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World junior championship: Russia’s big on defence and goaltending, looking for a scoring touch

NHLer Mikhail Grigorenko, 19, will be a huge asset to Team Russis in Sweden (Gary Wiepert, AP)

Group B: Russia

2013 finish: Third place
2013 round-robin record: 2-1-0-1, 13 GF/ 7 GA

If Russia’s world junior teams had a business card, it would only say one word – offense. Or so it seemed plausible before coach Mikhail Varnakov took the reins.

Despite the fact he was once a prolific scorer, who played a fast-paced game as a winger, Varnakov has a very different approach to hockey as a coach. He made it clear during his tenure with Dynamo Moscow, Torpedo, Amur and particularly Ak Bars in the KHL and Russian Super League. He did not mend his ways when replaced Valeri Bragin as under-20 Team Russia’s head-coach.

And thus Team Russia, who had relied mostly on its offensive power for an umpteen number of years at the world juniors, became a whole other beast.

Last year in Ufa, Russia Varnakov had Nail Yakupov, Mikhail Grigorenko, Nikita Kucherov, Valeri Nichushkin, Maxim Shalunov and Alex Khokhlachev on the team – all of them being notorious for racking up points. None of them made it to the top-10 scorers of the tournament list.

Russia finished fourth in scoring mainly to because of the 6-5 OT win over Canada in a bronze medal game, edging over Switzerland and Slovakia also in the extra frame only. In Varnakov’s defence, he emphasized his goal heading into the tournament many times was winning a medal. He didn’t fail.

Varnakov’s approach hasn’t changed this season in any aspect.

“I will be pleased with any medal. It’s going to be a tough competition this year, so winning any medal is a hard task to achieve,” he told recently R-Sport. “Although we do aim for the highest place possible. Our current group with Finns, Swedes, Norwegians and Swiss is just as tough as the one we had last year.”

“Every line uses the same strategy,” said Oilers prospect Bogdan Yakimov. “It doesn’t matter what line you’re on. You always know where everyone is going to be. I play on a line with Vadim Khlopotov and Eduard Gimatov. I like our line. We have great chemistry. You could say we’re three working horses – we work hard and we do it well.”

After the Subway Super Series Varnakov didn’t invite to the final camp neither Vladimir Tkachev, nor Sergey Tolchinsky – arguably the two most flashy Russian forwards.

“Tkachev played well, but didn’t play his best. Had he scored a couple of more goals, we would have won five games [at the Subway Super Series]. He didn’t prove himself as reliable scorer and he has other problems,” explained Varnakov the Tkachev situation. “He knows it just as well as anybody else, we have guys just as good as him. He can pull a flashy play but he can’t do it more in consecutive games or multiple times during one game. Still, he played well in Canada and we was one of the candidates to make the camp.”

Ivan Barbashev, who’s expected to be picked in the first round at NHL Entry Draft this season, had a big question mark next to his name on the roster as well.

Barbashev was invited to the camp and started pre-tournament games on the fifth line but eventually made his way up to the second where he’s expected to play now with Alexander Barabanov and another QMJHLer - Valentin Zykov.

Russia’s top line is going to be Anton SlepyshevMikhail GrigorenkoPavel Buchnevich. Slepyshev and Grigorenko played together in Ufa last year with Nikita Kucherov starring on the right wing.

“I didn’t scored for a few months, it feels great to get a few now,” said Grigorenko after Russia’s final pre-tournament game against Germany. “I like playing with my linemates, hope they’re feeling the same way. I played with Slepyshev last year, so we have some chemistry with him. As for Buchnevich, we always make ourselves available for each other, play the passing game, everything is working well.

“I could compare Buchnevich to Kucherov, I think. They’re both quick forwards, they can shoot, they have great hands and hockey sense.”

Varnakov’s team won all three pre-tournament games beating MHL’s All-Star Team 5-2, reigning Gagarin Cup champs Dynamo Moscow 3-2 and Team Germany 4-1.

“Everybody is waiting for the tourney to start,” said a former Saginaw Spirit forward Vadim Khlopotov. “We won three games, and I hope this winning streak is going to continue in the round robin as well. There are no weak teams at the tournament, we have to be ready to play hard in every game.”

His linemate Eduard Gimatov hasn’t seen much of the host the city and is a little concerned with the ice.

“We haven’t seen much yet but it’s good that we live in downtown. So far, so good. The team is great, the arena is great, too. Except the ice there is a little soft. No matter – we’ll just sharpen them accordingly,” he said.

“Most of the teams stay at the same hotel as us. We see each other every now and then but we try not to talk to them or look them in the eye. There are no friends at war,” he added.

Clearly not a fan of the ‘keep your enemies closer’ concept.

Team Russia will miss forward Valeri Nichushkin who was not released by the Dallas Stars but aside from Grigorenko, they have another player with some NHL experience – defenceman Nikita Zadorov.

“I have everything to play in the NHL,” he said confidently. “I’m ready. They sent me down only because of the coach swap. I think seven games that I played in the NHL proved I’m ready and deserve to play on the Sabres. But Ted Nolan decided not to take any risks and sent down all the young guys. He decided to go with experience.”

“He told me to get ready for the next season and gain some experience. I will get lots of ice-time in London. We have a shot to win the OHL title. I have my entire career ahead of me so another season with the Knights won’t hurt me.”

Andrei Vasilevski is expected to shine in net for Russia as this is going to be his third world junior championship.

“Vasilevski is hands down our number one choice,” said Varnakov. “(Ivan) Nalimov will be his backup and (Igor) Ustinsky is the third goalie. That’s what we’re going to start with and see how it’s going to pan out.”

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Andrei Mironov (Dynamo Moscow, KHL): 19-year-old defenceman went under radar for most North American fans but he absolutely shocked KHL fans last season. The returnee from 2013 world juniors won a Gagarin Cup with Dynamo this past spring averaging just under 15 minutes a game in both regular season and the playoffs. He’s a stay-at-home defenceman with a great shot.

Nikita Tryamkin (Avtomobilist, KHL) The 6-feet-4, 214-pounder logs big minutes for his hometown’s Avtomobilist in the KHL. Tryamkin is enjoying his second full pro season with the club and in 69 KHL games he scored four goals and picked up 11 points.

Mikhail Grigorenko (Buffalo Sabres, NHL) Grigorenko was released by the Sabres to compete at his third world junior championship and he finally gets to play on Russia’s top line. In 2012 he played on their third line and last year he played on the second line. He’s expected to be the brightest star for the Russians in Malmo.

Nikita Zadorov (London Knights, OHL) Zadorov looked very impressive in seven NHL games this season, managing to score his first NHL goal in his second NHL game against the Boston Bruins. He starred in his solo Subway Super Series game as well, notching three assists for Team Russia.

Andrei Vasilevski (Salavat Yulaev, KHL) Despite the fact Vasilevsky dresses for his third World Junior championship, this is the first time he goes into it as a KHL goalie. He took part in 19 out of 37 games for Salavat this season so far, stopping 92.3% of shots with 2.31 GAA and a shutout.

Pavel Buchnevich (Severstal, KHL) NY Rangers might have gotten a steal in the third round this season as they picked 18-year-old Buchnevich 75th overall. Pavel is given big minutes to play on Severstal in the KHL this season. In 31 games he scored six goals and picked up 12 points. He was absolutely dynamite at the under-18 world junior championship earlier this year on a line with Valeri Nichushkin scoring five goals and 11 points in seven games.

Bogdan Yakimov: (Neftekhimik, KHL) Known as Yak-2 by Oilers fans, Yakimov is heaving a great rookie season in the KHL. He scored five goals and 10 points in 31 games, averaging just 9:30 of TOI.

MUST WIN GAME Any game against Team Canada

It’s always either/or for Team Russia. Any Russian fan’s dream is a final game against Team Canada ending with Russia on top. Drama is preferred but not ultimately necessary. A win over Canada at any point of the tournament is an absolute must but should the destiny leave the two apart, the gold medal is nice cure for the hangover.

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