December 25, 2009
Oh, the holiday season. The season of giving a receiving. Even though Team Russia coaches Vyacheslav Bykov and Igor Zakharkin were quite vocal in voicing their dissatisfaction with the fact that they had to announce their roster so early, last night the names of players who will make up Team Russia were announced.
Before we get to some thoughts on the roster, let's name the lucky bunch who will try to win the first Olympic gold ever for Russia:
Defense: Andrei Markov(notes), Montreal Canadiens; Ilya Nikulin, KHL; Dmitri Kalinin(notes), KHL; Konstantin Korneev, KHL; Denis Grebeshkov(notes), Edmonton Oilers; Fedor Tyutin(notes), Columbus Blue Jackets; Sergei Gonchar(notes), Pittsburgh Penguins; Anton Volchenkov(notes), Ottawa Senators.
Forwards: Pavel Datsyuk(notes), Detroit Red Wings; Evgeni Malkin(notes), Pittsburgh Penguins; Sergei Fedorov(notes), KHL; Ilya Kovalchuk(notes) and Maxim Afinogenov(notes), Atlanta Thrashers; Danis Zaripov, KHL; Alexander Semin(notes) and Alex Ovechkin(notes), Washington Capitals; Sergei Zinoviev, KHL; Alexander Radulov(notes), KHL; Viktor Kozlov(notes), KHL; Alexei Morozov, KHL.
Now, breaking down each position for Team Russia. Were the right picks made?
The choice of the first two was obvious for almost everyone. Nabokov won the World Championship for Russia for the first time in 15 years, when he led the team to gold in Quebec 1,5 years ago. Bryzgalov followed on Nabokov's footsteps last spring to win a back-to-back gold for Russia in Switzerland. Nikolai Khabibulin(notes) could have provided some headache for the coaches if not for his health problems.
Therefore, the only question remained -- who would be the No. 3?
I personally thought that for political reasons, as much as anything, at least one KHL goalie would be included. Alexander Eremenko was in the mix. But how can you really go against a guy, who was thrown to the lions in last season's playoffs and (almost) came out on top?
Even if Varlamov doesn't get a chance to play even one minute in Vancouver in February, he IS the goaltender who will lead his national team in 2014 in front of his home crowd for the "Games of the lifetime," as they are now being called in Russia.
No. 1 - Nabokov
No. 1.1 - Bryzgalov
No. 3 - Varlamov
I think even every homer will agree that this is probably not Russia's strongest side, comparing to goaltenders and forwards. But you'd be wrong to think that this bunch won't be able to handle the best-of-the-best in Vancouver.
Playing Gonchar and Markov together will give the Russians two "universal" players who can move the puck and not forget about skating back. Both played well together in 2007 at the World Championships in Moscow. Markov is, arguably, Russia's best defenseman. Gonchar is right up there with him.
But if some shut-down hockey is needed, either Grebeshkov or Volchenkov can step it up with either Markov or Gonchar. Grebeshkov, in my opinion, is the most underrated Russian defenseman. Pairing him with Volchenkov will give team Russia one of the best defensive tandems that we saw this year in Switzerland.
Fedor Tyutin is another stellar defenseman, who learned a lot playing in Hitchcock's system to figure out how to play defense against the best of them. Kalinin, Korneev and Nikulin are Russia's best from the KHL (not including Zubov, who I will talk about a bit later). While Korneev may not have Pronger's size, he still has presence in the defensive zone. Similar to Grebeshkov in the NHL, he is probably one of the most underrated defensemen in the KHL.
As for Nikulin, he won back-to-back World Championships with Bykov and Zakharkin and proved himself on a number of occasions in the KHL. He is good enough to quarterback the second power play unit, just like he did for his Ak Bars Kazan team in last year's playoffs. When Jagr's Avangard was just seconds away from going through to the next round, Nikulin's slapshot evened the score. Nikulin's only major flaw is his ability to pick up a lot of penalties.
Which brings us to Zubov. He is the most experienced defenseman not to make the roster. I can only speculate, but the story earlier this year when Zubov didn't report to the national team for the Finnish leg of the Euro Hockey Tour may have cost him a spot in Vancouver. It is too late to try to figure out who was right in that situation and who was wrong. But Zubov's experience on the blue line will probably be missed.
Gonchar - Markov
Kalinin - Tyutin
Volchenkov - Grebeshkov
Korneev - Nikulin
I wasn't taught enough words in my ESL classes to describe how potentially dangerous all of these players are.
There is the reigning Conn Smythe winner Evgeni Malkin. The Hart and the Richard trophy holder Alex Ovechkin, who also happens to be the best hockey player in the world in my opinion. Perhaps he has another goal like this in him:
If that's not enough, Pavel Datsyuk is among the best defensive forwards in the NHL. I am sure Bykov and Zakharkin will be tempted to reunite Ovechkin and Semin with Fedorov. This line simply destroyed their opposition in Quebec in 2008. Although Fedorov can still backcheck (and it will be probably needed). I think Datsyuk can do it better. Datsyuk can do his dangle-dangle magic to open up enough ice for Ovechkin and Semin.
Very recently Malkin told a Russian TV network that his dream line would include Alexei Kovalev and Kovalchuk. Well, 50 percent of that isn't that bad. Team Russia will try to have the chemistry between Malkin and Kovalchuk that they had in Moscow in 2007, reinforced by a flight of a thrasher Afinogenov.
Can you say that Ovechkin's line is the top line when you have Kovalchuk and Malkin? I can't. But just like in Ovechkin's line, Malkin should be expected to backcheck some.
As for the KHL influx of forwards, Morozov, Zinoviev and Zaripov are skilled forwards good enough to not break under pressure. Kozlov and Radulov are also no strangers to North American hockey.
Where is Alexander Frolov(notes)? I am sure this is the same question some Los Angeles Kings fans ask themselves watching their team play. He is obviously the most notable omission from the squad. But there is still time for Frolov to make it to Vancouver. This roster may be changed by Feb. 15 if, for example, one of the forwards already in is injured.
Ovechkin - Datsyuk - Semin
Kovalchuk - Malkin - Afinogenov
Morozov - Zinoviev - Zaripov
Radulov - Fedorov - Kozlov
Team Russia will head for Vancouver on Feb. 11 to get accustomed to smaller rinks (for KHL players) and to get used to the time difference. The Russians will play their first game of the Olympics against Team Latvia on February 16.
* - these are just my predictions.