Four years on: how ROC is evolving
by Andy Potts|19 FEB 2022
ROC's changing generations: Olympic debutant Arseni Gritsyuk (left) celebrates a goal with 2018 returnees Nikita Gusev and Nikita Nesterov.
photo: Andre Ringuette / HHOF-IIHF Images
Team ROC is going for back-to-back Olympic gold when it faces Finland in Sunday’s final in Beijing. But the roster that hopes to defend its title is very different from the OAR line-up that won it all in PyeongChang, both in personnel and outlook. Here’s a look at some of the key changes.

Four years ago, the Olympic Athletes from Russia (OAR) came into the tournament with a well-established backroom staff. Oleg Znarok took charge in the aftermath of the quarter-final defeat in Sochi and had an entire Olympic cycle to build his team. In addition, Znarok’s proven success in the KHL – he had three Gagarin Cups by the time he arrived in Korea – gave him a detailed knowledge of Russia’s home-based talent, something essential in building a roster without the NHL. Znarok came with Harijs Vitolins as his assistant, a well-established and successful tandem that had delivered results for the Latvian national team, Dynamo Moscow and SKA St. Petersburg among others.

By contrast, the current ROC team made a late decision on its head coach. Alexei Zhamnov was a surprise choice when he was announced in the autumn and his opportunities to work with the team were limited to three games at the Channel 1 Cup. Moreover, Zhamnov has little experience as a head coach, with just one season behind the bench at Spartak Moscow in the KHL. Among the coaching staff, Alexei Kudashov brought experience of life as a head coach, including a season in charge of Russia’s national team, but his colleagues Sergei Fyodorov and Sergei Gonchar are both in the early stages of their coaching careers.

The contrast between Znarok and Zhamnov is not limited to their coaching experience. The way in which they have built their teams is also distinctive. Under Znarok, the Russians revelled in a siege mentality. The head coach displayed the same bristly personality he showed as a player and his terse interaction with the media became notorious. For the players who bought in, he fostered a powerful team spirit; for those whose faces didn’t fit, there was no way back.

Zhamnov, by contrast, adopts a more approachable tone when dealing with even the most demanding sections of the Russian media. But don't expect that to bring an open and expansive playing style. Instead, Team ROC has come to China with a cautious, disciplined gameplan somewhat at odds with the country’s traditions of swashbuckling, free-scoring hockey. Indeed, the loudest complaints back home have focussed on a lack of invention among the forwards and – with the exception of that barnstorming game against Czechia – a string of tight, low-scoring games. That’s a stark contrast from 2018, when Znarok’s OAR blazed through the group with 14 goals in three games and went on to thrash Norway 6-1 in the quarter-final before finishing the tournament with a 27-9 goal difference.

Naming a Russian roster is something of a thankless task, with 140 million armchair experts on hand to complain about the minutiae of any line-up. Sure enough, the 2022 selection has taken flack over the omission of SKA St. Petersburg forwards Andrei Kuzmenko and Anton Burdasov. Kuzmenko, currently second in KHL scoring, was said to be injured when he left the team at the start of February. Since then, however, he has played exhibition games for his club. Teammate Burdasov, an experienced and consistent scorer in the KHL, also had strong advocates – and after pallid offensive displays against Switzerland and Denmark, many were quick to suggest that things would be different with these two on the team.

But this is nothing new. In 2018, Znarok was accused of picking his favourites – most notably the workmanlike Ilya Kablukov – rather than reaching for the best available from the KHL. In Znarok’s case, that was hardly a surprise: his entire coaching career has revolved around assembling a team of players who he believes in and getting the maximum from the skill sets they can bring. Zhamnov will argue that ROC 2022 is following the same principle of picking individuals for a specific role; and if he brings home another gold, that choice will be amply vindicated.

Before the Games, there were question marks over the ROC netminding. SKA’s Alexander Samonov had the most international experience but is enduring a difficult season with his club and has barely played in the KHL this season. Both Ivan Fedotov and Timur Bilyalov are well respected in the KHL, but neither has any significant tournament experience at this level and Fedotov is competing with Sweden’s Adam Reideborn for the #1 role at CSKA Moscow. In the event, Fedotov has been one of the revelations of the Games: his 202cm frame has been an almost impregnable barrier for most opponents, with only the Czechs finding a way past him in that wild shoot-out win in the group stage. Fedotov has played every minute in China and is set to start once again in the gold medal game.

Back in 2018, there was no doubt about the quality of the OAR's last line of defence. Veteran Vasili Koshechkin went to PyeongChang as a two-time KHL champion and started all six games on the way to gold. Ilya Sorokin, then of CSKA Moscow, got the only other look when he played the third period of an 8-2 win over Slovenia in the group stage. Igor Shestyorkin, then a hotly-tipped prospect at SKA, was the unused third goalie.

Three big players from 2018 are back this time. Nikita Nesterov, Yegor Yakovlev and Vyacheslav Voinov all featured four years ago. Voinov led the team in minutes, playing 122:25 ahead of Nesterov’s 110:07. All three are leaders here alongside the next generation, spearheaded by 20-year-old Alexei Nikishin, a Hurricanes pick currently at Spartak Moscow. Again, though, Zhamnov has been happy to bring in players with little international experience: apart from Nikishin, Sergei Telegin and Damir Sharipzyanov are enjoying their first major tournament. With ROC typically stifling most opponents – Czechia aside, the team has allowed just two goals in its four games against Sweden, Switzerland and Denmark (x2).

Here, too, there are familiar faces. As in 2018, Nikita Gusev leads the scoring. This time, though, he has five assists to his credit rather than the tournament leading 12 (4+8) points he compiled in PyeongChang. Indeed, the Gusev of 2022 is a different character from the 2018 edition: back then, he was on the rise, enjoying his most productive season in the KHL and looking ready to make a reputation as a major star. Four years later, after an NHL career that flickered without ever quite igniting, he’s back in Russia and risks being a player with his best moments behind him. That said, he had a hand in all four OAR goals in the final last time; a repeat of that kind of game-winning performance would surely cement his reputation.

Part of Gusev’s problem might stem from the ROC’s cautious offensive approach. This time does not boast the established top-level know-how of the likes of Pavel Datsyuk and Ilya Kovalchuk. Nor does it have a prospect of the calibre of Kirill Kaprizov – Arseni Gritsyuk may aspire to that level, but he is nowhere near as polished as the Wild’s leading light was four years ago. Then there is the enigma of team captain Vadim Shipachyov, who featured in just one game in Korea and was not recalled to a tournament roster until this month. At his best, he can score heavily – evidenced by 47 points in 37 World Championship games – but the prolific centre is not producing his most effective hockey on this team.