Team Russia was a perfect 4-0-0 in round-robin play during the 2019 World Junior Championship before the United States ousted them in the semifinals. While they managed to win the bronze medal, it was another dishearting end to a tournament for a team that has not captured the gold medal since 2011.
The 2020 tournament will take place in Ostrava, Czech Republic, and the Russians are hoping this is the year they can finally reclaim supremacy on the world stage. Enhanced expectations are nothing new for Team Russia, but many of their talented teams have failed in recent years.
Russia is joined by Canada, Germany, the Czech Republic, and the United States in Group B, which is an intimidating collection of opponents. Thankfully, seven players from last year’s team were eligible to return for the 2020 tournament, and all of them received an invitation to Russia’s pre-tournament training camp.
The Russian team looks deep at all positions. It is full of NHL prospects and players with previous international experience. When the dust settles, they will likely be in contention, but getting over that gold-medal hump is the main goal in 2020.
The Russian team boasts a talent-rich forward core that is buoyed by a few of their returning players. Grigori Denisenko and Vasili Podkolzin both participated in last year’s tournament, and they will be featured prominently in Ostrava.
Denisenko led the 2019 World Junior Championship in scoring with nine points in seven games. He was selected 15th overall by the Florida Panthers in the 2018 NHL Entry Draft and has been phenomenal throughout his young career when representing Russia on an international stage.
As for Podkolzin, the 18-year-old was drafted 10th overall by the Vancouver Canucks in 2019. He was the youngest player on the Russian roster at the 2019 World Junior Championships, but the 2020 tournament should be the perfect environment for him to dominate.
The Russians also have six other forwards that have been drafted by an NHL team in their talent pool. Returning players like Pavel Dorofeyev (79th overall – Vegas Golden Knights), Kirill Marchenko (49th overall – Columbus Blue Jackets), and Ivan D. Morozov (61st overall – Golden Knights) are all likely candidates to make the team.
Quebec Major Junior Hockey League standouts Alexander Khovanov (86th overall – Minnesota Wild) and Egor Sokolov (undrafted – 2020 eligible) showcased dynamic chemistry together during the 2019 Canada-Russia Series. Perhaps this flash of cohesion and their dizzying offensive numbers will get the duo on the final roster.
Maxim Groshev is the only 17-year-old forward at the camp, and he had a standout U-18 tournament earlier in the year. The odds are against him to make the team, but the 6-foot-2 forward would see a significant rise in his draft stock if he could crack the roster.
There were a few notable omissions for Team Russia, including Egor Afanasyev (45th overall – Nashville Predators) and Semyon Der-Arguchinstev (76th overall – Toronto Maple Leafs). In fairness, that is bound to happen when so many talented forwards are available for selection.
The Russians possess a stout stable of defensemen, led by star blueliner Alexander Romanov. The 19-year-old was selected 38th overall by the Montreal Canadiens in the 2018 NHL Entry Draft. He put up eight points in seven games at the 2019 World Junior Championship en route to being named the tournament’s best defenseman.
Romanov is the top defensive prospect in the Canadiens’ organization and is likely going to be one of the most impactful players in the entire tournament. The Russian team will rely upon him heavily in all situations, but Romanov will be up for the challenge.
Though less heralded as a prospect, Daniil Zhuravlyov (146th overall – Colorado Avalanche) is another returning defenseman who will see heavy minutes for Team Russia. Zhuravlyov is an ideal power-play maestro, combining puck-moving vision with a booming shot. He has tallied 8 points in 30 games for AK Bars Kazan in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) this season.
The 6-foot-2 Danila Galenyuk (undrafted) will likely be a part of the team’s shutdown pairing. He is a physical defenseman with adequate speed for his size. Mikhail Gordeyev (undrafted) is another behemoth of a blueliner at 6-foot-4 who would form an intimidating pairing with Galenyuk.
As for other potential candidates, Yegor Zamula (undrafted – Philadelphia Flyers), Daniil Misyul (70th overall – New Jersey Devils), and Anton Malyshev (undrafted) are all players with previous international experience for Russia.
While the other parts of the roster are reasonably concrete, the goaltending situation is hard to predict. The most intriguing part of the entire Russian team revolves around netminder Yaroslav Askarov. The 17-year-old is a top prospect for the 2020 NHL Entry Draft, projecting as a top-10 pick by most pundits.
Askarov has the size of a modern-day goalie, standing at 6-foot-3. He backstopped the Russian U-18 team to the 2019 Hlinka Gretzky Cup title, posting a 1.25 goals-against average and .960 save percentage in four starts. This season, through 16 starts in the VHL, Askarov has an 11-2-1 record.
Andrei Vasilevskiy was the last 17-year-old goaltender to start in a World Junior Championship for Russia, and he led his team to the silver medal. While Askarov is a bit of a wildcard, he has superstar potential and the capability to take over any game.
Despite the rave reviews, Askarov will have to battle with 19-year-olds Amir Miftakhov (undrafted) and Daniil Isayev (undrafted) for the starting gig. Miftakhov made the team last year, but he did not appear in a game. He is an agile netminder who moves well laterally and likely serves as the biggest adversary to Askarov’s starting throne.
As for Isayev, he has had a strong season in Russia between the KHL and VHL levels. Unfortunately, he performed poorly in three starts at the 2019 Canada-Russia Series, posting a 3.24 goals-against average and .885 save percentage.
No matter who they choose, the team will be in capable hands. Miftakhov is a veteran presence with composure in the limelight, Isayev has shone against professionals in the KHL, and Askarov may be the best goaltending prospect since Carey Price.
The Bottom Line
Above all else, Team Russia is set up for success in 2020. They have depth at all positions, and their star players have played in the tournament before. Unfortunately, that has been an all-too-common theme for the Russians in recent years, and the gold medal has still eluded them.
A trio of Denisenko, Podkolzin, and Romanov is a collection of stars capable of rivaling any other team in the competition. All three players can make game-changing impacts on a nightly basis. Pair that with the stellar potential of Askarov in goal, and Russia looks like a difficult team to beat.
The main thing standing in Russia’s way is the group they play in. They open the tournament against the Czech Republic, who will have a rowdy home crowd on their side. That game is a crucial one to win, as their next opponents are the United States and Canada on back-to-back days.
The bottom line is, this tournament is a failure if Russia does not make it to the championship game as they have no glaring weaknesses on their team. Many of the players on their roster either play professionally or have been in the tournament before. Anything but a gold medal will be disappointing, but they will have to overcome their past failures to get there.
Here is THW’s prediction as to who makes the final 23-man roster for Russia:
Goaltenders: Yaroslav Askarov, Amir Miftakhov, Daniil Isayev.
Defense: Alexander Romanov, Daniil Zhuravlyov, Danila Galenyuk, Mikhail Gordeyev, Daniil Misyul, Yegor Zamula, Anton Malyshev.
Forwards: Grigori Denisenko, Vasili Podkolzin, Pavel Dorofeyev, Kirill Marchenko, Ivan D. Morozov, Alexander Khovanov, Egor Sokolov, Maxim Groshev, Nikita Alexandrov, Dmitry Voronkov, Lev Komissarov, Nikita Rtishchev, Maxim Sorkim.