By Steven Ellis – Eurohockey.com
Russia has been the runner-up two years in a row. Now, back on North American soil, they want to get their revenge.
Goalies: Goaltending is always a position that seems to be strong or weak depending on the year. This year, with Ilya Samsonov holding the fort, it’s strong again. A first round draft pick by the Washington Capitals in 2015, Samsonov played in two games with Russia, winning both to help his country advance to the finals, eventually losing to Finland in overtime. Samsonov, however, is ready to take the starting role and run with it during the holidays this year. The last time he was the starting goalie for Russia at an international event, Samsonov won the best goalie award after a very dominant performance against the United States.
Defensemen: Typically the Russians struggle in the defensive department, but this year, it looks to be one of their biggest strengths. Sergey Zborovskiy, a third-round pick by the New York Rangers at the 2015 NHL Draft, had 12 points in a three-game span to start off December, earning him the WHL Player of the Week for the week ending December 4th. Zborovskiy hasn’t looked overly challenged with the Regina Pats this year and will likely excel in the AHL next season. But for now, Zborovskiy will lead Russia on the back end in hopes of generating some offense, especially with the extra man.
Another NHL Draft pick., Yegor Rykov, should also make an impact for Russia. A fifth rounder from the New Jersey Devils, Rykov has looked good when skating with Russia in international tournaments, whether it be the 2015 World Junior A Challenge or 2016 World Juniors, to name a few events. Rykov has done a good job in his first full year with KHL squad SKA St. Petersburg, posting five points in 30 games while learning from some hockey stars along the way.
Another KHL rookie, Mikhail Sidorov, should also get some time in the top four. Playing with AK Bars Kazan, Sidorov has six points in 36 games this season. Sidorov has represented the Russians at almost every level so far, but is looking towards his first, and only, crack at the Under-20 level. And of course, you can never forget about Montreal Canadiens prospect Mikhail Sergachev, who started the year in the NHL. Since returning to junior, Sergachev has been able to record 11 points in 16 games with the Windsor Spitfires, incredible totals for the young Russian. While younger than some of the other options on the team, Sergachev is a tremendous two-way talent and will be a leader of the team almost definitely in 2018.
Forwards: Typically, the offense is Russia’s best asset, but that just doesn’t look to be the case this year. Usually filled with strong depth throughout the four lines, the Russians really have just two good lines, which in theory can win the tournament, but surely makes things tough. Mikhail Vorobyov should emerge as the team’s number one centre, with the 19-year-old making his World Junior tournament debut. A 2015 draft pick by the Philadelphia Flyers, Vorobyov has put up ten points in 36 games with the KHL’s Salavat Yulaev Ufa. Vorobyov does not have much experience representing Russia internationally but did record four points in five games at the 2015 Under-18 World Championships in Switzerland.
Earning a promotion to the top line this year is Alexander Polunin, who scored three goals to help Russia win the silver last year. A small, speedy winger, Polunin has played well with Lokomotiv Yaroslavl this year and will be called upon to blow past opponents and exploit the near-crease area for goals. Polunin is going to be one of Russia’s best goal scorers in this tournament and will earn a lot of ice time in the process. Joining him will be Kirill Kaprizov, a Minnesota Wild prospect currently in his second season in the KHL. One of the better U20 players in the league, Kaprizov is a dangerous goal scorer with 15 goals and 30 points in 37 games with Salavat Yulaev Ufa this year. He has also performed well for his country in various international tournaments, including the 2014 Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament where he scored seven points in just four games.
The legend of German Rubtsov is still just beginning, but after getting selected in the first round of the NHL Draft by the Philadelphia Flyers, Rubtsov is a name to keep in your mind for the future. He was Russia’s best player at the 2015 World Junior A Challenge in Whitby, Ontario, and has been an offensive threat at every other tournament he’s been a part of. Mikhail Matlsev also had a strong WJAC tournament in 2015, but will likely be in the bottom six, which is not a bad thing for him. Like Rubtsov, he’s got another tournament ahead of him in 2018 and should be a threat for sure then, but for now, he’ll be a supporting cast member in Russia’s attempts at gold. 19-year-olds Denis Alexeyev and Danil Yurtaikin will provide a “veteran” presence for Russia at the World Juniors, something they’ll need especially up front.
Projection: No matter who Russia brings to the World Juniors or what their weaknesses are, they always seem to put on a show and contend for a medal. With two near-golds in the past two tournaments, Russia will try anything to finally go one step higher in 2017. With the tournament being in Canada, their biggest rival, there’s even more incentive to finish on top, but they’ll have a tough job doing so in the strong Group B with Canada and USA.