With a forward group that consists of Alex Ovechkin, Artemi Panarin and Evgeni Malkin it’s easy to consider Team Russia one of the more powerful teams coming into the World Cup. However, when you consider the lack of star power coming from their defensemen, they’re going to rely heavily on the forwards if they want to keep up with the likes of Sidney Crosby and Team Canada.
Over the past decade, Russia has produced elite forward talent that is competitive both internationally and professionally. Players like Ovechkin, Ilya Kovalchuk and Malkin have taken the National and Kontinental Hockey Leagues by storm. The new generation of young forwards that include players such as Vladimir Tarasenko, Nikita Kucherov and Panarin have continued that strong reputation of potentially elite scoring talent coming out of Russia.
Compared to the forward group, the truth is, the defensemen don’t have the same level of talent or depth. It seems as though Russia has missed developing a whole generation of defensemen for their international program.
*Defensive pairings are in no particular order
Team Russia’s defensemen all play professional hockey in the NHL. Andrei Markov and Alexei
Emelin play for the Montreal Canadiens, Nikita Nesterov for the Tampa Bay Lightning, Alexey Marchenko skates for the Detroit Red Wings, Nikita Zaitsev for the Toronto Maple Leafs, Dmitry Kulikov for the Buffalo Sabres and Dmitry Orlov for the Washington Capitals.
The group has a mixture of young and old players as Zaitsev comes in at age 23 while Markov is 37.
What stands out about the group is that none of them are in their NHL team’s top pairing. The same can’t be said for any other World Cup team, other than possibly the Czech Republic with Zybnek Michalek and the Arizona Coyotes.
“The Russians have two defensemen in the League that play more than 20 minutes per game this season: Andrei Markov of the Montreal Canadiens and Dmitry Kulikov of the Florida Panthers,” NHL.com notes. Those numbers for 2016-17 will surely change as Markov will be utilized less in Montreal because of his age and Kulikov is moving to the Buffalo Sabres.
For a team that’s looking to medal for the first time since 2002, the defensive composition could damage those hopes.
Lack of Defensive Development
While Russia has developed some of the most impressive forwards in the world, they have failed to do the same with their defensemen. The lack of a talented elite player such as Erik Karlsson or Drew Doughty on the point essentially handicaps Team Russia.
It’s puzzling when you think of the firepower Russia has stocked up when it comes to the forward group compared to the defensemen. Players like Kovalchuk and Alexander Radulov couldn’t even make the Russian forward group. Yet the team struggled to put together a defense that could compete against the world’s best.
It seems that Team Russia’s saving grace in the future will be the development of both Mikhail Sergachev of the Montreal Canadiens and Ivan Provorov of the Philadelphia Flyers. The Russians hope that in a few years these players can make an impact internationally.
What to Expect
It’s too early to tell whether the power of the Russian offense will be able to make up for the weakness of the defensemen. However one thing is certain, Team Russia will have to make sure their forwards are clicking early or that elusive medal will have to wait.
The Hockey Writers coverage of the World Cup of Hockey 2016 is being brought to you by PrimeSport, the official Fan Travel & Hospitality Package Partner of the World Cup of Hockey 2016.
Nick Guido is a Montreal Canadiens Contributor for The Hockey Writers. You can Follow him on Twitter @nickguidoTHW for his articles, opinions and general Habs talk.