Equipped with a strong list of recruits from some of Russia’s top leagues, the Russians are set for Round 2 in Edmonton, bringing an intriguing roster along with them. Suffering an underwhelming fourth-place finish in the 2020-21 edition of the tournament, the Russians are on the hunt for redemption once again, looking to end a long 10-year drought since their last gold medal.
This year, the Russians will likely find themselves in a dogfight with the other top teams in the tournament. However, one massive question mark is already surrounding their team, as the Russians elected to take no players who are currently playing on North American teams. While this leaves the door wide open to some other names who want to establish themselves on the international stage, it doesn’t help Russia’s chances at finishing the tournament with a medal.
The responsibility now falls on the shoulders of Sergei Zubov, who is at the helm of the Russian junior team for the first time. Taking over for Igor Larionov, who is now leading Russia’s Olympic Team, Zubov will have his hands full as he attempts to bring Russia back to the top of of the junior hockey world.
Similar to the teams of years past, Russia’s team boasts a healthy mix of highly touted NHL prospects and future draft picks. However, without some notable North American names on the roster, the hope of a first-place finish is already in jeopardy.
Askarov Returns for Round Three
Team Russia Goaltenders: Yaroslav Askarov, Yegor Guskov, Maxim Motorygin
Yaroslav Askarov, who was taken 11th overall by the Nashville Predators in the 2020 NHL Entry Draft, is set to man the crease for the Russians for the third straight year. There wasn’t really much debate with this one, as Askarov continues to establish himself as one of the best goalie prospects currently playing overseas. Putting up decent numbers in his first two appearances at the World Junior tournament, I’d expect the 19-year-old to dominate between the pipes this time around, with his international experience playing a big role in his projected success.
Yegor Gushkov is almost a lock to become Russia’s backup option, as he’s currently enjoying an impressive season with Loko Yaroslavl in the Minor Hockey League (MHL). Backed by a solid 7-3-2 record, Gushkov holds a respectable 2.88 goals-against average (GAA) and a .915 save percentage (SV%) thus far, putting himself in a good position to play some sort of role in Russia’s goaltending conversation.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise to see the Russians handing the crease back to Askarov, as he is certainly Russia’s best option in net. At such a young age, his international experience is no secret to Russia’s opponents, but this could undoubtedly be an underrated advantage. Experience plays a massive role in the success of a team at the World Junior tournament and with the expectation being that Askarov has only gotten better, he certainly has the capability to continue to steal games at the international level.
Shakir Mukhamadullin Anchors the Russian Defense
Team Russia Defense: Vladimir Grudinin, Kirill Kirsanov, Arseniy Koromyslov, Nikita Smirnov, Shakir Mukhamadullin, Nikita Novikov, Yegor Savikov, Kirill Steklov
Russia’s defensive structure will be anchored by 2020 first-round pick Shakir Mukhamadullin, who is returning to the junior stage for the second time. After seeing his role grow dramatically over the course of last year’s tournament, expect Mukhamadullin to play a key role on the Russian blue line at this year’s rendition. A 6-foot-4 defensemen who can skate and move the puck with poise, the New Jersey Devils prospect can play a variety of roles for Team Russia.
Joining Mukhamadullin on the blue line is fellow returnee Kirill Kirsanov, who has split time between the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) and MHL this season. While not being known as an offensive defenseman, Kirsanov’s speed and breakout ability makes him an integral part to Russia’s defensive strategy. A phenomenal distributor, expect the Los Angeles Kings prospect to play a similar role at this year’s tournament, emphasizing puck movement and speed through the neutral zone.
The rest of Russia’s defensemen consist of a mix of recruits from a variety of Russian leagues, and for the most part, are set to play behind the likes of Mukhamadullin and Kirsanov. One name to watch moving forward happens to be the only other defenseman who has been drafted into the NHL so far, as Buffalo Sabres prospect Nikita Novikov is set to hit the ice. The 2021 sixth-round pick is only 18 but stands 6-foot-4 already and his reach and size will undoubtedly be an asset for him throughout the tournament.
While the returnees will likely play a big role for the Russians over the course of the tournament, the problems with this particular roster start to reveal themselves when you look past the returnees from last year, as you’ll begin to notice a shocking amount of omissions from the final roster. Daniil Chayka has enjoyed an incredibly successful season with the Ontario Hockey League’s (OHL) Guelph Storm, registering 22 points in 26 games, yet was left off the team in favour of younger talent.
Yan Kuznetsov, who also played at the 2021 tournament and has experience in the NCAA, the American Hockey League (AHL) and currently with the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League’s (QMJHL) Saint John Sea Dogs, was omitted from the final roster. Artyom Grushnikov, who plays for one of the OHL’s best teams in the Hamilton Bulldogs and who was recently a second-round pick to the Dallas Stars in the 2021 NHL Draft, was also left off the roster.
These decisions are, well, puzzling to say the least. As tweeted by The Athletic’s Scott Wheeler, players were cited for being worse defensively compared to players training in Russia. This is a horrendous mishap when it comes to player evaluation, and it severely damages Russia’s hopes at even competing with other top countries in the tournament. Yes, Mukhamadullin and Kirsanov are talented, but when you look at who isn’t representing Russia at the tournament, it becomes clear that this team is not as talented as it could be.
Matvei Michkov Makes His World Juniors Debut
Team Russia Forwards: Ivan Didkovsky, Nikita Guslistov, Ivan Zinchenko, Dmitry Zlodeev, Vasily Ponomaryov, Semyon Demidov, Matvei Michkov, Fyodor Svechkov, Kirill Tankov, Marat Khusnutdinov, Nikita Chibrikov, Alexander Pashin, Pavel Tyutnev, Danila Yurov
If there’s one thing that’s nearly a guarantee when it comes to Team Russia’s forwards it is that many will look to last year’s returnees for guidance when it comes to offense. Carolina Hurricanes prospect Vasily Ponomaryov is making his return after posting three points in seven World Junior contests at the 2021 tournament. He’ll look to play a much more significant role this time around, as he’s posted an impressive 11 points in 16 contests in Supreme Hockey League (VHL) action this season.
Another returnee looking to build off of an impressive 2021 tournament performance is 2020 second-round pick Marat Khusnutdinov. Registering five points in seven games at last year’s tournament, the Minnesota Wild prospect will be relied upon at both ends of the ice. A terrific skater, Khusnutdinov’s strengths exist in transition, as he uses his speed to establish zone time in the offensive end and back check in his own zone. His hockey IQ in all areas of the ice will be a focal point for the Russians moving forward.
One of the most exciting players to watch at this year’s tournament will be projected 2023 top-five pick Matvei Michkov, who returns to the international stage after locking horns with Canada’s Connor Bedard at the 2020 U18 Championships. Michkov, who is widely regarded to be the second-overall pick at the 2023 NHL Draft, has dominated Russia’s junior league so far this season, posting an absurd 28 points in 11 games. While being just 17 years old, Michkov will look to make a statement at this year’s tournament, and further ignite the 2023 NHL Draft conversation.
While those three names will certainly be relied upon heavily by the Russians, there’s no shortage of players who have the chance of making their own statements at the 2021 tournament. Alexander Pashin, who was on of the last draftees of the 2020 class, has gotten off to an impressive start in the VHL this season. The Hurricanes prospect has 18 points (including 13 goals) through Toros Neftekamsk’s first 24 games. Nikita Chibrikov, a 2021 second-round pick, finds himself in a similar position, as the elusive winger has wowed scouts in both VHL and MHL action this season. The Winnipeg Jets prospect has shown growth in both speed and puck control, and should look to become more of a household name when the Russians hit the ice in Edmonton.
On the flip side, the same roster-based issue is rearing its ugly head for the Russians once again. The absence of a couple notable Russian skaters currently playing in North America cannot be ignored. The first being Daniil Gushchin, who has been a standout on a disappointing Niagara IceDogs team. After watching him play a handful of times for Niagara, I can definitively say that he would be a great fit at the World Juniors. Posting an incredible 25 points in 21 games for Niagara, Gushchin’s intelligence with the puck starts with his skating. He takes quick, efficient routes in all areas of the ice and uses his edgework to his advantage. Leaving him off the team in favour of junior players in Russia does not seem like a wise decision whatsoever as Gushchin’s been able to excel even on a disappointing team.
Another shocking name that was omitted from the final roster is North Bay Battalion standout Matvei Petrov. Petrov, who just signed his entry-level contract with the Edmonton Oilers, has been a force on a dominant North Bay team who have taken the OHL by storm. Petrov is already up to 44 points in just 27 games, and has formed an unstoppable duo with San Jose Sharks prospect Brandon Coe. Armed with what seems like an NHL-ready shot, leaving Petrov off the final roster only raises more question marks for the Russian offense.
Russia Will Be Competitive, But Serious Questions Still Remain
While the goal at every World Junior tournament is to win a gold medal, the pressure seems to be mounting for each Russian team who returns with anything less. It’s been a decade since the Russians captured their last gold medal, and with more and more teams becoming more and more competitive each year, the task will not get any easier.
The Russians, who are already scratching heads by electing to pass on anyone currently playing in North America, will feel the pressure of an entire nation when they take the ice in Alberta. Yes, Yaroslav Askarov is hungry for redemption as he mans the crease for the third and final time, and yes, Shakir Mukhamadullin is poised to take control of the Russian blue line, but even still, the complete absence of North American skaters is already putting the potential of this team in doubt.
It’s been 10 long years since Russia’s last run to glory at the World Junior Tournament and only time will tell if 2022 ends that drought once and for all.
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Currently a sport media student at Ryerson University in Toronto, Josh Kim is a freelance photographer and journalist with The Hockey Writers. Having worked within the ECHL, PWHPA, and OHL in a variety of content-based roles, Josh has been working in sports for the past 5+ years and currently finds himself working with Ryerson athletics as a sports photographer. With The Hockey Writers, Josh chases feature stories while also covering the Winnipeg Jets, the World Juniors, and the NHL Entry Draft. While hockey continues to be his main focus, Josh is also a fully credentialed WNBA writer and the host of the Get Your Head in the Game podcast, which emphasizes the connection between mental health and sport. If you’re interested in seeing a full display of his work, if you’ve got a story tip, or just want to get in touch, please find Josh’s socials linked below his articles and visit his website: joshkimphoto.com