We continue PensBurgh's Olympic preview series with a look at Russia. Now that we're coming close to the teams being announced (deadline is January 7), we'll pick up the pace and wrap up by New Year's, with Norway up next. If you'd like to check out the previous articles in the series, here they are:
World's largest country. Nine time zones. Dozens of different ethnicities. Prosperity and adversity. Any way you look at it, Russia is a study in contrast. From Pushkin to Tchaikovsky to Kandinsky to Gagarin to Mendeleev, Russian contributions to art, science and every other area of life are as giant as its size. They also happen to be great at hockey.
OLYMPIC HISTORY AND CURRENT WORLD RANKING
Traditionally one of the world's hockey superpowers, having won 7 Olympic golds under the auspices of the former Soviet Union, Russia became its own country again following the dissolution of USSR in late 1991. Albertville in 1992 was the last time Russian-born players dominated the Olympics, winning gold as the Unified Team, which counts as the 8th one for the Soviet Union, but no golds since. This time, they are the hosts, and the expectations are sky-high.
Russia still boasts some of the most talented players in the world, but it's no longer the sheer force it once was. Kids are going into different sports because hockey is expensive and hard, and today Russia has only about 63K junior players compared to Canada's 446K and USA's 306K. It's currently ranked #3 in IIHF World Ranking, having won the 2012 WC, but they didn't medal in 2013.
Nike revealed the design of jerseys that will be worn by Russian team in the Sochi Olympics. I don't care too much for the red one, but I love the white one and am getting Datsyuk's.
PRE-OLYMPIC CAMP INVITEES
Forwards: Artem Anisimov, Michael Varnakov, Pavel Datsyuk, Ilya Kovalchuk, Denis Kokarev, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Nikolai Kulemin, Evgeni Malkin, Alex Ovechkin, Alexander Perezhogin, Alexander Popov, Alexander Radulov, Alexander Semin, Vladimir Tarasenko, Alexei Tereshchenko, Viktor Tikhonov, Vadim Shipachev, Nail Yakupov
PROJECTED FINAL ROSTER
Goalies: Sergei Bobrovsky, Konstantin Barulin, Ilya Bryzgalov
With Varlamov's legal troubles progressing to a formal charge of third-degree assault, he's best left off the team. The three Bs may have to do. Barulin is having an excellent season for Bars Kazan, with a 1.72 GAA and .945 SV% in 19 games. I honestly think he is worthy of getting the nod for Russia over all NHL guys.
Barring any injuries, these are the 8 Russian d-men who I think will make the team. Slava Belov wasn't originally invited to camp but is having a good season so far for Novosibirsk (6g, 9a in 26 games) and other than Voynov is the only righty in the the entire pool of d-men for Russia, which I think will help elevate him above the others. Koltsov is another guy who wasn't in camp but is having a great season with Ufa, and his play so far has certainly made him a guy they can't afford not to take. Even with a considerable decline, Gonchar is still one of the best power play QBs in the business, which may leave players like Nikitin, Volchenkov and Emelin on the outside looking in.
Projected defensive pairings:
Forwards: Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, Pavel Datsyuk, Vladimir Tarasenko, Artem Anisimov, Nail Yakupov, Alexander Semin, Danis Zaripov, Sergei Mozyakin, Ilya Kovalchuk, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Alexander Radulov, Alexander Popov, Denis Kokarev
Here's the thing: just like Canada, Russia is in real danger of giving advantage to certain players based on name or what they know a guy can do. It's one of those "damned if you do, damned if you don't" things. Any outcome other than gold and the world will end in an avalanche of second-guessing. Chemistry with Malkin and the memory of the best line in the KHL during the lockout isn't, I think, enough for Kulemin. Zaripov should get that spot because he's lit up the league this year playing with Mozyakin. Put Malkin between them, oh boy. Semin has more currency than Kulemin and I think he gets a spot, although I have no idea where to put him. He traditionally played with Datsyuk and Ovechkin, but now that Ovi's changed sides, Kovalchuk would be fantastic on the left side of what would be the line of death. Kuznetsov has only played in 15 games this year due to injuries and it'll be too bad if he can't go, but with him centering Yakupov and Tarasenko, that fourth line would be electric. Denis Kokarev is having a rough season for Dynamo Moscow so far: 3g, 7a in 23 games. I still see him getting the spot ahead of fantastic rookie Valeri Nichushkin, Andrei Loktionov and Alexander Perezhogin.
Projected forward lines:
MEET THE COACHES
The head coach of Russian national hockey team, Zinetula Bilyaletdinov, was in the building as I watched the Pens beat the Caps a few weeks ago. Bilyaletdinov was a top Russian defenseman for a very long time. He is also a very experienced coach who's worked in the NHL, the KHL, and with the Russian national team. Check him out. Bilyaletdinov will aim to get most out of his team defensively, and the degree to which he succeeds in this will be the main factor in their outcome. There are few coaches I respect and admire as much and there is no one I'd rather see at the helm of this team.
STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESSES
Strength: Speed, size, strength, scoring at forward. The Russian top 6 (Datsyuk, Malkin, Kovalchuk, Ovechkin, Mozyakin, Radulov) is the best there is. Other than Datsyuk's recent head injury scare (and he's coming back tonight), they are all hitting a ridiculous stride. As of yesterday, these 6 players have appeared in an average of 25.5 games this season and combined for 181 points (7.1 ppg): 74 goals (2.9 gpg) and 107 assists (4.2 apg). [Had to pause and laugh about Malkin's 7 goals ruining the gpg value. But hey, the last person to assist on 21 goals in a calendar month was some guy named Gretzky.] You get the picture.
Weakness: Goaltending is a huge question mark, what with Bobrovsky coming back to Earth and Varlamov's status in question. Barulin could be the guy, and it could turn out brilliantly or not. The defense is also kind of ordinary if you look past Markov-Voynov.
Russia has been drawn in group A with the United States, Slovakia and Slovenia. Slovakia will challenge them and the US could beat them, but either way Russia will make it to the semis, where I think they lose to Finland or Sweden. All this firepower may not be enough to make up for letting goals in, and we've seen this from Russia before. I'd be very happy to be proven wrong, and if anyone can change that paradigm, it will be Bilyaletdinov.
For the end, I'll leave you with the recently released Russian hockey anthem. From Boris Mikhailov to Pavel Bure to Evgeni Malkin (a very enthusiastic Geno), it's sung by many of the Russian hockey greats. It also has a funny little cartoon at 1:34. Mы русская дружина, мы красная машина!
Go Russia! Bперед Россия!