Host Russia could ice as many as 10 returning players at this year’s IIHF Ice Hockey U20 World Championship in Ufa. That’s a plus as coach Mikhail Varnakov’s team attempts to win its first gold since Buffalo 2011.
Nine of those players suited up in November’s Subway Super Series. (The exception was forward Nikita Kucherov, who was traded from the QMJHL’s Quebec Remparts to the Rouyn Noranda Huskies on November 21 after seeing limited ice time thus far this year.)
The six-game cross-Canada series, a warm-up for the World Juniors, pitted a Russian select team against all-star squads from the Canadian major junior leagues: the QMJHL, OHL, and WHL.
“It’s a pretty good tournament before the World Juniors,” said star Russian forward Nail Yakupov. “It offers good experience. The coach [Mikhail Varnakov] is trying to pull together our team for the World Juniors and make a great team.”
Russia prevailed in the series by a margin of 10 points to 8 with a 5-2 win over the WHL in Game Six in Victoria, British Columbia. It was just the second time Russia has won the Subway Super Series in the event’s 10-year history.
“Every league plays different hockey,” said Yakupov. “The OHL and the Q have more skills, and the WHL hits hard and has more hits.”
Yakupov, who was selected first overall by the Edmonton Oilers in the 2012 NHL draft, is the most high-profile likely returnee for Russia. The flashy 19-year-old right winger became the first member of Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk to hit the 10-goal mark this year in his KHL rookie season.
By contrast, goalie Andrei Makarov still remains undrafted by an NHL club. The Saskatoon Blades veteran, who has yet to earn a GAA under 3.00 in the WHL, jumped into the international spotlight in Calgary in January when he relieved starter Andrei Vasilevski in the semi-final against Canada. The hosts had roared back from a 6-1 deficit to make it 6-5 in the third period. Makarov stopped all seven shots he faced in the remaining 5:43.
He still has vivid memories of that night: “I don’t know why, but two days before, I felt like I would be going in the net. I told my dad: ‘I’m going in the net.’ I just felt it. Because I remembered two years ago in Buffalo, we had pretty much the same situation [with Igor Bobkov replacing Dmitri Shikin]. And with six minutes left, the coach told me: “Go in the net.” I said: ‘OK.’ You have to go in and stop the first shot. That’s so important for a goalie coming into the game. Canada played in our zone, and 19,000 people were screaming: “Go Canada Go!” That was an amazing feeling. You just have to be happy and do a good job.”
Makarov elevated his game to an even higher level in the 2012 final gold medal game. Sweden outshot Russia 58-17 but only won 1-0 on Mika Zibanejad’s dramatic overtime goal.
“It was a tough situation in the gold medal game because we lost in OT,” said Makarov. “But I tried to do the best I could to keep my team alive.”
This time, the 19-year-old Makarov will likely battle for playing time again with Vasilevski. The latter should be well-prepared to star in Ufa, as he’s spent the entire season so far with the MHL’s Tolpar Ufa.
“We don’t know who our starting goalie will be in the World Juniors yet,” said the affable Makarov, who comes off like a young Yevgeni Nabokov in person. “I’m going to try to keep playing well and we’ll see what happens.”
What about the other Russian veterans?
Mikhail Grigorenko will be a player to watch in his second World Juniors. The towering 18-year-old centre is vying to become the best Russian to emerge from the Quebec Remparts since now-perennial KHL scoring champ Alexander Radulov tore it up with 152 points in 2005-06.
Despite getting off to a slow start with Spartak Moscow in his first KHL season, centre Alexander Khokhlachyov will also have to put up some points for Russia to make noise on home ice.
And expect to see an impressive puck-moving presence from defenceman Mikhail Naumenkov. During the Subway Super Series, he tied with Yakupov, Andrei Sigaryov, and Maxim Shalunov for the team scoring lead with two goals and two assists.
Remarkably, Russia hasn’t won a U20 gold medal at home since 1983, when Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) was the host city in Soviet times. The biggest name to emerge from the ‘83 USSR squad was future NHLer and U20 head coach Sergei Nemchinov. We’ll have to wait and see who will replace 2012 Yevgeni Kuznetsov as the standard-bearer for this year’s Russian team.