By Steven Elliis – Eurhockey.com

No matter what year it is, Russia’s World Junior team always seems to be a big mystery. The players themselves aren’t really, thanks to the KHL and CHL Super Series exposing the world to what the country has to offer.

But when they all mix together, that’s when it gets a bit muddy. Some years, everything clicks. The offense is firing on all cylinders, the goaltending is stealing the show and contests are fun, exciting battles each night.

Other times, the team has too many personalities trying to prove their the best, and the team suffers as a result. After losing the Summit Series in Canada in November, there were questions about which Russian team we’d be treated to in Buffalo this year.

The verdict? All signs point to another medal contender, but their path may be troubled along the way.

Goaltending: Filling Ilya Samsonov’s crease this year is about to get a little tougher than expected. After the CHL-Russia Summit Series concluded, all signs pointed to undrafted prospect Vladislav Sukhachev getting the nod. Currently in his first year as a VHL starting goalie, Sukhachev has had a good season with Chelmet Chelyabinsk and played decently for Russia in the CHL series. He’s been good at every level he’s participated in Russia, which includes a gold medal at the 2014 U17’s, a silver at the 2015 World Junior A Challenge, and bronze medals at the Ivan Hlinka in 2016 and last year’s World Juniors. Winnipeg Jets seventh rounder Mikhail Berdin should also get a couple of starts, with the Sioux Falls Stampede putting up strong numbers, but at this point, it’s Sukhachev’s net to lose. 

Defensemen: Oh boy. Yes, Russia always seems to stink when it comes to their defense, but good thing they have Mikhail Serga… oh, yeah, right. Trust me, that’s not changing this year. Leading the way of Russia’s effort is New Jersey Devils draft pick Egor Zaitsev, a 19-year-old playing in his first international tournament for Russia since the 2014 Under-17’s. Zaitsev has become a full-time KHLer with Dynamo Moskva this season and plays a physical game despite his smaller stature. Two-way defender Artyom Minulin will be joining him as a minute-cruncher for the Russians, with the Swift Current Broncos defenseman off to a great season in his third WHL campaign. He overcame an upper body injury in mid-November to get right back on track and should be a good asset for the Russians.

So what’s next? Guelph Storm defenseman Dimitri Samorukov brings speed to a defense core that simply doesn’t have it. Drafted by the Edmonton Oilers this past June, Samorukov had back-to-back tremendous Under-18 tournaments and was Russia’s best defense in both Super Series games he played in.

Red Deer Rebels defender and upcoming NHL Draft prospect Alexander Alexeyev won’t be counted to bring the offense, but with a big frame and a good shot, he can get the puck where it needs to be. Scouts seem to have mixed views of Alexeyev, with some people expecting him to be a mid-first rounder, while others think he could fall near to near the end of the second. With Russia weak on the blue line, this is his time to show scouts he’s worth a shot.

Another big boy, Artyom Minulin, had an average Super Series tournament back in November and hasn’t looked overly spectacular in previous tournaments with Russia. Still, the undrafted prospect appeared to be a mid-round draft option last year but will give the draft a second chance this year. Minulin is a creative playmaker who’s good at a lot of things, but not spectacular at anything.

Forwards: Russia’s offense is always the center of attention in international play and that’s no different this year. The team will be counting on German Rubtsov to lead the charge, and with his international record looking pretty spiffy, that’s a reasonable expectation. The Philadelphia Flyers prospect didn’t record a point in a limited role at last year’s World Juniors, but the centerman has shown lots of poise and skill ever since. Currently with the QMJHL’s Acadie-Bathurst Titan, the playmaking forward will rack up a few assists this year, likely setting up star prospect Andrei Svechnikov.

Svechnikov, of course, is expected to be one of the top picks in the upcoming draft and a good tournament could push him closer to the number one spot.  Last season alone, Svechnikov had the most points at the World Under-17 Challenge, won a bronze at the U17 and U18 level and was named the World Junior A Challenge’s MVP after one of the most memorable tournament performances to date. The reigning USHL rookie of the year has made a great transition to the OHL’s Barrie Colts, recently coming off of an injury to score a hat-trick before joining the Russians for their training camp. If you get him in the right spot, he’ll get your team many, many goals, and that’s something the Russians can look forward too, even if this may be his only year at the tournament.

Russia doesn’t have a lot of NHL draft picks on the roster, but the few they have are rather decent. Chicago will specifically be keeping an eye on Andrei Altybarmakyan and Artur Kayumov. Altybarmakyan is the most recent draft pick, getting called 70th overall earlier in June, and with six points in nine previous games with the U20 team this year, he’s off to a good season. Altybarmakyan has been up and down in the Russian hockey system this year, earning 13 games with SKA St. Petersburg, mostly in a limited role. One of Russia’s best players at the recent Super Series, Altybarkmakyan has never represented the Russians in a proper international event but he has the potential to become a top six winger for the country in Buffalo.

Kayumov getting the chance to represent Russia at the World Juniors is a long time coming. The 19-year-old has always been one of the best players in his age group wherever he’s played, earning him a second round spot at the 2016 draft. Kayumov was spectacular in both tournaments he represented the Russians at, the 2015 Hlinka Memorial and the World Junior A Challenge a few months later and will be expected to put up a few points as the team looks to make the finals.

Currently in the AHL with the San Antonio Rampage, Klim Kostin annoys every defenseman he comes across and makes plays out of small openings. Sure, it may not seem like that with his two total points in three leagues last year, but Kostin is a player you can throw in any offensive position and make an impact. He’s a good skater for a tall guy and beats guys one-on-one with quick dekes on a daily basis. The 2016 Hlinka Memorial team captain plays at a different level when he wears his nation’s colours and his leadership and skill is a big asset to the team.

A Minnesota Wild seventh rounder with AHL experience already, Sudbury Wolves forward Dmitri Sokolov is hoping his solid Super Series performance against Team OHL will translate into some opportunities for some elevated roles with the junior team. He was tremendous with the U17 team a few years back and the former OHL rookie goal-scoring leader was one of Russia’s best players at the 2015 Under-18’s, so he’ll want to make his mark as a speedy forward on the talented Russian offense.

New Jersey Devils prospect Mikhail Maltsev has played in the KHL, VHL and MHL this season, putting up points in all three leagues. Getting the chance to play against men has made Maltsev a better player, and this after a great 2015 World Junior A Challenge performance where he was Russia’s most electric forward. If he gets the chance to play with SKA St. Petersburg next year, he’ll be filled with KHL all-stars that will help elevate his game to the next level. This year, the Maltsev could realistically fight for the second centerman spot on Russia, which would be huge for his development.

Projection: Projecting Russia to be one of the top teams at the World Juniors seems lazy, but it could very well come true this season. Russia always finds a way to make noise during an international event and with some great young talent with the potential to return a year from now, there’s a lot of positives to the Russians this season. They may not be the best team, but expecting them to finish in the medal round is quite reasonable.

One of the biggest success stories when it comes to hockey growth happens to be with Switzerland, a country that went from having zero NHLers in the league in the 90’s to hitting their peak of 1.7% of NHLers coming from the country for the 2017-2018 season.

Thanks to the likes of Roman Josi, Nino Niederreiter and Nico Hischier, the country has had reasons to cheer at the World Juniors over the past ten years. They’ve had some surprising performances, including their fourth-place finish in 2010, a year after just earning promotion.

This year, the team will need a bit of luck. It’s still expected that they’ll be able to make the quarterfinals, but after that, especially with the expected resurgence of the Czech Republic, Switzerland’s tournament could end up being rather lackluster this year unless somebody can fill the void of the missing Hischier.

Goaltending: Switzerland still holds the honor of having one of the most memorable goalie performances of all time at the World Juniors, and that’s Benjamin Conz’s 2010 tournament. Since then, however, the team has struggled to find much stability between the pipes, and despite a few positives over the past few years, it’s typically not their strongest position.

Returning to the team this year is Matteo Ritz, who didn’t actually see any action in the Swiss’ run to the quarterfinals. If you check out his stats online, you’ll notice he has a 48.65 GAA in one NLA game with Lausanne, so you may be thinking ‘uh oh’. Of course, that stat is skewed due to only playing a few minutes, but the 19-year-old is poised to become a full-time NLAer in a few years and this is his best chance to prove himself. As a whole, he hasn’t been facing great competition down in the Swiss minor league ranks but he did look really good with the Swiss in U20 exhibition games last year.

Another fellow returnee, Philip Wüthrich, doesn’t cover a lot of net, but he has put up great numbers with SC Bern’s junior team. Wüthrich was the best goalie at the International Chablais Hockey tournament back in November, and while they did play a couple of Division IA teams, he held his ground when it matters most. An early edge could go to Wüthrich at this point, but it’s expected that they’ll share the goalie duties.

Defensemen: The blue line is typically Switzerland’s strongest position, no matter what tournament they’re in. They’ll have to find a way to replace Jonas Siegenthaler, but likely in the form of a couple of players instead of one great one. Dominik Egli could be one of the answers for the team. Egil outplayed many of his older companions on the roster at last year’s team, and while he doesn’t have much size to work with, he’s got the pure skill. He’s played well with a weak EHC Kloten team and is noticeable in most games, usually for a positive reason.

Washington Capitals prospect Tobias Geisser, however, will likely earn most of the ice time. The Swiss gave him a lot of chances in exhibition contests back in 2016-2017 before cutting him prior to the 2016 World Juniors, but he was valuable to the team’s effort a year ago as they tried to shut down the Americans in the quarterfinals. He was a Swiss star at the 2016 Under-18’s despite being underage, but after a good sophomore season with EV Zug, he’s made an effort with his quick speed to become a useful asset for the team.

Oshawa Generals d-man Nico Gross will be entering his second World Junior tournament, a big feat considering he doesn’t even turn 18 until January. Gross hasn’t been great on Oshawa’s second defense pairing but he’s improved as the season went on after fighting mononucleosis at the start of the campaign. This could be his opportunity to get his season going smoothly.

Another defender worth keeping an eye on is Simon Le Coultre, a member of the QMJHL’s Moncton Wildcats. Le Coultre has played for a poor Moncton Wildcats team over the past two years and has had to do a lot to help his team be competitive, but that’s always a good test for a young defender. He’ll face similar competition each night at the juniors, the biggest challenge of his career to date. If he still intends on getting drafted to the NHL, this is his best bet to be chosen late in June.

Forwards: With no Hischier up front, the club will need to replenish some of their big-time goals that made them a surprise contender late in the tournament. Philipp Kurashev will be one of the biggest stars, with the potential first-rounder off to a great second year with the Quebec Ramparts. With 31 points in 33 games, Kurashev is a great playmaker that played more of a scoring role at April’s Under-18’s, while also providing six goals and nine points in 14 U20 games last season. In Slovakia this summer at the U20 Summer Challenge, Kurashev helped his team win the gold medal after scoring twice against the hosts, a big game for the Swiss scoring star. The competition will be tougher at the juniors, but with the season he’s having, Kurashev is Switzerland’s best bet to win games this season.

One of Switzerland’s most promising forwards is HC Davos winger Nando Eggenberger. Missing the Spengler Cup to play at the World Juniors is always an interesting situation, but Eggenberger has performed well enough internationally for the Swiss to earn his place. His 17 points in 18 U18 games last year was impressive enough, and he’s already played 15 U20 games over the past few years. He’s typically been one of the younger players on any of the teams he’s played at and if he does indeed become a second rounder in the NHL, he could be a star at next year’s tournament, too.

Nicolas Müller is a guy that not many people are talking about, but the MODO U20 forward has been rather impressive in his first full season with the Swedish club. He was easily one of the Swiss’ best players at the 2016 Hlinka Memorial and he played particularly well at the Under-18’s last year. He’s been a major contributor at every international level he’s played at and there’s a lot of reason to believe he can be a valuable player in Buffalo.

Kamloops Blazers forward Justin Sigrist has been a healthy scratch on various occasions in the WHL this year, so this can be the tournament that finally turns his season around. Justin’s twin, Shannon, is a member of the Swiss women’s national team, so there will be enough friendly competition to outdo each other in each of their major international competitions over the next few months. Justin has been good in four U20 games with the Swiss this year, but he’ll look to really pull his game together on NHL sized ice after a great World Junior A Challenge tournament last year.

The Swiss will also expect a lot out of Marco Miranda and Valentin Nussbaumer. For Miranda, the team could make him a top line winger thanks to his deceptive speed, but his inconsistencies could hurt. And for Nussbaumer, the 2019 draft prospect will have to find his form after an injury if he wants to become a potent player down the middle.

To wrap it up, there will be a few eyes following the progress of 2018 draft prospect Gilian Kohler. Kohler hasn’t produced that much offense in his first season in the WHL, but he recorded an incredible 42 assists and 50 points in 43 games as a 16-year-old in the Swiss U20 league last year. The same attention will be applied to Stéphane Patry, who hasn’t been great in the OHL with the Erie Otters, but when you’re chances are limited, that’s the nature of the beast. Again, this is a great chance for the youngster to prove his worth.

Projection: The Swiss don’t have many offensive tools to work with, and the defense core will require to work by committee to offset a lack of experience. Overall, this isn’t a Swiss team to get excited for, and if a loss to the Danes in pre-tournament action is any indication, there’s a lot to be desired with the team that doesn’t excel in any category.