal in a loss to Canada in the final game last year, and was the gold medal champion the previous year in Belarus. They will be seeking to end their third straight World Championship tournament with some hardware.

Russia's head coach, Oleg Znarok is reputed to mix up his lines and juggle them repeatedly, so while projected lineups may be out there, it's difficult to imagine them staying the same for the duration of the tournement.

Goaltending is going to be interesting, with Gagarin Cup Champion Vasily Koshechkin not being named to the roster. 20 year-old Ilya Sorokin will be playing instead. Sorokin has only played a handful of games on the international stage, winning the silver medal at the U20 Championship last year. He's only 20 years of age but is coming in off a great year with Moscow CSKA both in the regular season and playoffs. The other netminder on the squad is Columbus Blue Jackets player Sergei Bobrovski. In 2014, Bobrovski was tremendous in helping Russia get the gold medal, and won the Goaltender of the Tournament award. At last year's tournament, he posted a 2.39 GAA and a .906% save percentage. It will be interesting to see who gets more games for the host nation. 

The defenders will come down to a coach's choice, as inexperienced call ups like Viktor Antipin and Nikita Zaitsev go up against to veterans like Alexei Emelin and Slava Voyonov. Again it's Znarok's call, but it's very possible we see some interesting fresh faces compared to previous years. This will be the first look at Zaitsev since signing a contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs. The 24 year-old is a solid two-way defender who can move the puck well. While he's defensively sound, he isn't a big hitter. He's a stark contrast to Emelin, who is the oldest blue-liner for Russia, and no stranger to playing a tough, physical game even at the international stage; in 2010 he was the most penalized player in the entire World Championship tournament. 

Team Russia is filled  with younger players, while Alexander Semin, Ilya Kovalchuk, even Alexander Radulov were left off the roster. Considering Shipachyov and Dadonov are almost a lock with Panarin, the first line appears set. The trio was dynamite together for SKA St. Petersburg two years ago and have great chemistry together. Then you can add Pavel Datsyuk and Sergei Mozyakin as experienced veterans, both of whom provide stellar offensive skills. The remaining forward core is a solid mix of younger NHL players and KHL veterans. It says something that even a skilled player like Ilya Kovalchuk can be so easily left aside, though he does have a history of being as disruptive to teams as he is offensively gifted. For their forwards, Russia has a wealth of offensive talent who will be counted on to be their chief threat.

Roster

Sergei Bobrovsky G NHL Columbus Blue Jackets
Ilya Sorokin G KHL CSKA Moscow
Viktor Antipin D KHL Metallurg Magnitogorsk
Alexei Marchenko D NHL Detroit Red Wings
Vyacheslav Voynov D KHL SKA St. Petersburg
Alexei Emelin D NHL Montreal Canadiens
Nikita Zaitsev D KHL CSKA Moscow
Alexander Burmistrov F NHL Winnipeg Jets
Yevgeni Dadonov F KHL SKA St. Petersburg
Pavel Datsyuk F NHL Detroit Red Wings
Sergei Kalinin F NHL New Jersey Devils
Roman Lyubimov F KHL CSKA Moscow
Sergei Mozyakin F KHL Metallurg Magnitogorsk
Artemi Panarin F NHL Chicago Blackhawks
Sergei Plotnikov F NHL Arizona Coyotes
Vadim Shipachyov F KHL SKA St. Petersburg
Sergei Shirokov F KHL SKA St. Petersburg

Strengths

There have been few lines that have been as historically dominant as the Panarin - Shipachyov - Dadonov line, who have been unbelievably fantastic both on the international stage and in the KHL.

Panarin is only one year removed from playing with them at SKA, and coming off a Calder-nominated season in Chicago. The chemistry and familiarity between players is going to be a huge plus for the Russian squad. Adding a veteran such as Pavel Datsyuk to the team is a big plus, and for a player possibly moving back home to play in the KHL, it would be a great opportunity for him to generate interest from KHL teams should he have a strong performance. Russia's forward corps is supremely talented and it's very possible they could roll 4 equally good lines throughout the tournament.

Home ice advantage could be a factor for Russia as well, as they host the tournament and look for their first home win since the fall of the Soviet Union. Russia has hosted twice since then and have only a single bronze medal to show for it. A strong roster paired with an energetic crowd could tilt the ice in favour of the home team.

Weakness

Russia's defence is questionable at best, outdated at worst. Alexei Emelin is neither an offensive threat nor the most consistently defensively responsible player. Slava Voyonov has still-untapped potential, but has been abysmal since joining SKA. Younger players like Nikita Zaitsev, Viktor Antipin and Alexei Marchenko have more offensive upside but are still relatively inexperienced on the Worlds stage.

As we saw in previous Euro Hockey Tour matches, it usually falls to the forwards like Shipachyov to begin the transition into the neutral zone, using his superior puck-moving ability, the younger core of defenders for Russia could change that, but the blue line remains their Achilles' heel. Physically dominant players like Emelin might be Znarok's favourites but are unsuited for the international stage. We saw with Montreal this year that Emelin's performances are dependent on the quality of his blue line partner, and thus the defence may only be as good as the coach's lineups.

X-Factor

Russia remains a one-trick pony on paper, with incredible skill up front. If their defence plays to its potential, or even slightly better than their average, the team could be a serious threat to win it all at home. If the defenders are sub-par, or if the goaltending goes off the rails, this could be a disappointing performance in front of home fans. Russia could use every advantage at their disposal and as such, it's likely they are making a huge mistake by dropping Kovalchuk from the roster. Nobody knows for sure what happened that resulted in his not being selected, but his goal-scoring talent and ability to shine in international tournaments are well documented.

Players to watch

Dadonov belongs to the Panthers, while Shipachyov is a free agent who appears poised to jump to the NHL as a free agent; he has been linked to the Canadiens in rumours but so far no deal has been signed. Each player has one year left on their current deals, but they could opt out in order to make the jump to North America. Both these players have been tremendous together and Dadonov was a key player for Russia at last year's Worlds.

As for Nikita Zaitsev, who just recently signed with the Toronto Maple Leafs.:"I'm not as high on Zaitsev as others, but he's worth watching. He was at the KHL all-star game this year and also was the highest scoring defender in the Gagarin Cup playoffs, tallying 13 points." said Russian hockey expert Cirno.

Mozyakin is a small winger with great hands and a very good finishing touch. He was Russia's leading scorer at last year's tournament with 12 points in 10 games played.

Ilya Sorokin is an Islanders prospect, and it is definitely worth observing him in a higher level environment if the Islanders wish to give him an extended audition at the NHL level. He won silver at the World Juniors last year, has performed well in the KHL, and with the national team.

Pavel Buchenvich can be seen as an overrated prospect by Rangers fans, but nobody can deny that he is a fun player to watch. New York are most certainly trying to pry him away from SKA, and with good reason.

Russia's defence and goaltending are going to dictate how the team performs in the tournament, as their offence is going to be a given. If their goal-suppression holds up and the team gets the offensive production it is capable of putting forth, they should be able to get themselves into medal contention in front of their home crowd, and possibly vie for a golden finish.

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A big thanks to Cirno for giving us a lot of in-depth insight into Team Russia for this report.