Russia’s final roster for the 2020 World Junior Championship is right along the lines of projections. Highlighted by the likes of Yaroslav Askarov, Alexander Romanov and Grigori Denisenko, the Russian squad should have a real chance to repeat, if not improve upon, their bronze medal effort in the 2019 tournament.
Last year, Russia dominated in the preliminary stage, winning four straight games and allowing just six goals. After easily dismissing Slovakia in the first round, they failed to conquer the United States in the semi-finals and eventually had to settle with a bronze medal.
With a medal in sight, Russia will be heavily reliant on their returning talent to produce most of their offense. They possess star talent on defense, offense, and in net, but their depth through the lineup will be a big weakness against some of the deeper rosters in the tournament.
Russia may not be the immediate favorite for the tournament victor, but they’ll still be turning heads early with their highly skilled roster.
Yaroslav Askarov, Daniil Isayev, Amir Miftakhov
If there’s one position that the Russians will be particularly strong in, it’s their goaltending. Askarov has been the unanimous answer in net for the Russians this year. Nearly every scout considers him a top-10 pick in this year’s draft, and he has the numbers to back up the hype.
As a 17-year-old, Askarov has put up a 2.38 goals against average (GAA) and .922 save percentage (SV%) through 16 games in the VHL, Russia’s second-tier league. To put that into perspective, he’s playing against players who are considerably older and more experienced, yet he’s still been able to post respectable numbers. Pair that with his stalwart effort in the Hlinka Gretzky Cup, posting a 1.25 GAA and a .960 SV%, the young goaltender has set himself up for a promising career.
He’ll be one of the younger goaltenders in the tournament, but that shouldn’t knock his natural talent. Next to Spencer Knight of the United States, he should be the most promising goaltending prospect in the tournament. His left-to-right ability is unprecedented, especially for a goalie of his age. He can sometimes play a tad too aggressive but he’s able to compensate with his lightning quick post-to-post play. Expect some highlight reel saves from this youngster as he continues to build a resume that’s worthy of a top-20 selection in the 2020 Entry Draft.
Askarov will be backed up by fellow VHLer, Daniil Isayev. The 19-year-old has posted solid numbers in the VHL and even has some strong performances in the KHL with Lokomotiv Yaroslavl. The undrafted goaltender has struggled at the international level, playing just a single game with the U18 Russian squad, posting a 2.42 GAA and an .889 SV%. Despite the difference in age, he’s the clear cut backup to Askarov and shouldn’t expect to see significant time in the tournament.
Like Isayev, Amir Miftakhov would be hard pressed to find significant ice time for the Russians. His 2.20 GAA and .914 SV% in 18 VHL games this season jump out but not enough to warrant a starting job. The net squarely belongs to Askarov as he becomes the youngest Russian goaltender in the WJC since Andrei Vasilevskiy.
Alexander Romanov, Yegor Zamula, Danila Galenyuk, Anton Malyshev, Daniil Misyul, Daniil Pylenkov, Daniil Zhuravlyov
Along with having a top goaltender in Askarov, the Russian squad will have perhaps the top defenseman in the entire tournament. Romanov has squarely established himself as a premier two-way defenseman at the international and KHL levels. He’s one of two returners for the Russian blue line, leading them in last year’s tournament with eight points in seven games. His efforts won him the honor as the best defenseman in the 2019 WJC.
He leads all U20 KHL defensemen with a plus-12 over 33 games. He should be quarterbacking the Russian power play despite not playing an entirely offensive game.
Daniil Zhuravlyov and Danila Dalneyuk are only two players who have more points than Romanov amongst U20 defensemen in the KHL this year. Should Romanov struggle on the man advantage, either player should be able to slot in nicely. They both have eight points in their respective KHL seasons.
Zhuravlyov is another returning face to the WJC squad, however, he was far less productive as Romanov, logging just a single assist in his seven games. He should see an expanded role in this year’s tournament but will be behind Romanov in the depth chart.
Somehow, Anton Malyshev will be the Russians’ only right handed defenseman this year. That should mean he’s an immediate favorite to play first-line minutes with Romanov. Oddly enough, a lack of right handers seems to be a running issue for squads through the tournament, as both the United States and Kazakhstan have a single right handed defenseman on their final roster.
Yegor Zamula should be an intriguing force on the blue line, serving as one of a few Russians who play Canadian junior hockey. The undrafted 19-year-old has been turning heads ever since he was passed on in his draft year. In two seasons with the Calgary Hitmen, he has 84 points in 89 games, leading their defensive scoring by a wide margin. His strength in his own end will be a big question mark, especially when he’s normally used to North American ice.
All in all, the defense has the star power to succeed but there’s a question of solidarity and consistency for players not named Romanov, Zhuravlyov, or Delneyuk.
Grigori Denisenko is once again the crux of the Russian offense at the WJC. Last year he was tied for the tournament-lead in points with nine in seven games. The Florida Panthers prospect has 14 points in 52 KHL games over the past two years. He’s all but graduated from playing in the juniors or minors and solidified a roster spot with Yaroslavl Lokomotiv. He should be back as the same dominant force that won All-Star honors in last year’s fixture.
Along with Denisenko, the Russians are getting prized prospect Vasili Podkolzin for his second go at the WJC. The 2019 10th-overall selection has been proving once again why he’s one of the premier young talents in Russia. He leads all U19 players in the VHL with a .50 point-per-game average.
Denisenko, Podkolzin and tournament newcomer, Pavel Dorofeyev, are all poised to be lethal scoring threats on the wing. They’ll have to make up for the lost offense of Dmitri Zavgorodny, who went down with an injury while playing in the QMJHL and will miss the tournament. Unfortunately, the dynamic combination of Zavgorodny, Alexander Khovanov and Egor Sokolov that absolutely lit up the Canada-Russia series won’t get the chance to do the same in Ostrava.
Khovanov should be an especially interesting name to watch as the tournament progresses. The Minnesota Wild prospect was diagnosed with Hepatitis A during his draft season, but has since reignited his play to another level. He’s on his way to shattering previous career highs in the QMJHL this season. His 53 points in 26 games trails only Alexis Lafreniere and Cedric Pare of Rimouski Oceanic. Sokolov is right behind his countryman and linemate with 51 points.
The Russians’ most prominent weakness comes at the center position. As talented as their wingers might be, they lack a true threat down the middle. Denisenko will elevate any center he’s playing with, and should the combination of Sokolov and Khovanov return to their Canada-Russia series chemistry, the top-six for the Russians should be as lethal as any.
The Bottom Line
Ironically, the bottom line for the Russians will be their bottom lines. They’re lack of depth scoring was a prominent issue for them last year, and this year is looking no different. Their star power is something to behold, but they won’t be getting much help. While Askarov is undoubtedly a generational talent, that doesn’t always translate to elite play in the WJC, especially when he has to follow up Pyotr Kochetkov’s excellent performance in 2019.
The talent of Romanov, Askarov, Podkolzin, Denisenko and Khovanov can rival any other team in the tournament. They’ll be a tough team to beat but this seems to be the running theme for Russian efforts at the WJC: boasting a star-studded team but failing to meet the full expectations. Anything below a gold medal is a disappointment, especially when the host country of the Czech Republic is fairly close to their home.
They’ll be tested right out the gate with a matchup against the Czech Republic to open the tournament on Dec. 26. They’ll then get an off day before going back-to-back against Canada and the United States. Their preliminary round concludes with a tilt against Germany on Dec. 31. A dominant win against the host country could go a long way towards extending their undefeated streak in the preliminary rounds.
Stats via eliteprospects.com