Team Kazakhstan is primed for their first consecutive top division appearance in the World Juniors since 2009. Their roster is now finalized, and the question becomes whether or not it is good enough for a “three-peat” and an avoidance of relegation once more.
While upsets are known to happen in this tournament – and if there was ever a “Cinderella” team it would be this one – but do not expect Kazakhstan to come close to a medal in Ostrava and Třinec. Figure them to be more of a spoiler, and one that can be a thorn in the sides for any number of the powerhouse squads.
One thing that Kazakhstan definitely has working in their favor is team chemistry. Of the 23 players on their roster, 16 of them are teammates on Snezhnye Barsy Astana (nicknamed “Snow Leopards” in English) in the молодежная хоккейная лига (MHL), Russia’s Junior Hockey League. Kazakhstan’s head coach Sergei Starygin is also the head coach for the “Snow Leopards”, so he knows his players quite well.
Kazakhstan is nestled in Group A for 2020, alongside Finland, Sweden, Slovakia and Switzerland. They may even have a good fighting chance out of the gates, as their first two games in Třinec are against the Swiss and the Slovakians. Starygin – who has assumed this role before for five other IIHF U20 tournaments since the early 2000s – will need to work some magic just the same.
THW breaks down how Kazakhstan’s roster has been put together.
Vladislav Nurek (Altai Ust-Kamenogorsk), Roman Kalmykov (Snezhnye Barsy Astana), Maxim Pavlenko (Snezhnye Barsy Astana).
Anticipate that Vladislav Nurek will have the starting role in net. He is the only goalie from last year’s team that is making a return. Nurek made two appearances in British Columbia. Nurek would stop 33 of 36 shots against the USA after coming in as relief. He would be given a rougher go against Slovakia who put five past him in an 11-2 loss. At 6-foot and 160 pounds, Nurek’s size isn’t anything spectacular but his WJC experience makes him an important asset for his country.
Roman Kalmykov will likely serve as Nurek’s backup, but may see some starting action as well. The 5-foot-9, 180-pound 18-year-old was Kazakhstan’s starting goalie for the 2019 U18 Division I-A tournament in Grenoble, France. He backstopped the Kazkahs to the silver medal, and posted the best goals-against average (1.63) and best save percentage (.929) of any goalie at the tournament.
At 17 years of age, Maxim Pavlenko is the youngest of the three goalies but also the most sizable. Pavlenko stands 6-foot-4 and 176 pounds. That size alone may merit the opportunity for him to suit up, especially against some of the more heavily-gunned nations.
Tamirlan Gaitamirov (Des Moines Buccaneers), Madi Dikhanbek (Snezhnye Barsy Astana), David Muratov (Snezhnye Barsy Astana), Timofei Katassonov (Snezhnye Barsy Astana), Vladimir Shlychkov (Snezhnye Barsy Astana), Artyom Korolyov (Snezhnye Barsy Astana), Danil Butenko (Snezhnye Barsy Astana), Ansar Shaikhmeddenov (Snezhnye Barsy Astana).
Tamirlan Gaitamirov is the only member of Team Kazakhstan who plays his junior hockey outside of Eastern Europe. The sizable defender has played the past two seasons in the United States Hockey League (USHL). At 6-foot-4 and over 200 pounds, he is the second largest defender on the Kazakhstan blue line. Gaitamirov is going to be relied upon for his physicality and defensive prowess. Currently playing for the Des Moines Buccaneers, he is 0-4-4 through 61 USHL games between fourdifferent teams and has compiled 43 penalty minutes. This is his first U20 tournament for Kazakhstan.
The biggest man of the Kazakh defense corps is Timofei Katassonov. Standing at 6-foot-5 and 212 pounds, he is one of the largest players in this tournament. As his size might suggest, Katassonov is a very physical, aggressive defender. In 39 games for Astana this season, he has compiled 72 PIMs. This is the first IIHF tournament of his career.
David Muratov is one of only two defenders from Kazakhstan who returns from last year’s team – the other being Artyom Korolyov. At 6-foot-4 and 180 pounds, he is yet another big body on the Kazakh defense. Muratov will not generate any offense from the back end, but his size around the net and experience at this level of play should help the Kazakhs slow their opponents down.
Konstantin Bondarenko (Snezhnye Barsy Astana), Andrei Buyalsky (Saryarka Karaganda), Oleg Boiko (Snezhnye Barsy Astana), Ruslan Dyomin (HK Temirtau), Maxim Musorov (Snezhnye Barsy Astana), Alikhan Omirbekov (Snezhnye Barsy Astana), Denis Chaporov (HK Temirtau), Nikita Lyapunov (Altai Ust-Kamenogorsk), Vladislav Saiko (Snezhnye Barsy Astana), Maxim Chalov (Altai Ust-Kamenogorsk), Yusup Asukhanov (Snezhnye Barsy Astana), Stanislav Alexandrov (Snezhnye Barsy Astana).
Oleg Boiko captained Kazakhstan’s 2019 U18 team and played for the U20 squad in British Columbia – now he is back again for 2020. Boiko played in all six games for the Kazakhs in 2019’s tourney, and scored the opening goal of his team’s 4-3 win in their first relegation game against Denmark. Also serving as team captain for Snezhnye Barsy Astana, it is pretty obvious that Boiko will be Starygin’s go-to leader yet again. In 42 MHL games this season, he has gone 9-14-23 in scoring. At only 18, Boiko could still play another World Juniors after this one.
Alikhan Omirbekov is one of the most diminutive players at this tournament. At 5-foot-9, he is all of 143 pounds. That being said, he was a member of Kazakhstan’s silver medal-winning U18 squad in Grenoble last year. In 40 games for the “Snow Leopards” this MHL season, Omirbekov has tallied three goals, seven assists and 10 points. At 18 years of age, this is his first U20 tournament for Kazakhstan and likely will not be his last.
At 17 years old, Stanislav Alexandrov is one of the youngest players at this event. He went 2-1-3 through five games at the 2019 U18 Division I-A. A player for Astana as well, Alexandrov is 12-2-14 through 27 games this 2019-20 MHL season. He can definitely snipe some goals, and may surprise a few in the Czech Republic with his quick release. Alexandrov is a player that you will want to keep an eye on.
The Bottom Line
As we stated, the biggest advantage that Kazakhstan has is their team chemistry. The vast majority of their players are either currently teammates or have been teammates together at some point in time. Starygin felt quite comfortable going with primarily a “Snow Leopards” roster, so we will see how that ultimately works out for him.
Another intangible that this team possesses is that nearly half of their players were part of that silver medal U18 victory in Grenoble last year. Now playing together in the next phase of their international hockey careers, maybe some of that particular chemistry can carry over to the U20s
You have to also like the size of the Kazakhs, especially their defense. They are big bodies around the net and will utilize their strength to hinder opposing teams in close.
While Kazakhstan was a “Cinderella” last year, that is unlikely to be the case when they take to the ice in the Czech Republic. Look for them to try and play out of relegation once more.