Following a heartbreaking defeat to Canada in the gold medal game of last year’s World Junior Championship (WJC), Team Russia will be looking for redemption in 2021. This time around, they’ve got a completely revamped squad with just three returning players on their 25-man roster, plus a brand new head coach in Hall of Famer and Detroit Red Wings legend Igor Larionov.
Related: THW World Juniors Guide
Although the Russians may lack international experience, their roster is certainly packed with skill, including five first-round and six second-round picks from the last two NHL Entry Drafts. Drawn into Group B with fellow hockey powerhouses in the United States and Sweden, Russia will certainly need to rely on their top players if they’re going to find a place on the podium once again.
Let’s take a look at three of Russia’s most important players going into this year’s WJC.
Without a doubt, the main man for Russia will be goaltender Yaroslav Askarov. The Nashville Predators prospect made his WJC debut in the 2020 tournament as a 17-year-old, putting up relatively weak numbers by his standards. But now a year older and better, the 6-foot-4 netminder will likely be depended upon heavily to steal some games for his nation.
Over seven games with CSKA Moscow of the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) this season, Askarov has put up an astounding .962 save percentage with a measly 0.96 goals against average. With numbers like those, it’s clear why the Predators selected him at 11th overall this October, and why he’ll be the backbone of this Russian squad.
The Toronto Maple Leafs made headlines this past August when they dealt speedster Kasperi Kapanen to the Pittsburgh Penguins for a package that was centred around the 15th-overall pick. The Leafs then raised some eyebrows when they selected relatively unknown Russian winger Rodion Amirov. But so far this season, Amirov has lived up to the hype, scoring five goals and eight points in 23 games for Salavat Yulaev Ufa of the KHL while also being named forward of the tournament at this November’s Karjala Cup.
Amirov will likely be deployed on Russia’s top line, providing a strong combination of offensive firepower and defensive acumen from the left-wing. He’s shown the ability to dominate at a top-level international tournament before, so don’t be surprised if he does it again at the WJC.
One of the few returnees from last year’s squad, Vancouver Canucks 2019 first-rounder and Russia’s U20 captain Vasily Podkolzin is coming into the tournament with high expectations.
The 6-foot-4 power forward had an impressive 2019-20 campaign with eight points in 30 games for SKA St. Petersburg of the KHL, while contributing five points in Russia’s silver medal run at last year’s WJC. However, the right-winger has had an up-and-down 2020-21 season, scoring just six points in 24 KHL games so far while also finding himself scratched a few times, leading some to question his status as a high-end prospect. He did show a bit of a bounce-back at the Karjala Cup, though, finishing as the tournament’s top scorer with a goal and five points.
Regardless of his rocky season, Podkolzin remains one of Russia’s top weapons and most experienced players, and it bodes well for him that Larionov seems to be a big fan of his game. He’ll certainly be relied upon in every situation and given plenty of opportunity to prove himself once again on the international stage.
As always, Russia is considered one of the top contenders at the WJC, though there will rightfully be questions about their lack of experience – especially on the blue line. Though not listed here, New Jersey Devils 2020 first-rounder Shakir Mukhamadullin could play a big role on Russia’s defence. The 6-foot-4 defender moves very well for his size and has already collected two goals and nine points in the KHL this season as an 18-year-old.
Ultimately, Russia’s fate will likely depend heavily on the performance of Askarov in net, who could almost singlehandedly win them the gold if he’s on his game. You’ve also got to wonder how Larionov will fare behind the bench in his first go as a head coach, though his track record as a player suggests he’ll be more than fine.