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Russia Wants a 3rd Consecutive World Champions Title
By Denis Neznanov
(Published December 19, 2003)

Still crowned as champions, the Russian team is on its way to, so-far, lucky Suomi-land for the Under-20 World Junior Championships. Year 2001, with the outstanding play of the Russian squad at the U-18 WJC has already gone to the annals of world hockey history. Russia vs Switzerland 6:2 unforgettable super-final with the hat-trick of NHL Atlantaís star Ilya Kovalchuk can be considered a real classic for hockey experts and fans all over the world. What expectations are on the Russian Team? How is the team preparing and what new names can shine during the upcoming WJC?

Russians continue to play well at the junior level. The secret of their success is in the official rule of Russian hockey regulations and good job done by coaches for children at hockey schools. Each Superleague team must have two U-20 players dressed for the game and if the club breaks the rule, they are fined. Of course, more junior-aged players can be on the rosters but unfortunately not all of them can get invaluable experience at the senior level at the same time. Some people think that itís an artificial rule which makes Superleague games less interesting while others totally support it because itís big merit of Russian hockey Federation which cares a lot not only about the clubsí interests but also about national reputation of its own hockey program at the international arena.

As of December 10, 2003, the head coach of the Under-20 Russian Team, Rafail Ishmatov, hasnít yet announced the list of players who would get called-up to the national team. He is working hard onto the selection process. At the recent November series of games in Canada versus collective QMJHL, OHL and WHL teams, Mr.Ishamtov has checked a couple of interesting Russian exports playing overseas. St.Louis draftee Shkotov Alexey, Buffalo draftee Voroshin Pavel, New Jersey draftee Kadeykin Anton and Minnesota draftee Misharin Grigory played onto experimental Russian far not the best C class team which Mr.Ishmatov has formed on the basis of home players available from action of Superleague. The series turned out to be a total failure with 5 games lost out of 6 but frankly speaking, the initial expectations werenít high. At least the coach got a good idea of the playersí shape and their potential.

The real Russian national team of A class will be undoubtfully formed out of the best experienced juniors playing in the Superleague who have seen lot of action and have more than two seasons in the senior league in their pro hockey careers. It will be a powerful Red Machine because the choice of players is very impressive. Just count. 16 Superleague teams should give at least 32 junior players ready to play at the highest level plus minor enforcement in Chicagoís D Anton Babchuk and Washingtonís winger Alexander Semin. Watch out the already well-known scoring machine Ovechkin Alexander. At six feet two inches and 202 pounds, he is already the team's best with 9 goals and 8 assists in 30 games with senior Dynamo in Russian Superleague! Will he beat WJCs records in Finland or will some other dark horse will appear to beat it? I repeat: this Team Russia is ready for outstanding play even without indisputable phenom sniper Zherdev Nickolay whose recent unexpected run-away from CSKA Moscow to NHLís Columbus was a shocking thing for many hockey experts and fans. Letís wait till WJC start. So far weíll try to dwell upon the most probable candidates for under-20 Team Russia and its chances for the title of champions.


As usual speed, speed, and more speed. This is the fastest group of forwards in the tournament. The Russians can ice at least four sensational lines.

Rilvary for center spot onto the team is as high as never before. At least six very strong centers compete for only four positions. Small, only 5 feet 10 inches, but very smart speedy Under-20 World Champion Dmitry Pestunov who was drafted by Phoenix in 2003 is projected as top center. Then follows Nashville prospect Grigory Shafigullin from Yaroslavl who has been chosen in the 3rd round of 2003 draft. No need to represent another NHL prospect by name Igor Mirnov selected by Ottawa in 2003 with two yearsí experience among seniors of Dynamo Moscow. The other two competitors for the only remaining 4th center position are Ilya Krikunov from Voskresensk and Dmitry Kazionov representing Togliatti. The first one plays top line in his club and very productive so far. Krikunovís progress in 03/04 season is a real surprise for Vancouver scouts because they selected him late by 223 pick in 2002 NHL Draft. Moreover Ilya is considered a versatile player who is also good at the wing. Tampa Bay draftee Dmitri Kazionov is a very defensively responsible player and plays regular in Superleague with senior Togliatti team. Any other words needed to tell about 86 birthdate phenom Evgeny Malkin who is regular center forward onto senior team Magnitogorsk in Superleague? With regard of so-to-tell evident deficit of outstanding right forwards most probable that head coach Mr.Ishmatov will send Malkin to play winger because center position is too much overcrowded onto the team and Malkin is one of those unique athletes who is also good onto wingerís spot.

At the wing, Russia also looks very competitive especially at the left wing. At least 7 extra-class players compete for 4 available spots onto the team. Russian team can boast by two world champions Ovechkin and Anshakov. Then goes Nashville drafted natural born scorer Konstantin Glazachev of Yaroslavl who is well praised by many hockey experts. Russia also hopes for coming from oversea Washingtonís offensive threat in Alexander Semin. Of course everything will depend upon his NHL team weather they agree to release the kid for U-20 WJC or not. If Washington refuses to let him play then not much of a loss for Russian team because it has at least two other strong contenders for last spot onto left wing. They are 2002 Pittsburg drafted Evgeny Isakov who plays regular with Cherepovets of Superleague and much skilled just recovered from injury 2002 Boston 2nd round pick Yevseyev Vladislav.


The right wing position could turn out to be a real headache for the Russian coach. Choice isnít rich and the unexpected departure for NHLís Columbus of phenom Zherdev Nikolay is a real shocking thing. Only two Yevgenyís reserved their places onto right forward position 2003 NYI draftee Tunik and highly touted prospect for 2004 Draft Malkin. The other names Chernykh, Ermolin and Shkotov not the best available choices for 2 remaining spots. Skilled 2003 Draft NYI choice Dmitry Chernykh who is the son of 1988 Olympic champion in ice hockey Alexander Chernykh just recovered from an injury and hasnít played much since the start of the season. Itís evident he isnít in his best shape. Other candidate Ermolin Yuri is small 5.11 and fragile winger with Omsk of Superleague can make the team but itís very much questionable if he be productive at U-20 WJC level. Who else could get under national coach radar? Probably 2002 St. Louis 2nd round pick Shkotov Alexey who was taking part in recent RE/MAX series in Canada vs Russian team.

The defensive squad can move the puck but unfortunately isnít more physical and skillful than past Russian groups. Choice of defensemen is poor. Not many of blueliners have experience of playing senior hockey with Superleague teams. Deficit of good young defenseman in Russian Superleague teams is evident for the last couple years. For blueliners Konstantin Korneyev and Denis Yezhov who won gold of Under-20 WJC in Canada it will be the second experience of that high level. The first one plays regular with Kazan of Supeleague but the last one hasnít much game experience since the start of season due his unpleasant change of team. Just month ago Ezhov transferred to Novokuznetsk of Superleague from CSKA-2 Moscow where he was polishing the bench for a long time. Dmitry Kosmachev of CSKA Moscow, 6 feet 4 inches in height and 202 pounds in weight, has already felt the taste of under-18 championships but never of higher U-20 level. Good chances for making national team have Dmitry Vorobyev and 2003 Ottawa pick Sergey Gimayev who play regular with Togliatti and Cherepovets respectively of Superleague. Big hopes for coming to U-20 national team from Chicago of huge and strong offensive-minded blue-liner Babchuk Anton. At least 3 solid defensive pairs can be formed of experienced mature defensemen. Other candidates like Panin of Togliattiís farm team, Shinin of Cherepovets affiliate team, Semenov of Superleague Togliatti team, 2003 Buffalo choice Voroshin of OHLís Missisauga, 2003 Minnesota draftee Misharin of OHLís Saginaw, 2002 New Jerseyís pick Kadeikin of OHLís Sarnia and Piskunov of Omsk farm team have been also under the radar of U-20 national team coaches during the season. Competition at the defensive corpus exists but all the players for the 4th defensive pair are more or less equal in their skills.

Goaltenders are another sore point of U-20 Team Russia. Itís the problem of Russian hockey at all the levels. Russians donít produce any more Tretyaks, Myshkins, Khabibulins and Nabokovs. Pleasant thing Russia got very solid starter for the under-20 national team in 2003 St.Louis draftee Barulin Konstantin. Barulin played successfully a lot during 03-04 season both at many different international tournaments and with his Tyumen team of Russian Higher League as well. He is at excellent shape and god save him from injuries because U-20 Russian national team doesnít have another solid back-up goalkeeper. 2003 NHL Draft pick of Nashville Sidikov Rustem and Khudjakov Denis respectively of CSKA Moscow and Cherepovets farm teams not big helpers at the international arena. Those two back-ups just mediocre players. Who knows what will be at the last borderline if Barulin were injured?

In general, the preliminary unofficial extended roster of the team looks pretty solid. Coaching brigade in trio made of Ishmatov, Gureev and Gersonsky looks very experienced and itís only up to them to find good chemistry in the team as usual. They know the players and the ones know them. Material for making good team is best possible. If coaches manage to do it then things will be ok. Russia will bring back home 3rd consecutive world Championís title first time in its hockey history although this factor can play a bad joke turning out in being a hard psychological pressure onto the players. Another shortcoming of U-20 WJC Team Russia is that its athletes havenít played as much exhibition games together as some other teams like Finland, Canada and USA. Hope only for the good understanding of the game, outstanding skills and experience of many players at senior level of hockey. Hopes of Russian people only for gold and no matter what pair of teams in the final will look like Canada, Finland or USA versus Russia. Russians care only about their 3rd gold medal. They should come out onto the ice and win it like in old Soviet times.



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