Buzzing The Net

World junior championship: Team Russia — it’s all in the management

Yakupov has had numerous linemates with Russia's U20 team this year (Derek Leung, Getty Images)

GROUP B: RUSSIA

Last year’s finish: Silver medal, lost 1-0 in overtime to Sweden in gold-medal game
Last year’s round-robin record: 3-0-1-0, 11 GF/11 GA

The host of world junior championship are coming off a pretty good stretch.

Think about it — Russia has either tied or won three latest Subway Super Series. They won the gold in 2011 and were runners-up the year after. And they got a bonus of Nail Yakupov — first overall pick by the Edmonton Oilers this past summer — in the line-up with a big C on his chest.

What do they got in store for us this season, though? What is Team Russia besides Yakupov?

Well, a lot of things, really.

Take their goaltending for instance. This year according to the IIHF rules you can have three goalies on your team and Russia used it to call up Andrei Makarov, Igor Ustinski and Andrei Vasilevski. Both Andreis are returnees from last year’s world junior in Calgary and Edmonton, Alberta. You must have seen them both being spectacular even if your experience with Team Russia at that tournament was limited to a semifinal Canada-Russia match-up.

Russia’s coach Mikhail Varnakov recently told media that it was clear to him since this spring that both Makarov and Vasilevski are the goalies he’s going to go with in Ufa. They competed for the starting position last season, and make no mistake – they took their little rivalry to another level.

However, neither of them really amazed Varnakov during the camp and at the preliminary games against Team Switzerland and Dynamo Moscow of the KHL. Russia won 7-5 against the Swiss and lost to Dynamo — reigning Gagarin Cup champions — 4-2. Varnakov openly said to the media he wasn’t happy with Makarov’s performance and that Vasilevski could also do a better job.

When asked whether or not Ustinski had a shot at the tourney, Varnakov reasoned that he has an option to dress him for any of the games if he wants to. Ustinski started for Russia at the recent Subway Super Series in Game 3 against Team OHL in Guelph, Ont. Team Russia got a historic 2-1 win — their first in this tournament against Team OHL — while Ustinski looked solid and made 23 saves. A few big ones, too.

Down a D-man

Just like Team Canada is missing their key defenceman Ryan Murray, so is Team Russia. Mikhail Naumenkov, a member of 2012 squad, had two goals and 4 points and was plus-8 at the Subway Super Series this year but is sidelined with an injury.

Russia has 2 returnees from last year’s competition — Nikita Nesterov of Traktor Chelyabinsk (KHL) and Artem Sergeev of Val-d'Or Foreurs (QMJHL). They also got Kirill Dyakov and Albert Yarullin, who each have solid KHL experience, as well as Andrei Mironov. The latter is a product of Dynamo Moscow hockey school and he averages 13:08 of ice-time but lately has been given about 17 minutes.

He also plays on the powerplay with a few noteworthy names like Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom. You know, no big deal.

Mironov was born in 1994 and is draft-eligible this season.

Offense has always seemed to be Russia’s biggest asset. This year is no different as they boast  Yakupov, Mikhail Grigorenko (tied for seventh in points in the QMJHL with 50, Sabres pick), Alex Khokhlachev (Bruins pick), Yaroslav Kosov (Panthers pick), Maxim Shalunov (Blackhawks pick) and Nikita Kucherov (Lightning pick). Yakupov, Kosov, Khokhlachev, Kucherov and Grigorenko are returnees from last year’s competition.
Notice that Russia’s cut 2012 MasterCard Memorial Cup hero Anton Zlobin. How competitive they must be up front, eh?

Play it close to the vest

The biggest difference between 2012 and 2013 Russia squads is going to be the coaching. Mikhail Varnakov is a conservative coach who likes his D more than anything. Russia has some players who would have absolutely loved opportunistic offense but they’re highly unlikely to get such a chance.

Varnakov’s approach to the game is debatable but so far it has worked for Russia. They not only they won the recent Subway Super Series, but they also beat Team OHL for the first time in the history of the tournament.

If you’re wondering what Team Russia’s lines are going to look like, here’s a pretty accurate sketch.

—First line: Sigarev-Khokhlachev-Yakupov
— Second line: Slepyshev-Grigorenko-Kucherov
— Third line: Nichushkin-Tkachev-Shalunov
— Fourth line: Kapustin-Mozer-Kosov
— 13th forward: Zharkov

— First pairing: Yarullin-Nesterov
— Second pairing: Sergeev-Mironov
— Third pairing: Dyakov-Koledov
— 7th defenceman: Dyblenko

The main concern for Varnakov throughout August and December has been Yakupov. His skillset is obviously there. However, what is the best way to use it? During the Canada-Russia challenge in August Yakupov was put on the line with Grigorenko and Zlobin. At the Subway Super Series, Yakupov played with Kirill Kapustin and Alex Khokhlachev. Kapustin was then put on the second line and Andrei Sigarev made a very successful jump to the top line.

To sum it up, it’s fair to say that Russia was put in Team Canada’s shoes this year. Instead of having troubles gathering the right players, they’re facing another challenge – managing their ample talent and applying it to a system Russian hockey is historically not fit to.

All of it in front of the home crowd.

No pressure.

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Cam Charron, Kelly Friesen