The fun part of speculation before any sort of competition is identifying the theoretical juggernauts and darkhorses — especially in a tournament like the World Juniors where any goalie could turn in the performance of a lifetime and bring that darkhorse to the next level (see: 2009, Slovakia). In 2013, however, there is one team which sits — in my opinion — a full length ahead of the field, and they are the host Russians, coming off a disappointing loss one year ago and ready to take the tournament at home.
The Russians, as we have come to expect, are loaded up and down the roster with explosive talent that can take a game over. Obviously they do not have 2012 star Evgeny Kuznetsov who has graduated from the junior ranks, but that should not impede them whatsoever.
In goal, the Russians have a luxury many teams do not. They can simply ride out the hot hand. Andrei Vasilevski (Tampa Bay) and Andrey Makarov (Buffalo) are both proven international performers who seem to peak at opposite times. Last year they were switched regularly and the incoming ‘tender always picked up the slack. Score the majority of minutes in favor of Vasilevski now, but, be ready to see plenty of Makarov for those down times.
Defensively may be the only question mark for this Russian team. Only two players — Nikita Nesterov (Tampa Bay) and Artem Sergeev (Tampa Bay) — are overagers and linked to NHL franchises. Every other player is eligible to be drafted in 2013. That being said, they are still getting plenty of quality competition in their youth as five of their blueliners are suiting up for KHL squads this season. If you’re looking for an eye-popping player on the Russian blueline, look no further than Nikita Zadorov who currently suits up for the London Knights of the OHL, is 6-foot-5 and 230 pounds and plays with immense physicality. Hashtag yikes.
Up front the Russians will be led by two first round picks from the 2012 Draft in Nail Yakupov and Mikhail Grigorenko. The former is fourth in scoring for Nizhnekamsk Neftekhimik of the KHL with 18 points in 22 games while the latter has put up 50 in 30 games with Patrick Roy’s Quebec Remparts. The Russians also boast plenty of other skills players up front, seven of which not named Yakupov who are also playing hockey in the KHL this season. They will be a tough out for whichever team they play.
Historically speaking this tournament has been dominated by the Russians and Canadians. Russia — as a lone nation — can claim 16 medals at the tournament, though many will often credit them with 30 from their time as the Soviet Union. More recently, of the last 10 tournaments, only two have finished without a Russian team on the podium. If Russia isn’t on a podium at a World Junior tournament, it generally means that a stronger-than-expected performance from one of Sweden, Finland or the USA bumped them off. With all this in mind, you should feel pretty safe writing them in as a medalist in pen.
The way this tournament has come together, the Russians have to expect gold and nothing else. Despite a strong performance from Sweden to take the gold in 2012, Russia was easily the best team at the tournament until the Tre Konor knocked them off in overtime.
Losing Kuznetsov stings — especially when rival Canada is picking up talent like Ryan Nugent-Hopkins — but the tournament should provide a platform for the likes of Nail Yakupov and Mikhail Grigorenko to dominate. There are many who believe that they were the two most talented players in last year’s draft, despite one being taken first and the other going off the board at 12.
If the Russians do falter, however, it will likely be a combination of youth and defensive question marks. In their group they will be facing experienced, talented forward groups in Canada and the USA which will provide a clear marker of where they stand early on. If Russia can win the group and comes out with a semifinal bye, it will be very, very difficult to beat them. If Canada or the USA can knock them down a peg, the discussion becomes much more interesting.
Three times in the last six years, Canada has gone in as a clear favorite boasting home ice advantage and plenty of the best talent in the tournament. They only won gold once — in Ottawa in 2009 — and medalled the other years.
It should be clear that even immensely talented squads like the ones Canada has put forth at home don’t guarantee a gold, you’re simply put in the best position possible. Between the domestic familiarity and having excellent players, there isn’t much more you can ask for. Russia will have both of those in their corner once we drop the puck on this 2013 tournament, but they aren’t a lock — just a heavy favorite.
Come 2013 the Russians will be playing in one of the most top heavy groups in recent memory which features three of the tournament’s last four gold medal winners. Both of their North American rivals will, as far as we know, be bolstered by talent that could have very well been playing NHL hockey under any other circumstances. Both of their North American rivals have reason to be playing with a very large chip on their shoulder after 2012.
It won’t be easy by any stretch, but this is a loaded Russian team with plenty of young talent that will be playing in this tournament for years to come. Should they capture gold as the hosts, it could signal the beginning of a very long run.