Kazakhstan. Definitely not the most prolific of teams entering the 2020 World Junior Hockey Championship. In a group stage where they will face Sweden, Finland, Switzerland and Slovakia, the Kazakh team is expected to finish at the bottom.
Last year marked the return of a Kazakh team which had spent the previous decade on the outside looking in, playing Division IA opponents at the level below the WJC. This year marks the eighth occasion they will play in the main tournament.
The country’s current best outing was in 1999, when they ended up in sixth place. A better result this year is improbable and not something worth betting your life savings on, especially considering what they showed us last year.
After gaining promotion in 2018, Kazakhstan ended last in a group consisting of three-quarters of this year’s opponents (USA replaced Switzerland as the final team). The Kazakhs had an inspiring effort against Sweden, losing only by three goals in a 4-1-game, but otherwise had a hard time competing on just about every level. The low point of the tournament was conceding 11 goals to Slovakia in the final game of the group stage.
Most insiders thought Kazakhstan’s stay in the WJC would be ephemeral, but an impressive double-header win against Denmark in the relegation round allowed them to squeeze through and stay up in the A-league with the big boys.
In 2019, Kazakhstan’s shining star was undersized forward Artur Gatiyatov, who scored five goals and three assists in his six games to finish a point shy of winning the tournament’s scoring title. Instead he tied for third, together with the Montreal Canadiens’ own Ryan Poehling.
Unfortunately for his country, last year was Gatiyatov’s last year of eligibility, meaning that others will have to step up if Kazakhstan wishes to qualify for the World Juniors Championship for a third consecutive year.
Team Kazakhstan final roster
|30||Roman Kalmykov||G||MHL||Snezhnye Barsy Astana|
|1||Vladislav Nurek||G||MHL||Altay-Torpedo Ust-Kamenogorsk|
|20||Maxim Pavlenko||G||MHL||Snezhnye Barsy Astana|
|8||Danil Butenko||D||MHL||Snezhnye Barsy Astana|
|7||Madi Dikhanbek||D||MHL||Snezhnye Barsy Astana|
|6||Temirlan Gaitamirov||D||USHL||Des Moines Buccaneers|
|18||Timofei Katasonov||D/F||MHL||Snezhnye Barsy Astana|
|3||Artyom Korolyov||D||MHL||Snezhnye Barsy Astana|
|23||David Muratov||D||MHL||Snezhnye Barsy Astana|
|24||Vladimir Shlychkov||D||MHL||Snezhnye Barsy Astana|
|19||Stanislav Alexandrov||F||MHL||Snezhnye Barsy Astana|
|14||Yusup Asukhanov||F||MHL||Snezhnye Barsy Astana|
|5||Oleg Boiko||F||MHL||Snezhnye Barsy Astana|
|25||Konstantin Bondarenko||F||MHL||Altay Ust-Kamenogorsk|
|16||Andrei Buyalsky||F||Kazakhstan||HK Temirtau|
|22||Maxim Chalov||F||MHL||Altay Ust-Kamenogorsk|
|15||Denis Chaporov||F||VHL||Saryarka Karaganda|
|11||Ruslan Dyomin||F||Kazakhstan||HK Temirtau|
|21||Nikita Lyapunov||F||MHL||Altay Ust-Kamenogorsk|
|29||Maxim Musorov||F||MHL||Snezhnye Barsy Astana|
|27||Alikhan Omirbekov||F||MHL||Snezhnye Barsy Astana|
|17||Vladislav Saiko||F||MHL||Snezhnye Barsy Astana|
|28||Ansar Shaikhmeddenov||F||MHL||Snezhnye Barsy Astana|
Kazakhstan’ hopes rest on Dias Guseinov, a slightly built 18-year-old who ranks seventh in the MHL in scoring this year, and has had a chance to prove himself with seven games with his team’s professional affiliate Nomad Nur-Sultan in the VHL throughout the season.
The strength of this team is not the players or their style of play. Instead the strength comes through continuity and familiarity. Kazakhstan’s WJC team is essentially a club team operating on a national level. Most of the players play together on a daily basis in the Russian Junior league, the MHL, either for Altay-Ust Kamenogorsk or, in particular, for Snezhnye Barsy Astana.
To add even more to the feeling of familiarity, Kazakhstan has chosen Sergei Starygin, head coach of the aforementioned Barsy Astana Junior team, to lead the players in this tournament. This means that he knows most of his players on a personal level coming into the WJC, something that should not be underestimated when it comes to getting the best out of a mediocre group of players.
The goaltender situation is unsure to say the least. Vladislav Nurek is in his last year of eligibility and has played solid for Altay-Ust Kamenogorsk this season, but has yet to feature for the national side this winter. Last season he got two opportunities in the U20 and racked up an 8.16 goals-against average and a .846 save percentage in those games.
Two teammates in Snezhnye Barsy Astana have shared the goaltending duties both in the club and on the national level. Roman Kalmykov has featured the most and is clearly a preferred selection for coach Starygin back home. However, he has not impressed during international games during the year, posting an .883 save percentage while with the Junior team, and has a disadvantage with being on the shorter side with his 5'9” frame.
That might open up a spot for his taller backup, Maxim Pavlenko. Pavlenko is only 17 years of age and with his two years more of eligibility is more of a long-term prospect for the program. He has failed to impress in his 11 games with Astana during the fall, but during his three-game stint with the national team he has put up impressive statistics, with a 1.94 GAA and .947 save percentage.
If this team should have any kind of a chance during the four group-stage games, one of these three goaltenders has to step up and play out of his mind. Do not be surprised if Starygin gives them all a chance to prove themselves during the first games to see which of them has the hotter hand at the moment.
Starygin’s go-to guy will most certainly be forward Oleg Boiko, partly because he is a returner from last year and therefore adds experience necessary for an inexperienced team. Most significant however is that Starygin made him team captain for his club side before the start of this season.
On the back end, North American supporters should keep an eye out for Temirlan Gaitamirov, the team’s only representative on this side of the Atlantic. Gaitamirov has dual citizenship (Kazakhstan and USA) and has managed to play for four different sides in the USHL in less than a year. Currently he resides in Des Moines, where he’s a big, mean, physical presence for the Buccaneers. Gaitamirov is not a creative player and will, with all likelihood, spend more time in the penalty box than on the scoring sheet. If you are a fan of heavy hits, this is your type of guy.
My hot take of the tournament? Kazakhstan will not advance to the quarter-finals. Instead, they will lose all four games in the group stage by a combined score of 5-33 and end up spending another New Year's playing for their survival, this year against Germany. Unfortunately, they will lose against a slightly superior German side, meaning that they next year will have to reboot in Division IA.