As any hockey fan, I was eagerly awaiting the announcement of Russia's roster for the upcoming Olympic hockey tournament, which should prove to be one of the best ever with quite a few countries icing Dream Team-like squads.
The announcement came on Christmas Day. Now that I'm done with all the various family gatherings, it gives me time for some in-depth, comprehensive analysis of the roster picked by Russian head coach, and former great Soviet player, Slava Bykov.
As expected the team is absolutely loaded offensively with a number of NHL's elite forwards such as Alexander Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, Ilya Kovalchuk, Pavel Datsyuk and Alexander Semin headlining the embarrassment of riches upfront.
Supremely talented and exciting, but largely forgotten and much maligned last year in Buffalo, Maxim Afinogenov has made the squad based on his phoenix like resurrection in Atlanta where he has spent most of the season on the first line with fellow Russians, Ilya Kovalchuk and Nikolai Antropov. He is currently sitting on 34 points in 36 games, including 13 goals.
The rest of the forwards come from the Russian KHL, but don't let that fool you into underestimating them. Viktor Kozlov, Sergei Fedorov, and Alexander Radulov have tons of NHL experience and were playing in the NHL until very recently. Kozlov and Fedorov were part of the Washington Capitals squad until this season (when they signed with Salavat Yulayev Ufa and Metallurg Magnitogorsk respectively) and Radulov infamously skipped out on his contract with the Nashville Predators a season earlier.
Fedorov does not require any introduction and even at the ripe age of 40 will provide calming influence and good penalty killing for team Russia. Kozlov was included for his combination of size (6"5, 235 lbs), skill, calm demeanor when in possession of the puck and excellent board play. He was also one of the most impressive Russian forwards in the recently concluded Channel One Cup in Moscow (an annual tournament, part of the Euro Hockey Tour, which pins Russia against Sweden, Finland and the Czech Republic).
Radulov was one of Nashville's top forwards when playing in the NHL and has continued his hard nosed, impressive play in the KHL for Salavat Yulayev Ufa, where he's the second leading scorer in the KHL with 42 points, including 18 goals, in 35 games. He's also a very combative player who, like Ovechkin, plays a North American style game and is always at his best when donning the Russian national team jersey.
The other KHL based forwards include Alexei Morozov, Danis Zaripov (both of Ak Bars Kazan) and their former linemate Sergei Zinovyev who has left Ak Bars for Salavat Yulayev this season. All three players are superstars in Russia and have the advantage of playing together for many years as a line.
It is a thankless task to predict line combinations, but if one were to take into consideration familiarity and chemistry that comes from playing together at club teams, they could possibly look like this:
1st: Ovechkin - Datsyuk - Semin
2nd: Kovalchuk - Malkin - Afinogenov
3rd: Zaripov - Zinovyev - Morozov
4th: Kozlov - Fedorov - Radulov
Ovechkin and Semin are often on the same line in Washington with Swedish star Nicklas Backstrom centering them. Kovalchuk and Afinogenov have played great together in Atlanta this season with a fellow Russian Nik Antropov (who is ineligible to play for Russia due to captaining Kazakhstan in the 2006 Olympics) centering them.
My proposed 3rd line, as I mentioned above, played together for years in Kazan and has been the dominant line in Russian hockey. Finally Kozlov and Fedorov played together a lot on the 2nd line for the Capitals in the past two years while Radulov seems to play well with just about anyone. This 4th line could be used as Russia's checking line which would be on the ice against the opposition's top scoring units.
Russia's goaltending is in good hands with Evgeni Nabokov, a San Jose Sharks workhorse who is considered to be one of the elite goalies in the NHL, as their most likely starter. He already has 19 wins with a 2.33 GAA and .924 save percentage this season. Nabby has also performed brilliantly for Russia in the gold medal winning 2008 World Hockey Championship.
The backup will likely be Ilya Bryzgalov who is having an excellent season in Phoenix and is largely responsible for the Coyotes playing well above anyone's expectations up to this point (21 wins including NHL leading 5 shutouts, 2.02 GAA and .930 save percentage). Bryzgalov was also excellent as the starter for Russia in last year's World Hockey Championship where for the second year in a row they won gold by beating Canada in the final.
The third goalie is Washington's sensational rookie Semyon Varlamov, who was preferred to the Edmonton veteran Nikolai Khabibulin. Khabibulin has been out with injury for quite a while now while Varlamov, albeit currently injured (but on the verge of coming back) has wrestled the number one job away from Jose Theodore and aside from performing brilliantly under pressure in last year's playoffs is sporting an absolutely ridiculous career NHL record of 16-1-0 in games that ended in regulation (including 12-1-0 this season, with a 2.25 GAA and .923 save percentage).
Varlamov is unlikely to get too much playing time (possibly playing in games vs. lower tier opponents), but is considered Russia's goalie of the future, which is mainly why he was picked.
While the defensive corps appear to be Russia's achilles heel, they should not be underestimated. Andrei Markov and Sergei Gonchar are among the NHL elite when it comes to two way defensemen and are arguably the most important players for their respective clubs. Pittsburgh has struggled more in the absence of Gonchar than when Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin have missed time due to injury and Montreal is extremely glad to have Markov back much earlier than expected from a freak skate cut injury he sustained in the opening game of this season.
Judging by his 3 goals and 4 points in 3 games since returning the the Canadiens line-up Andrei is back to full strength. Markov and Gonchar will not just provide great production from the point on the Russian power play, but will also be key in moving the puck up ice to the lethal crop of Russian forwards. It is quite likely that this Russian squad will not be spending too much time in their own zone, which should alleviate some of their defensive frailties.
When they do find themselves defending, aside from Gonchar and Markov, they can count on one of NHL's most underrated defensemen, the excellent Anton Volchenkov of the Ottawa Senators. Unheralded, like most defensive defensemen, he is an excellent reader of the play, has tremendous hockey sense, is a fearless shot blocker and is extremely tough physical force. By including his picture with this article and not predictably that of Alex Ovechkin I really want to highlight Volchenkov's importance for Russia's chances at this tournament.
The rest of the defense includes two more NHLers in Fedor Tyutin of Columbus, and Denis Grebeshkov of Edmonton. The latter has had a bit of an up and down season.
Finally, the defensive corps is filled out with KHL based players. Dmitry Kalinin has had a very good season for Salavat Yulayev and has a lot of NHL experience with Buffalo, New York Rangers and Phoenix (where he played until this season). Konstantin Korneyev is a steady defenseman for CSKA Moscow and Ilya Nikulin is a tough hitting, slightly hot headed young player from Ak Bars Kazan, who is widely considered as one of the best defensemen in the KHL. In my opinion, he was a bit suspect in the recent Channel One Cup for Russia taking some bad penalties which were a result of getting caught out of position.
Lastly, I should mention some of the notable absentees from the announced squad.
Let's start with forwards. A very skilled Alexei Yashin, who is not particularly fondly remembered by the fans of the New York Islanders, but was an NHL star in his time with the Ottawa Senators and has been one of the best players in Russia since returning home (4th leading KHL scorer with 42 points in 38 games this season). Alexei Kovalev, revered by many Russian players as one of the most skilled players to ever grace the ice (who has unfortunately been very inconsistent in his career in the NHL), has had a very disappointing season for Ottawa so far despite a recent hat trick. Alexander Frolov, one of the most skilled Russian left wingers in the NHL who has been in a bit of a doghouse in Los Angelese this year.
Also missing is Anaheim's Evgeni Artyukhin, a true Russian bear on skates (6"4, 255 lbs) who might have provided additional toughness in games vs. Canada and the USA. Impressive rookie Florida defenseman Dmitry Kulikov who has become an important part of the Panthers right out of his first camp. Enigmatic forward Nikolai Zherdev who equally dazzled and frustrated NHL fans for a few years with Columbus and the New York Rangers before returning home to Russia this season.
Another very talented young forward, Nikita Filatov, who has returned to Russia on a loan after getting little playing time in Columbus and has been extremely impressive for CSKA Moscow ever since (14 points in 12 games). KHL's current leading scorer and all time Russian league scoring leader veteran Maxim Sushinsky (47 points in 38 games this season with SKA St. Petersburg). One of the top scorers in Russia in recent years, Sergei Mozyakin of Atlant Mytischi (5th leading scorer this season with 40 points in 35 games).
The list of absent defensemen is headlined by former NHL great Sergei Zubov, who has ended his long and accomplished NHL career last season and is currently the second leading scorer among KHL defensemen with 25 points in 36 games (it's much tougher to get credited with assists in Russia). The other notable absentees are defensemen Vitaly Atyushov of Metallurg Magnitogorsk, Alexander Guskov of Lokomotiv Yaroslavl, tough hitting and occasionally glove dropping Vitaly Proshkin of Salavat Yulayev and Vitaly Vishnevsky of Lokomotiv Yaroslavl.
The latter is a major surprise to me as he has a lot of NHL experience with Anaheim, Atlanta, Nashville and New Jersey and is one of the toughest Russian defensive defensemen with a booming shot.
There were also a few rumblings about including one of the best KHL goalies as the third string (Georgy Gelashvilli of Lokomotiv Yaroslavl, Alexander Yeremenko of Salavat Yulayev or Vasily Koshechkin of Lada Togliatti), but eventually that spot was given to NHL tested (albeit still inexperienced) Semyon Varlamov of the Capitals.
To conclude my analysis, I will not be offering any predictions as knockout tournaments are extremely unpredictable, especially when there are arguably up to seven good teams, but this Russian squad is undoubtedly one of the favorites to win it all.Coming off two gold medal clinching World Championships, the Russians have returned with their winning mentality and reportedly there's a great atmosphere within the team.
Anything is possible, but with the first power play unit possibly consisting of Ovechkin, Malkin and Kovalchuk with Markov and Gonchar manning the points this team will be tough to contain and the opposition will do well to stay out of the penalty box. If the aforementioned five don't get it done the Russian second unit might come out with Datsyuk, Semin and your pick of a third lethal forward up front (most likely either Morozov or Radulov).
In the words of Alex Ovechkin, that is pretty sick.