By Andy Potts – IIHF.com
With club-and-country team-mates Pavel Kraskovski and Yegor Korshkov he’s established himself as valuable part of Lokomotiv Yaroslavl’s KHL roster, while he also found time to help the club’s juniors win the Kharlamov Cup, the top prize in Russian junior hockey, at the end of last season.
Now he’s preparing for his second World Junior campaign and is relishing the chance to go one better than the silver medal he won in Helsinki back in January.
“The World Junior Championship in Finland was great. I have good memories of it,” he told IIHF.com. “I think it’s important to participate in big tournaments like this, to play at such a high level. It makes a big difference in any player’s development.
“The only bad thing was that we couldn’t win it all in the final game.”
In Helsinki, Polunin played on a line with club mates Kraskovski and Korshkov, scoring three goals in the group stage as part of a troika that delivered seven of Russia’s goals in the tournament, including both in the 2-1 semi-final victory over Team USA.
This season the trio has also formed an effective line in the KHL, delivering a combined total of 42 points until an injury for Korshkov on 2nd December broke up the partnership. Head coach Alexei Kudashov has spoken of his willingness to give youngsters a chance, and Polunin – who moved from the Pingviny club in Moscow to enter the Lokomotiv organization – is grateful for that opportunity.
“Because of the coaches’ trust, young players gain confidence and play better,” he said. “It’s very good because it helps me develop and grow better and faster.”
His colleagues, though, won’t be joining him in Montreal, having already turned 20 and stepped up to make their debuts with the Russian senior team at last month’s Karjala Cup in Finland. Instead, the 19-year-old Muscovite is likely to be partnered by Kirill Kaprizov and Mikhail Vorobyov of Salavat Yulayev Ufa.
“It’s not quite the same as playing with Yegor and Pavel, because we’ve been together in one line for so long,” Polunin admitted. “But we’ve already found some chemistry with Kirill and Mikhail, we’re beginning to get a feel for each other on the ice. We’re making some good plays in the offensive zone and creating chances for each other, just like we do at our clubs.”
That partnership was seen to good effect in the recent Four Nations’ tournament, where Polunin scored three and Kaprizov one even as Russia suffered some mixed results against Sweden, Finland and the Czechs. And while Kaprizov has emerged as the leading rookie in the KHL this season, a strong showing in Canada could be the catalyst that brings Polunin’s name to the attention of even more NHL scouts.
Last summer, in an interview with championat.com, the youngster, ranked 52nd in the ratings for European prospects, admitted there had been tentative interest from North America but added that it was too early to plan for a crack at crossing the Atlantic. And that level-headed approach won’t change when he parades his skills in front of a bevy of scouts in Montreal.
“First and foremost, the World Juniors is a chance to represent your country,” Polunin said. “It’s an honour and privilege for every player and we all look forward to going out and giving our best, doing everything we can to win.
“I don’t pay special attention to scouts, I just want to concentrate on my game. Anything else is a question of time.”
Under the guidance of head coach Valeri Bragin, back for his fifth World Juniors behind the bench with Russia, there’s a quiet determination to go one better than last year and erase the memory of an overtime defeat in the final. But before that, in the group stage, there’s another classic rivalry that caught Polunin’s eye.
“I’m looking forward to our first game against Canada, because I never played against them at such a high level,” he said. “But our only goal is to win it all. We want the trophy!”