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Russian politics are to blame for Russia’s failures (Trending Topics)

Ryan Lambert
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Puck Daddy's own Dmitry Chesnokov did a very good job in detailing the kind of stunned bereavement felt around Russia when their Olympic hopes were dashed by the better-coached and multi-faceted Finnish squad. There's a lot of blame to go around in Putin's Russia, where all that was talked about in the run-up to these games was the importance of winning gold in men's hockey. Instead, they didn't even medal, or really come all that close, and flushed tens of billions down the drain in the process.

(Sorry, that should read, “Put tens of billions in the trash can next to the toilet in the process.”)

Zinetula Bilyaletdinov, the Russian coach who won't be in his job much longer, placed the blame square at the feet of — who else? — Alex Ovechkin, noting that he didn't score in the game. Which isn't exactly fair, because only Ilya Kovalchuk accomplished such a feat in the entire game, and indeed, even that was on the power play. To some extent, the criticism comes only because Ovechkin is the team's most recognizable player, and his team flamed out horribly. You don't get put on every billboard from Rostov to Vladivostok as a pretty much perennial 50-goal guy in the NHL and not take the bullet to the back of the head when the team stumbles against a country like Finland. Certainly not on home ice.

But at the same time, you can probably criticize Ovechkin for scoring just once in the entire tournament, effectively netting him the same number of goals as Alexei Tereshenko, of whom no one in North American hockey has ever heard.

However, this kind of talk leveled against Ovechkin and Ovechkin is obviously ill-founded. He put 24 shots on goal in five games, and the likelihood of a sniper of his caliber shooting that ineffectively (less than 4.2 percent) over much longer than five games is, shall we say, low. Because if you're going to blame Ovechkin for going 1-for-24, why not throw Evgeni Malkin under the bus for his 1-for-20 performance, because he had 20 shots, and 5 percent shooting isn't much better. Or Alex Semin, who effectively no-showed in compiling no goals on 10 shots? Or Artem Anisimov, who had nary a point despite getting into all five games?

But once you're down to Anisimov, you're really trolling some pretty shallow water when looking for a scapegoat. The problem for Russia though, and a reasonable quibble with Chesnokov's analysis — “Here the coaching staff had the players who could do the job” — is that the team didn't adequately prepare itself for the tournament by leaving a number of players from the NHL home in favor of guys from the inferior KHL. And also because its ability to develop top-end players is very clearly trending downward.

In all, the Russians brought 11 KHL players to the Olympics and left home several NHLers who, in hindsight, seem far more likely to have made a difference. And let's not forget, Semin has 73 points over his last 89 NHL games and only made the squad when a KHL player (Sergei Soin, who at 31 years old still had just 22 points in the last two seasons) got injured. When you're choosing between Nail Yakupov or Tereshenko, whose point totals in the KHL the last two seasons is one shy of Yakupov's on an awful team in the NHL, the choice on who you should take is obvious.

But because these were Russia's Olympics, they felt they had to prove a point about the quality of the KHL they've pushed so hard as being somehow equivalent to the NHL. This is the reason they lured Ilya Kovalchuk into violating his contract with the New Jersey Devils, and this is why they're going to continue throwing mountains of tax-free money at literally any Russian player who's even halfway decent for the foreseeable future.

There is, though, also the fairly shallow player pool to consider. You wonder how much of a coincidence it was that the 2010 team, which also cratered for much the same reasons the more recent iteration did, had fewer KHL players (eight), and that most of those guys were past-their-prime NHLers playing out the string in their home countries; your Dmitri Kalinins, Viktor Kozlovs, and Alexei Morozovs. Now, apart from Ilya Kovalchuk and Alex Radulov — players who could actually hack it in the NHL today — this Russian team is full of guys who never made it over, or guys who hustled back pretty quick after finding out that it's pretty damn hard to play in the National Hockey League. Simply put, the Russians couldn't fill out a roster of NHL-quality players and have even the slightest hope of competing in the Olympics, so they probably figured why not make a show of signing up a bunch of guys with a few dozen points in the KHL instead. And if things worked out correctly, that would have served as proof that everything they were doing in trying to develop the KHL as something other than a better-paying and more corrupt AHL was on point.

Moreover, though, the problem isn't that the Russians didn't have the ability to score — with Ovechkin, Malkin, Kovalchuk, Radulov, and to a lesser extent Datsyuk and Semin — they did not go wanting for high-end offensive talent, even if they did go wanting for goals from most of those guys when everything was wrapped up. It's that their defensemen and goaltenders were never good enough to win any tournament against any legitimate team. Any team for which the player that leads in time on ice is a forward has serious defensive issues, and that's illustrated in the Russians' top pairing having been the ghost of Andrei Markov's career and Slava Voynov, who, say what you want, has never had it particularly tough in the NHL (soft competition, easy zone starts, playing on a possession juggernaut). Likewise, any team with Sergei Bobrovsky and Semyon Varlamov — who are going to need to be this good for more than a season and a half to convince reasonable people of anything regarding their overall quality; Jim Carey won a Vezina once, after all — as the only reasonable goaltending options was always going to be in trouble neck-deep.

That stuff Chesnokov said about the coaches though? Absolutely. Lines didn't get shuffled when they were bumbling along aimless and with no thought of their own, their directions dictated by others, bouncing like cans dragged behind a car of newlyweds. Their systems were a mess the entire tournament, especially at 5-on-5; a team with as much top-six skill as the Russians brought to the Olympics, arguably second-best behind only Canada, should have pounded Slovenia, Slovakia, and the Norwegians harder than they did (a combined 10 goals, or 3.33 per game, or not good enough). Getting just 13 goals in five games is inexcusable. The only thing the coaches didn't mess up — not starting the same goalie in a back-to-back — was also fodder for criticism, because Varlamov ate it hard against the Finns.

This isn't really news these days, or at least it shouldn't be: Russia was once the center of hockey as we knew it, but it's a shining star that went supernova about a decade ago, maybe a little more. Until this team can develop more than a handful of very good or even great forwards every generation once again, they're never going to be a credible threat to the U.S., Canada, or Sweden, all of which have rosters brimming with NHL talent and could probably have lent a few of their castoffs to the Russians in exchange for operable Sochi toilets.

This is a player and coaching development issue, and it's not going away until the decision-makers at the Ice Hockey Federation of Russia realize they can no longer get by on the things that made them a hockey power decades ago.

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

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