Newly promoted from Division I, Kazakhstan could end up sealing its fate for good or ill very early on at the 2014 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship.
The former Soviet republic kicks off its schedule with three crucial games against fellow lower-tier opponents: Germany (May 10), host Belarus (May 12), and Latvia (May 13). If new Finnish coach Ari-Pekka Selin can’t inspire his troops to collect some points in that stretch, they’re unlikely to win any of their last four clashes with medal contenders like Russia, the United States, Switzerland, and Finland.
Let’s put in perspective the challenge that Kazakhstan faces at this tournament. Arguably its greatest achievement in senior IIHF competition was managing to stay in the top division for two consecutive years (2004, 2005). This is Kazakhstan’s seventh all-time appearance at the Worlds, and the last two times, it finished dead last (16th).
Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city, is up against four other bids to host the 2022 Winter Olympics. A positive showing this year in hockey – the marquee Winter Olympic team sport – surely wouldn’t hurt the Almaty bid. But Selin’s aging group has a figurative hill to climb that’s as tall as Khan Tengri, Kazakhstan’s highest mountain at 7,010 metres.
Kazakhstan's best goalies are two 30-something KHL veterans, both with less than 10 games of NHL experience. Normally they'd split duties between the pipes in Minsk. However, it appears likely that Vitali Yeremeyev will get the nod as the starter since Vitali Kolesnik is injured.
This season, Yeremeyev played 20 games for Barys Astana with a 3.01 GAA and 90.6 save percentage. Kolesnik backed up workhorse Curtis Sanford with Lokomotiv Yaroslavl this season, recording a 1.51 GAA and 94.6 save percentage in 19 appearances.
Despite Kazakhstan’s failure to earn a spot at the 2014 Olympics, Yeremeyev played well in the qualification tournament in Latvia, starting in two out of his nation’s three games and earning a 6-0 shutout against Great Britain. Kolesnik, however, earned two shutouts in Division I Group A play a couple of months later, including the 3-0 win over Italy that lifted Kazakhstan back into the elite 16 this year.
If Yeremeyev isn't sharp and consistent, it will be difficult for this team to go anywhere. Backing him up will be Spartak Moscow's Alexei Ivanov and Barys Astana prospect Pavel Poluektov.
The biggest star on Kazakhstan’s blue line is a naturalized Canadian. Kevin Dallman, who led Barys Astana for four years before jumping to SKA St. Petersburg for the last two seasons, is the most prolific defenceman in KHL history with 239 career points. A veteran of 151 NHL games with Boston and Los Angeles, Dallman surpassed Vyacheslav Fetisov’s Russian scoring record for defencemen in 2008-09 with 58 points. The 33-year-old will need to spark Kazakhstan’s power play with his savvy puck movement and heavy point shot.
Other key rearguards will include 34-year-old Barys assistant captain Yevgeni Blokhin, who tied for the team lead in plus-minus (+5) in Division I play last year, and his 25-year-old teammate Roman Savchenko, a two-way threat who had a career-high six points in 10 KHL playoff games this season. As the World Championship wears on, it will be difficult for the Kazakh defencemen to maintain the necessary speed and physicality.
Kazakhstan has no current NHLers, and must hope that chemistry and cohesiveness among its Barys-based forwards will generate some scoring.
Despite logging close to 800 NHL games, Nikolai Antropov hasn’t represented his country since the 2006 Olympics, and offensive expectations shouldn’t be too high for the hulking 34-year-old centreman. He had 26 points in just 36 appearances this season.
Nifty pivot Roman Starchenko was the top non-North American gun for Barys this season, with 18 goals and 34 points in 53 games.
Talgat Zhailauov suffered a very unfortunate injury during the KHL playoffs, as fans at the Astana airport tossed him in the air to celebrate their club’s first-round sweep of Avtomobilist Yekaterinburg and wound up dropping him on his head, giving him a concussion. Hopefully the 29-year-old, who served as an assistant captain in Kazakhstan’s last top-division run in 2012, will be ready to contribute again in Minsk.
The playmaking of 30-year-old Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod winger Vadim Krasnoslobodtsev (7-21-28 this season) could also come in handy. But all the forwards will need to be conscientious about backchecking at this level. Remember, Kazakhstan was outscored by a whopping 33-11 margin in 2012 in Helsinki. This group cannot afford to play run-and-gun hockey.
With little fanfare, Ari-Pekka Selin has put together a solid coaching career that goes back more than 20 years, mostly spent in Finland’s Liiga with perennial playoff outsiders SaiPa Lappeenranta. Selin also served as an assistant coach for the fourth-place Finnish team at last year’s Worlds, and Jukka Jalonen expressed an interest in hiring him in the same role with SKA St. Petersburg, but he was unable to get out of his contract with HPK Hameenlinna.
Last June, the 50-year-old Pori native replaced Vladimir Krikunov (the ex-national team coach of both Russian and Belarus) as the bench boss of both Kazakhstan and Barys Astana. Selin must urge his team to play good defence. Barys scored 182 goals but allowed 157 goals this season, topping both categories among playoff-bound KHL clubs.
Selin will be assisted by a Finnish legend in Raimo Helminen. Also 50, the Tampere native shares the record for most Olympics by a hockey player (six) with Teemu Selanne. He joined Selin with Barys this season after spending the last four seasons serving as a coach with Ilves and the Finnish U20 team.
Relegation is likely, but not inevitable. Kazakhstan’s fortunes could turn sunny with an early victory over the Latvians (who will have a tough time matching the gutsy fight they put up in a 2-1 loss to Canada in Sochi) or the Belarusians (who will be feeling the full weight of home-ice pressure in the biggest sports event their country has ever hosted). But this country, whose economy relies heavily on the energy sector, will need to keep its proverbial foot on the proverbial gas pedal to have any hope.