The 2014 Winter Olympics are just over two years away, and with the games being held in Sochi, Russia, there are high hopes for the host nation to improve upon their showing in 2010. This is part one in a series that will preview the contending nations for the next gold medal. The hosts are first up.
Russia is the most enigmatic hockey team on the international scene. They have an enormous wealth of talent up front, some respectable blue liners and a few manageable goalies. But they had a remarkably tough time playing well in Vancouver on North American ice.
Tretiak has a propensity to build the roster with a few parts NHL stars and a few parts obscure KHL players to fill out the roster. But with the disaster that was Vancouver, and the high end talent that the nation continues to produce, there is a possibility that the roster will have a different feel to it come Sochi.
There are a few players that are locks to be on the team, despite their recent struggles on this side of the pond. Barring a career ending injury, Ovechkin, Kovalchuk, Semin and Datsyuk will all be suiting up, no matter how much they struggle for a few games here and there. Malkin is a force as well, and will centre the top line for the Russians.
But the same core of players were on the team when they got crushed by the Canadians in 2010, with the random KHL’ers offering little in the way of protection for the stars.
Ovy, Malkin and Semin along with Kovy and Datsyuk are considered the top players at this point, but what combinations do you use them in? The Russians were top heavy last time around, and they got crushed because of it. You cannot go up against Canada, Sweden or the US with just two attacking lines. The wealth needs to be spread out.
A run on Canadians going first overall, Stamkos, Tavares, Hall and Nugent-Hopkins, will come to an end this year when Sarnia Sting winger Nail Yakupov, via Tatarstan, Russia, is taken with the top pick. He is a dynamic player that offers a unique mix of speed, skill and grit, and he will almost surely suit up for Russia come 2014.
What makes this years draft even more different than those of recent years? Well a Russian will probably go second overall as well. If Yakupov is the next Ovechkin, then Mikhail Grigorenko is the next Malkin. This could be the 2004 draft all over again.
Grigorenko and Yakupov will bring a dimension to Sochi that the Russian Bear was missing in Vancouver. While they could very well be elite NHL scorers by this point, they could still be considered secondary players on the Russian team. Or they could bring such a high level of hockey to the league in the next few years that they force Tretiak’s hand, and change the dynamic of the whole team.
Every year there are a Russian or two who get taken late in the first round, usually by the Capitals, an they are usually stashed away until they are ready. Tarasenko, Kuznetsov and Galiev all fit this mould, and one of them could break through in time to find a spot on the roster in two years.
Alex Buristrov has played well for Winnipeg this year, and the youngster will be a four year NHL veteran, at the age of 22, by the time the Olympics come around. Alex Radulov is another player that is of some intrigue, as he seems to much prefer the rigours of the Russian game to the lavish lifestyle around these parts.
Then there are the boom-or bust guys like Kirill Kabanov and Nikita Filatov. All the talent in the world, but their desire to play stateside in a system has yet to be realized. They too could find themselves on the 2014 team.
So what does one do with all of this talent up front? Well let us assume that Yakupov and Grigorenko will be studs. Considering their success playing Canadian major junior hockey, not simply dominating some second division Siberian league, they just might be the two best players on this roster in a couple of years. Then you have the high end guys that seem to be just a touch past their prime, the Ovechkin, Semin, Kovalchuk and Datsyuk types. Then there is Malkin, who is on a different level.
Mix in a few high potential kids that just might crack the lineup, and you have quite the set of forwards. This is what they might look like.
This is hoping that Tretiak goes crazy and puts together four lines of straight up talent. Never mind the checking lines, just get out there and score goals. They can cycle in Galiev and Kabanov if anyone gets banged up. Tampa first round pick Vladislav Namestinikov also has an outside shot.
How about that blue line? Well it has surely never been the strong suit of the Russians, but a few kids are helping it out. One of the biggest concerns for the defence is health and age. Markov and Gonchar both struggle to stay on the ice, and they are getting up there in years. But in a perfect world, they will be the veteran presence on the blue line that the Russians surely need.
Dmitri Kulikov is already playing his third full year for the Florida Panthers, and he is finally coming into his own. He has clearly benefitted from the hot start that the Panthers are riding on early this year, but he has displayed exceptional puck handling and good poise on the power play that Russia will need.
It is no mystery that the Capitals have quite the affinity for Russian players. Whether it is part of some top secret KGB spy mission in Washington, or just a propensity for high ceiling Russians, Dmitry Orlov can be added to that list. A second round pick in ’09, he came over last year to finish the season up with the Hershey Bears. Now he is just a few games into his NHL career, but he is playing second pairing minutes on and getting time on the man advantage. Add him to the list for 2014.
Know who else has an almost idential pedigree? Slava Voynov. Second round pick by the Kings in ’08, he is just now getting his big break. But he is a force. He has played just ten games for LA, but he has five points, including three goals. The Kings have quite the set on defence, but Voynov has already worked his way into the discussion, playing second pairing minutes like his comrade in DC.
Add a sprinkle of Grebeshkov and Tyutin, and you are left with a formidable blue line. Something like this.
Now how about between the pipes? This could easily be considered the Russians weakest position. Nabokov is a shell of what he was in San Jose. Bryzgalov is, well no one really knows what he is. So that leaves Varlamov.
Semyon is not having much in the way of success in his first season in Colorado, but he is still young. 23-years old for a goalie, who had previously been yo-yo’d by the Caps. Maybe Bobrovsky finds a starting gig in the next few years and works his way onto the roster, but the Russians could surely use a stud between the pipes, and that looks unlikely at this point.
Andrei Vasilevski is a highly regarded young tender in the K, but he does not quite seem of the pedigree needed to start in just two years, considering he is just 17. Igor Bobkov was a third round pick of the Ducks in ’09, but he is playing for Kingston in the OHL, and not exactly lighting the league up.
So it will almost surely be up to Varlamov to backstop the Russians to the promise land in 2014.
There you have it. This is what there is to expect from the Team Russia at the 2014 Olympics, that is of course if they go crazy and try to do nothing but score goals. They lack two way players up front, but have the talent to beat anyone.
Further, they will be playing on international ice in front of a home crowd. The extra space on the ice will benefit the skilled Russians, and be a detriment to the grind ’em out teams that go with a more balanced attack.
Will Oveckin, Datsyuk, Semin and Kovalchuk have enough left in the tank to bring it in 2014? Will Yakupov and Grigorenko play at high enough of a level to warrant their inclusion amongst the top nine forwards? Can their goalies stop anything?
We will know soon enough.
Well not actually, it will be more than two years from now, but we can start wondering now.