GROUP A: RUSSIA
Last year's finish: Gold medal
Last year's round-robin record: 2-0-0-2
For Canadian world junior fans, by far their greatest fear is a Russian team which possesses a physical edge that comes close to matching its mouth-watering skill.
Fans and commentators in the Great White North can quote chapter and verse the times teams wearing the Maple Leaf have made arguably more talented Russian teams back off in a big game. However, some of the mythology was punctured last January in Buffalo when Russia thrice came from behind in the third period to win what was considered a surprising world junior gold, scoring five answered goals to top Canada 5-3 in the final. They also displayed the same comeback competitiveness against Sweden in the semis and Finland in the quarter-finals, showing their talent was such that they didn't need to play a full 60 minutes.
Now they're back with the same coach, Valeri Bragin, and a bevy of high-end forwards. Russia, which beat the U.S. and the Czech Republic (although it was outshot 43-21 in a 5-3 win) in exhibition play, looks like a legitimate three-scoring-line team.
Evgeny Kuznetsov, in what's becoming a relative rarity in the WJC, is a polished 19-year-old centre with tournament experience like Brayden Schenn was last season when he was the tournament MVP for Canada. Bragin has also been trying out an all-Ontario Hockey League line with two 18-year-old offensive dynamos, top draft prospect
Nail Yakupov and Windsor Spitfires star Alexander Khokhlachev, teaming up with 6-foot-4 finisher Ivan Telegin, the third Barrie Colt playing in the tourney. Another highly touted NHL draft prospect, Quebec Remparts centre Mikhail Grigorenko, will be in the mix.
"I think we have unreal offensive lines," Khokhlachev, a Boston Bruins pick who's been Windsor's first-half MVP, recently told Sportsnet. "We have a pretty good team. We have a good chance to win again."
Now that the Russian Hockey Federation sends a more representative team to the Subway Super Series against Canadian Hockey League all-star teams instead of playing possum, Hockey Canada gets a sneak preview of what it's up against. The Russian team that toured Canada in November looked like it could create off the rush and laser the puck around the offensive zone on power plays. The Russians notched regulation wins over both the Quebec and Western league's best Canadian talent and also beat the QMJHL in a shootout. They were exposed a bit in the middle leg against Team OHL, which included 10 players now on Team Canada. Russia lost by a pair of football scores, 10-7 and 6-3. Those games might have helped Bragin and his players understand what they would have to overcome in order to repeat on the world junior stage.
"We knew they were capable of coming back," London Knights centre Vladislav Namestnikov, who was left off the final roster, said after the first game vs. Team OHL. "They're Canadians."
Those games might have also created the impression Russia would need to outscore everyone to make up for sketchy defence and goaltending. However, only three of the defencemen who suited up in those games,
Viktor Antipin, Mikhail Naumenkov and Nikita Nesterov, made Bragin's final roster. The coach was also able to add one KHLer to his blueline, 19-year-old Zakhar Arzamastsev of Metallurg Novokuznetsk.
Goaltending, though, might be the single design flaw in this Death Star of a team. Russia lags badly in teaching goaltending technique. It seems like there are still some vestiges of the old Soviet method of intensive training that still prevail over newfangled notions like improving technique, positioning and learning how to track the puck. It's not without its charm that many young Russian goalies seems like throwbacks to the days when self-taught goalies survived on their wits, but that's not very effective sometimes.
Russia will turn to either 18-year-old Andrey Makarov (3.02 goals-against average, .913 save percentage for the Western Hockey League's Saskatoon Blades) or 19-year-old Sergey Kostenko. Makarov has been very impressive at times as a newcomer to the WHL, although he seemed worn down after the calendar turned to December, posting a 4.11 average and .876 save percentage in seven appearances.
Russia could as easily finish first as fourth in the tournament. It is possible their reputation got inflated a bit by those 20 minutes in Buffalo that Canada would rather forget. What’s certain is they are loaded up front.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Forward Evgeny Kuznetsov (Chelyabinsk Traktor, KHL) The gifted future Washington Capital has already played in an all-star game in the Kontinental Hockey League. He's a creator and distributor on offence. As Russia's lone returnee and and the event's leading returning scorer after posting 11 points last winter, he'll be the centrepiece of the Russian offence.
Forward Nail Yakupov (Sarnia Sting, OHL) As you have no doubt heard, The Saucy Tatar is the consensus favourite to be selected No. 1 in the NHL draft. A back ailment has slowed him of late in the Ontario league, but he sees the ice well and is exceptionally strong on his skates. It can be hard even coming up with a comparable NHLer for Yakupov, but he has a bit of Rick Nash's finishing ability, Jeff Skinner's ability to score in the dirty areas and the sheer want of Sidney Crosby. Believe the hype.
Forward Mikhail Grigorenko (Quebec Remparts, QMJHL) The rangy centre has many in his corner touting him as a No. 1 pick; he's already put up 58 points in 36 games with Quebec at age 17. It's not out of the realm to think he could be the top pick, but many believe Yakupov is the better skater and provides total effort on a more consistent basis. Grigorenko is just 17 years old, so one would not expect him to dominate in the tournament, but if he makes a solid contribution, that will validate why he's a legit lottery pick.
Forward Nikita Kucherov (CSKA Moscow, KHL/CSKA Moskava, MHL) The Tampa Bay Lightning prospect is a superb offensive player and has averaged two points per game since returning to the KHL's under-22 minor league. He showed a good rapport with fellow Bolts draftee Namestnikov during the Subway Super Series, but Namestnikov was a surprising cut by Bragin.
MUST WIN GAME: Group A is set up to come down to New Year's Eve night when Russia faces Sweden to conclude the round-robin. Sweden has won the last three round-robin meetings between the two rivals, including two shutouts, but Russia bagged the most important win with a shootout triumph in last January's semifinal showdown.
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports.
Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.