Earlier this week, the Russian hockey federation released the 25-man Olympic roster that will represent the home team in Sochi. While the team sheet reads as you expect it, there was some very peculiar decisions made by management, let’s take a look shall we?
The least surprising position in terms of fulfillment as the top two Russian NHL netminders, Semyon Varlamov and Sergei Bobrosvky got the call just as we predicted. The third, Eremenko has been one of the best goalies who never came to North America and perfected his trade back in the motherland.
With a little less over a month to go until the opening game, the starting role comes down between Varly and Bob with the former putting up the better numbers as his counterpart recently returned from a month long injury. For game one, I see Varly getting the nod unless he has a terrible rest of January. Alexander Emerenko will likely not be suiting up even to sit on the bench but a lot could happen before the team arrives in Sochi.
When you have 4 of the top 10 players in the world leading the offense it’s the guys who try to maintain stability on the back check who get more criticism since they don’t have the marquee names.
Three sets of defensive club teammates were named to the squad in hopes of using their familiarity with one another to establish better team play on the blue line. While only veteran Ilya Nikulin is the lone defenseman to have represented Russia on the Olympic stage, his cohorts have donned a national team at some point in their careers all while playing on the bigger ice surfaces to boot. Two names that stick out for me on the blue line are Slava Voynov and Anton Belov. Albeit young, the two represent the future of Russian defensemen and should benefit from being surrounded by guys they likely grew up watching before arriving in the NHL.
Voynov has already won the Stanley cup and knows how to flourish in high pressure situations while Belov could just be there to relieve the older legs.
Notable omissions from the blue line are veterans Sergei Gonchar and Anton Volchenkov both of whom have battled injures this season. I would pit either one of these guys to make the team as injury replacements should it be necessary.
Gonchar last featured in the Olympics in 2002 while Volchenkov would’ve made his third straight consecutive team.
In Vancouver, Russia allowed just six goals (4th best) in group play before it all fell apart against Canada who managed to double their rivals goals against in the quarter finals. Hopefully the familiarity with one another ends in something other than this embarrassment this time around.
Russia’s biggest weapon and biggest uncertainty will always be the forward position and the stars who play it. Some of hockey’s most dangerous names will once again be called upon to deliver the seemingly allusive gold medal. Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Russia by itself, has never won top honors in any Olympic tournament and their last piece of silverware (albeit copper) was bronze in 2002.
With the games being held on home soil the pressure on the team is unimaginable and really comes down how the offensive talent gels.
The usual suspects of Malkin, Ovechkin, Datsyuk, Radulov and some guy named Ilya will be back at again along with some new faces and one huge glaring omission. Former Russia U-20 captain and St. Louis Blues winger Vladimir Tarasenko gets his first call with the big club as does the Stars’ Valeri Nichushkin who has worked himself into the Calder conversation with 22 points in 42 points.
Nikolai Kulemin and Alexei Tereschenko acted as stand-ins in 2010 and will now both make their Olympic debuts along with Viktor Tikhonov who alongside Kovalchuk has put up an impressive 16 goals and 11 assits. But like most things related to Russia (vodka included), you always gotta take things with a grain of salt.
The NHL’s biggest enigma, Alexander Semin, was left off the roster despite having over 450 career NHL points along with 34 points in 43 appearance with the senior team. With reports surfacing that head coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov didn’t even speak with the player when scouting him in the first half of the year. Clearly there is some bad blood between the two and hopefully for the sake of the team, someone in the locker room convinces the hierarchy to bring him to Sochi in favor of say? Sergei Soin.
Another big snub is Evegeny Kuznetsov who purposely stayed behind in the KHL in favor of the Washington Capitals in order to guarantee himself a spot of the team. Just like Semin, Kuznetsov will be watching his countrymen from his couch. With 14 points with Traktor Chelyabinsk, he’s certainty having an off-year. It’s hard to picture who is more embarrassed by being left at home but I figure it stings just a little more for the player who led his team to that miraculous win in 2011 in Buffalo.
Last time out, we made bold predictions on how Russia would fare with all their talent and we all know how that ended. This year we’ll expect the worst and hope to be pleasantly surprised.
Feel free to let us know your thoughts on the roster down in the comments.