Today, we’re wrapping up our previews of the European teams with 2016’s bronze medalist, Russia. Last year, they beat Finland in a shootout in the bronze medal game, after playing scoreless through regulation. It was a very successful tournament for the Russians, so they followed it up this year by—leaving a full third of last year’s team at home?
Yes, in what would have counted as big news before the US Women’s National Team pulled the pin on the biggest women’s hockey story in years, Russia’s response to a bronze medal win in 2016 was to restructure their roster. When a team comes away from a tournament with as successful a result as could reasonably be expected, normally everyone’s job is pretty safe. The Russians replaced their head coach, and new coach Alexei Chistyakov — who coaches Tornado Dmitrov in the Russian WHL — replaced eight players. However, there are still some familiar faces on the Russian team—some of whom you might know from professional, rather than international, hockey.
Why Are Some Of These Names Familiar?
The Russians are bringing three women who’ve recently spent a year in a North American professional league. One of them is Iya Gavrilova, current Calgary Inferno forward and CWHL Rookie of the Year nominee. After winning a CIS championship with the Calgary Dinos, Gavrilova had an impressive debut season in the CWHL this year, notching 21 points in 20 games. The Inferno aren’t lacking offensive firepower, but Gavrilova’s quick, lethal shot proved to be a huge asset.
Gavrilova’s spent the past year playing with, and scoring on, members of the Canadian women’s team. She’s got the tools to put up some points this tournament.
Other familiar names might be Lyudmila Belyakova, who spent the 2015-2016 with the New York Riveters of the NWHL, and Yekaterina Smolentseva, who was with the Connecticut Whale of the NWHL the same year. Both Belyakova and Smolentseva went back to Russia this past season, playing in the Russian Women’s Hockey League—Belyakova for Tornado Dmitrov (under Coach Chistyakov), Smolentseva for Agidel Ufa. At 22, Belyakova is a young, rising star in Russian women’s hockey. She finished the year fourth in scoring in the league, with 53 points in 35 games. Smolentseva wasn’t very far behind her, at sixth overall with 49 points in 33 games. Neither of those women saw those kind of numbers in the NWHL—as any Russian NHL player can tell you, success in a North American league is dependent on many things other than pure skill—but they both obviously have the chops.
This goal of Belyakova’s from her year with the Riveters is a good example of what she’s capable of—she knocks the puck down on a good play in her own zone, ends up using her speed to retrieve her own pass, and beats the Beauts goalie with a nice move.
Are Any Of Those New Players Good?
An exciting new name on the roster is Anna Shokhina (not to be confused with defender Anna Shukina, who captained the 2016 Worlds team and is back this year). Shokhina is 19 years old, and currently captaining Tornado Dmitrov. She’s also currently leading the WHL in scoring with 81 points in 34 games, good for a slightly terrifying rate of 2.25 points per game. No one else on the league leaderboard is scoring above two ppg. Also, she is nineteen. This is Shokhina’s first senior championships since she debuted on the Russian women’s senior team at Sochi when she was sixteen.
Here are some highlights from the 2015 Universiade gold medal game, where 17-year-old Shokhina scored two goals (the last of which, at around 3:50 in that video, is off a really nice pass by none other than Iya Gavrilova). There’s a sad dearth of Russian women’s league video highlights, but if this is what Shokhina was doing at 17, I’m a little scared of her (in a good way).
They are also bringing back two out of their three goalies from 2016, including Nadezhda Morozova, their number-one goalie who had a shutout in the bronze medal game against Finland. The new(ish) face on the goaltending roster is Nadezhda Alexandrova, the starting goalie for Tornado Dmitrov (also under Coach Chistyakov—I am sensing a distinct theme). Both Morozova and the other goaltender, Maria Sorokina, have better save percentages in WHL play than Alexandrova—particularly Sorokina, who’s had a very solid year in net for Dynamo St. Petersburg. Alexandrova, however, has a history with the Russian women’s national team—she won a bronze medal at Worlds in 2013 with a splendid performance, before she took some time off to have a baby. We’ll see if Alexandrova makes it into a game in her first appearance on the Russian national team since winning bronze four years ago.
While a restructuring of a successful roster is, in some cases, an example of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” the bronze-medal team in 2016 wasn’t without issues. The Russians were a very low-scoring team last year—while they won bronze, they only scored eight goals in five games (shootout goals excepted). Only one player, Olga Sosina, made the top-20 in tournament scoring. If they’re going to repeat as bronze medalists, they’re going to need more offense, especially with fellow Group A team Finland upgrading their goaltending. It’s also probably not a coincidence the team as a whole has gotten younger—of those eight new players, only one (Alexandrova) is over the age of 23. While the addition of teenage phenom Shokhina would make any team better, she might provide exactly the offensive shot in the arm the Russians want.