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2021 World Junior Hockey Championship: Team Russia preview & roster

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The collective effort will have to be strong if Russia wants to go as far as last year.

IHOCKEY-EURO-CUP-SWE-RUS Photo by VESA MOILANEN/Lehtikuva/AFP via Getty Images

The 2020 World Junior Championship ended in heartbreak for Team Russia. With 11 minutes to go in the Gold Medal Game, they were up by two goals on Team Canada and on the verge of clinching their first title since 2011. Suddenly, the Canadians brought out the heavy artillery, and within minutes a promising 3-1-lead had turned into a 3-4-deficit. Goaltender Amir Miftakhov – who surprisingly had outplayed Yaroslav Askarov up until that point – looked like a shadow of his previous self, and Russia did not have the strength to bounce back to even in the goal column.

The win was welcome revenge for Canada, which had been hammered by the same Russian team during the group stage. This cemented the valuable lesson that there is no reason to draw too many conclusions from the results in the group stages of a major hockey tournament.

Team Russia final roster

# Player Position League Current team (NHL)
# Player Position League Current team (NHL)
29 Artur Akhtyamov G VHL Bars Kazan (TOR)
1 Yaroslav Askarov G KHL SKA St. Petersburg (NSH)
30 Vsevolod Skotnikov G VHL Zvezda Moscow
7 Roman Bychkov D VHL Buran Voronezh (BOS)
5 Daniil Chayka D KHL CSKA Moscow (2021)
6 Semyon Chistyakov D KHL Avangard Omsk (NSH)
20 Kirill Kirsanov D KHL SKA St. Petersburg (2021)
3 Artemi Knyazev D VHL Bars Kazan (SJS)
2 Yan Kuznetsov D NCAA Univ. of Connecticut (CGY)
17 Shakir Mukhamadullin D KHL Salavat Yulaev Ufa (NJD)
14 Yegor Shevkovtsov D VHL SKA Neva St. Petersburg
9 Mikhail Abramov F QMJHL Victoriaville Tigres (TOR)
23 Yegor Afanasyev F KHL CSKA Moscow (NSH)
27 Rodion Amirov F KHL Salavat Yulaev Ufa (TOR)
11 Zakhar Bardakov F KHL Vityaz Podolsk
25 Danil Bashkirov F KHL Salavat Yulaev Ufa
21 Yegor Chinakhov F KHL Avangard Omsk (CBJ)
10 Vladislav Firstov F NCAA Univ. of Connecticut (MIN)
8 Arseni Gritsyuk F VHL Metallurg Novokuznetsk (NJD)
28 Maxim Groshev F VHL SKA Neva St. Petersburg (TBL)
22 Marat Khusnutdinov F KHL SKA St. Petersburg (MIN)
19 Vasili Podkolzin F KHL SKA St. Petersburg (VAN)
13 Vasili Ponomaryov F QMJHL Shawinigan Cataractes (CAR)
24 Ilya Safonov F KHL AK Bars Kazan
18 Yegor Spiridonov F MHL SKA-1946 St. Petersburg (SJS)

Strengths

There is quite a bit of firepower up front for head coach Igor Larionov to choose from. Even if Team Russia is missing that top offensive talent who already has proven himself against high-quality opposition, like an Andrei Svechnikov or a Vitali Kravtsov, Larionov should still be able to sprinkle some fairy dust over the whole competition with his top six. Look for Columbus’s unexpected first-round draft pick, Avangard Omsk sensation Yegor Chinakhov, as well as former Windsor Spitfire Yegor Afanasyev to lead Russia in goals.

Despite lacking that true number-one forward, Russia can come at you with two or three competitive lines. With a diverse set of skill and size in his forward group, Larionov will have the possibility to mix things up if the group stage starts out shaky (as it often does).

A second strength of this team goes hand in hand with one of the weaknesses of this roster. Team Russia’s defence is inexperienced, potentially nervous, and does not possess a stud number-one like Alexander Romanov. However, they should be alright anyway, considering the fact that they will have Askarov as their starting goaltender. The towering 6’4” Russian is one of the world’s premier talents at his position and is the expected crown prince to world-class netminders Sergei Bobrovsky and Andrei Vasilevskiy.

Weaknesses

There are holes on the defensive side of the roster. Guys like Artemi Knyazev and Yan Kuznetsov are solid defenders without a standout skill set. Shakir Mukhamadullin had a surprisingly good start to the season and gets solid playing time against KHL opposition, but is still very raw in his defensive game.

Instead, I recommend you to keep an eye on 2021 draft-eligible Daniil Chayka. He has taken steps forward during his time with the Guelph Storm in the OHL and has received playing time in the KHL for heavyweight CSKA Moscow this autumn. Sure, he has been sheltered in a limited role, as is normal for Russian prospects with the Red Army team, but just the fact that he gets playing time at all for such a strong team is a sign of confidence from his coach. Chayka is big and plays a well-rounded game for his age. He is currently expected to be a first-rounder next summer.

Apart from the defence, it is worth questioning how ready Larionov is to be a head coach, even at a Junior level. We all know of his Hall of Fame playing career, which certainly will provide him with initial locker room respect. The fact that he was part of the team last year as an assistant to Valeri Bragin is a second positive, since a few of the players will have already known him and his methods for over a year. However. he is – to put it mildly – an inexperienced head coach.

To some extent, the appointment of Larionov as HC reminds me of when Argentina hired recently deceased soccer legend Diego Maradona to coach their team in the 2010 World Cup. You are betting that the mere presence of a legend will be enough to provide a spark for younger players. There will be times throughout the World Juniors when tough decisions will have to be made regarding tactics as well as formation and, for Russia’s sake, I hope Larionov is ready to make them. Otherwise, there is the chance that he will be outcoached by less flashy but more weathered names like André Tourigny and Nate Leaman.

X-Factors

Askarov was the presumtive starter for Team Russia a year ago, but a poor start against the hosts from the Czech Republic saw him pulled before the end of his second period of play. He never regained the trust from the coaching staff and was used as a complement to the aforementioned Miftakhov for the remainder of the tournament.

This year, there should be no question about who provides the star quality for the Russians. After being chosen 11th overall by the Nashville Predators in the 2020 NHL Entry Draft (the highest draft pick used on a goaltender since Jack Campbell a decade ago) and cementing himself as a legitimate KHL option for giants SKA Saint Petersburg, Askarov comes into this year’s WJC with much more poise and experience under his belt.

You can read more about Askarov in our pre-draft article on him from last spring.

The possibility of watching him face off against USA’s Spencer Knight and Sweden’s Jesper Wallstedt should make hockey fans drool with excitement, since all three are considered world-class prospects from three subsequent draft classes.

Apart from Askarov, wingers Rodion Amirov and Vasili Podkolzin stand out as former high draft picks and high-end talents. Amirov has a slight build, but is quick in both mind and body. His technique and IQ should compensate for his lack of muscle mass.

Amirov took a semi-regular spot on KHL side Salavat Yulaev Ufa last year, and his efforts there were rewarded when the Toronto Maple Leafs selected him one spot ahead of Kaiden Guhle.

Podkolzin was initially seen as a potential top-three selection in the 2019 NHL Draft, but worries about his consistency and production arose during the months leading up the draft and eventually saw him drop to the Vancouver Canucks at 10th. Even if he still can look a bit young and gawky when playing in the KHL for SKA, he should excel in an environment featuring his peers. Big, strong and skilled, Podkolzin has received the ultimate stamp of approval from Larionov by being awarded the captaincy.

Podkolzin and Amirov will presumably feature on the top line for Team Russia, flanking agile Wild prospect Marat Khusnutdinov, a small but energetic two-way center.

Last but not least, we have to yet again mention polarizing prospect Shakir Mukhamadullin, a player who was deemed undraftable by EP Rinkside but ended up as a 20th overall pick this October. Big Shak is a physically developed defenceman with surprising skating agaility and a menacing shot, which he gladly unleashes. Unfortunately, his defensive-zone awareness and positioning have been lacking early on in his career.

Mukhamadullin has more KHL points this season than any of the forwards listed above. We’ll see if he’ll end up ironing out his flaws and proving the draft analysts wrong. He has at the very least been a mainstay on Ufa’s KHL team for this entire season, and should log heavy minutes in this year’s WJC. We’ll quickly learn if he is up to the task.