Although Russia is usually never the clear-cut favorite to win in each World Junior Championship, they always have a balanced roster and the ability to surprise teams. This team is filled with younger talent than usual, and the coaching staff recently changed, with Sergei Zubov being named head coach. As with every other country, they have released their preliminary roster, and this looks like a group that is strong defensively and benefits from stellar goaltending.
The talent may seem slim at the top with only three first-round picks, but the disparity is not as significant as expected. A majority of the players were taken in the second and third rounds in recent NHL Drafts, along with young talent that projects to be taken early when next July comes around.
Related: Guide to the 2022 World Juniors
Following a 4-1 loss to Finland in the bronze medal game in 2021, this group is looking to showcase itself as a powerhouse nation and climb its way back to the top. As the tournament is set to take place on Dec. 26, let’s look at the strengths and weaknesses of this Russian group as they anticipate playing in Red Deer and Edmonton.
Goaltending: Askarov Facing Vengeance
Yaroslav Askarov is projected to be the top goaltender in this entire tournament, as the 19-year-old who was taken by the Nashville Predators at 11th overall in the 2020 NHL Draft has a lot to prove. After the team’s loss to Finland last year in the bronze medal game, he stood at the blue line during the opposing group’s celebrations to show his support, which earned respect across the hockey community. After falling short against Canada, losing the gold medal in 2020, this is his third and final time participating in this tournament. So far, he has struggled with SKA St. Petersburg in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) beginning the 2021-22 regular season, boasting a .904 save percentage (SV%) through five games.
Looking at his competition, which features three other goaltenders on the preliminary, it is quite clear that Askarov will be the team’s starter, and nobody will likely challenge him for that. Yegor Guskov, who played in the U20 Four Nations tournament, is fighting for a backup role on this team. He has played for Loko Yaroslav in the Junior Hockey League (MHL), the highest major junior league in the country, and has a .915 SV% in 13 starts for the team.
Looking at the other two netminders vying for positions, Zakhar Vinogradov is a 19-year-old who plays for Buran Voronezh in the Supreme Hockey League (VHL). He currently has a .918 SV% in 17 starts, which is impressive considering his 5-9-2-1 record suggests that his team is struggling. Maxim Motorygin is the youngest player of the bunch, at 18 years old. He plays for CSK VVS Samara in the VHL and has just a lone victory through 13 starts this season. Shocking is an understatement if he lands the backup position by the end of the selection camp.
Defense: Mukhamadullin Leads the Way
This defensive core is not the most talented group in the tournament, and it may end up being their downfall if the team struggles. However, underrated players such as Shakir Mukhamadullin lead the charge, the 20th-overall selection in the 2020 NHL Draft by the New Jersey Devils. He was just signed to an entry-level contract by the NHL franchise on Dec. 1, as he’s played very strongly with Salavat Yulaev Ufa in the KHL.
Kirill Kirsanov is a player that is projected to be among the six defenders playing for this team, as he was drafted in the third round of the 2021 NHL Draft by the Los Angeles Kings. He was on the team last year, played on the power play, and his pairing with Artemi Kniazev was fantastic defensively. Nikita Novikov is looking to make the roster for the first time, as he was drafted by the Buffalo Sabres in the sixth round in the 2021 NHL Draft. He has played in 30 games for Dynamo Moskva in the KHL, producing one goal and three assists and averaging consistent minutes.
The depth is thin for this group, and if Mukhamadullin goes down with an injury, that likely ends their chances of medaling in this tournament. Luckily, they have Askarov in the net, making each defenseman’s job slightly easier whenever he plays.
Forward: Get To Know Michkov
There is some young talent featured in this Russian group, such as Matvei Michkov, a top prospect eligible for the 2023 NHL Draft. The 17-year-old has a terrific shot, is not afraid to try creative plays, and is known to dominate internationally. Playing with SKA St. Petersburg of the KHL, he currently has two goals and five points in 13 games, which is impressive considering how young he is playing at a professional level. All eyes will be on him to produce, but remember that this is a tournament designed for 19- and 20-year-olds to dominate, so he shouldn’t be expected to be the best forward on the team.
Looking at other options, Danila Yurov and Ivan Miroshnichenko have both ranked individually in the top-10 in various rankings for the upcoming 2022 NHL Draft. Both play in this tournament for the first time and offer different elements to their game. It has been a tough season in the KHL for Yurov, as he has zero points in 21 games, suggesting he should be sent down to play in the MHL. He is a player that can score off the rush with a patent wrist shot or stand on the half wall on the power play and unleash fun power on a one-timer shot. For Miroshnichenko, this is also a huge chance to showcase himself, as he hasn’t been excellent this season splitting time between the MHL and VHL, especially defensively and being out of position. Some scouts believe he may be a potential top-5 talent due to his remarkable ability to create zone entries with possession and sometimes cut to the middle of the ice to open a shooting lane for himself.
Looking at returning players, Marat Khusnutdinov will likely lead the way for this forward group, playing in this tournament for the second time in his career. He has solidified a role for himself on SKA St. Petersburg in the KHL, producing 11 points through 29 games so far, and is known for his playing abilities to find difficult passing lanes for his teammates. He has a knack for the big moments, such as scoring the overtime winner against Sweden last year in the preliminary round, ending their 54-year undefeated streak.
Russia Will Be a Medal Contender
Based on the changes to this Russian group, such as the absence of Vancouver Canucks prospect Vasily Podkolzin and and Toronto Maple Leafs prospect Rodion Amirov, it’s hard to see this group contending for the gold medal. Their defensive core is not at the top compared to other countries, and if they sustain an injury or two on the back end, they don’t appear to have the depth to maintain that. However, their goaltending will allow them to compete in every game, and an appearance in the bronze medal game at the very least is undoubtedly attainable. Their forward group will likely surprise teams with the number of young options they are bringing, assuming the 2022 and 2023 NHL Draft eligible prospects make the cut.
In the end, Russia will be relying on solid goaltending and is hoping for unknown players to take profound leaps. This group may end up getting to the gold medal game, but if something goes wrong, they could find themselves not even receiving a medal.
THW’s Projected Final Roster for Team Russia
Goaltenders – Yaroslav Askarov, Yegor Guskov, Maxim Motorygin
Defence – Shakir Mukhamadullin, Kirill Kirsanov, Nikita Novikov, Yegor Savikov , Vladimir Grudinin, Maxim Fedotov, Nikita Smirnov
Forwards – Nikita Chibrikov, Marat Khusnutdinov, Matvei Michkov, Kirill Tankov, Ivan Miroshnichenko, Alexander Pashin, Fyodor Svechkov, Nikita Guslistov, lya Ivantsov, Danila Yurov, Pavel Tyutnev, Ivan Didkovsky, Bogdan Trineev, Vasily Ponomaryov
All the 2022 World Junior Championship Team Information:
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|Team Czech Republic||Preview||Roster|
Jordan Jacklin is a freelance writer who covers the Buffalo Sabres here at The Hockey Writers. Jordan is a student at Ryerson’s Sport Media program and uses analytics and video scouting to evaluate your favourite players in the game.