One could say that, with a new leadership and coming off a terrible Olympic disappointment, this World Championship comes with much less pressure for Russia.
Of course, to say that one would have to completely dismiss the country’s proud history and its “gold or nothing” mentality would be wrong. It is true that the new head coach Oleg Znarok will be given a lot of leeway, that building for the future will be emphasized and that winning three World titles since 2008 after a 15-year drought has decreased the sense of urgency for the Russian fans. It is true furthermore that the current mood in Russia in the wake of the Winter Games is that of cynical detachment.
But it is also true that the national pride, deeply wounded in Sochi, needs some healing. With that in mind, and with a number of NHL stars coming to Belarus to make their amends, at least a decent showing is needed. And, when it comes down to it, expected.
Semyon Varlamov of the Colorado Avalanche is now mostly associated in Russia with a poor performance in the Olympic quarter-final, but he has just completed a season that saw him becoming a Vezina Trophy finalist and leading his team to a surprising playoff appearance. But the physically and emotionally drained goalie will sit this one out, giving way to Sergei Bobrovski and Anton Khudobin.
Bobrovski, Russia’s only Vezina winner, didn’t match last season’s performance with the Columbus Blue Jackets but remains one of the world’s elite goaltenders. Khudobin had a good season with the Carolina Hurricanes, forcing the former Canadian national team goalie Cam Ward to the bench. The sublimely athletic Kazakhstan native is hoping to finally get a chance to shine on the international level.
The youngster Andrei Vasilevski of Salavat Yulayev Ufa and a first-round draft pick by Tampa Bay may also get some minutes in Minsk and, with any luck, repeat the form that made him famous at the 2012 World Junior Championship.
This is Russia’s traditional Achilles Heel, which was amply demonstrated in Sochi. This time around, the NHL contingent will be severely limited. Dmitri Orlov, who is still learning the ropes of big time hockey with the Washington Capitals, will get his first national team invite and Anton Belov, who has just signed with SKA St. Petersburg but spent last season in Edmonton, will try to improve on his forgettable Olympics. Ak Bars Kazan veteran Yevgeni Medvedev is a perennial national team member with loads of experience, but expect Znarok to check out some fresh blood as well. Alexander Kutuzov, for example, has been a stalwart for Sibir Novosibirsk and is only now getting his national team chance. Kutuzov knows Znarok from their brief time together at Dynamo Moscow, when the White-Blues “rented” the defenceman to help them with their title run.
Youngsters like CSKA Moscow’s Nikita Zaitsev, who made his World Championship debut last year, and Lokomotiv Yaroslavl’s Yegor Yakovlev may also get a long look from Znarok as he begins building with the next Olympics in mind. All and all, the defence once again will be the most suspect part of the lineup, which is only to be expected, this year in particular.
Russia, to nobody’s surprise, will be wielding more star power up front than anyone else in Minsk. NHL’s best goal-scorer Alex Ovechkin is coming from Washington, with a captain’s “C” waiting for him this time. But, with the exceptions of the Blue Jackets’ centre Artyom Anisimov, the Maple Leafs’ Nikolai Kulyomin and SKA’s talented forward Viktor Tikhonov, he likely won’t find many Olympians there.
Instead, the new coaches will be giving a chance at redemptions to those forwards who (sometimes controversially) were snubbed by the previous administration. This begins with Yevgeni Kuznetsov, Ovechkin’s teammate in Washington, and KHL scoring star Danis Zaripov. The list does not include Sergei Mozyakin, Zaripov’s linemate who broke several of the league’s scoring records this year. For reasons not yet explained, Mozyakin, whose omission from the Sochi lineup caused a big uproar in Russia, has declined the invitation to join the team in Minsk. The problem of player refusals has not been evident in Russia for quite some time.
There is some promise this year in the guys like Alexander Burmistrov, who is coming off a great season with Ak Bars Kazan and was a serious contender for Sochi, and Andrei Loktionov, ineffective at the 2013 Worlds, but eager to prove himself after finally spending a full season in the NHL.
Overall, Znarok’s offensive corps seems to bring more flair and less backcheking than his predecessor’s, but what else is new for Russia?
Notable omissions include injured NHLers Pavel Datsyuk, Alexander Syomin and Vladimir Tarasenko.
This is Znarok’s first trial run with the Russian national team, after enjoying tremendous KHL success in leading Dynamo Moscow to two straight Gagarin Cups. Previously, he was a popular head coach with Latvia who, in true Latvian style, gave a huge Qualification Playoff scare to the Czech Republic at the Vancouver Olympics.
Znarok’s reputation is that of a straight-speaking, down-to-earth man’s man who appeals to players and prefers traditional Russian, offensive-oriented hockey. In other words: a polar opposite of his predecessor Bilyaletdinov. Whether the change of direction will work may not be answered in Minsk, though, whatever the result. Znarok’s is a long-term project, with Olympic gold squarely in his sights.
With USA’s fielding what seems to be largely a lineup of unknowns, Finland will be Russia’s main Group B adversary. Not that, after last year’s loss to France, Russia can afford to overlook anyone. Considering how much stronger Group A appears to be in the Russian eye, a top-2 finish in the Preliminary round will be expected.
As is always the case, Russia’s ultimate goal is not a secret to anyone, but, considering the magnitude of changes and Russia’s perennial unpredictability, nothing in the range between the gold and a quarter-final exit would surprise anyone.