Day: December 12, 2020

2021 World Junior Championship Team Russia Preview

By Chris Faria – The Hockey Writers

Up 3-1 on Canada with just under 12 minutes remaining in last year’s championship game, it looked all but certain that Team Russia would claim their first gold medal at the World Juniors since 2011. That was before an inspired Canadian team led by captain Barrett Hayton stormed back to win 4-3, leaving Russia to settle for silver once again.

With that bitter taste of defeat still fresh, the Russians will look to bounce back in this year’s tournament with an overhauled lineup both on the ice and behind the bench.

Of the team’s 28 players named to the preliminary roster, only two forwards and one goaltender are returning from last year. Meanwhile, head coach Valeri Bragin has moved on from the U20 team after leading Russia to seven World Junior medals in eight years since 2011. Stepping in as his replacement is Hall of Famer and three-time Stanley Cup winner Igor Larionov, whose leadership will be key for a relatively inexperienced Russian squad.



Forwards: Good Blend of Size and Skill

With only two returning forwards in Maxim Groshev (TB) and Vasili Podkolzin (VAN), Team Russia will see an influx of new talent in this year’s tournament. Leading that group will be 2020 first-round draft picks Rodion Amirov (TOR) and Yegor Chinakhov (CBJ), who have both impressed in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) as 19-year-olds this season.

Amirov is coming off an excellent showing at the Karjala Cup in early November where he tallied three goals in three games en route to being named the best forward of the tournament. The slick two-way winger will need to carry that momentum forward as he’ll be relied on as an offensive catalyst for Russia.

Maple Leafs 2020 first-rounder Rodion Amirov is carrying a ton of momentum into this year’s World Junior Championships

The team’s top-six is pretty well balanced with plenty of size in 6-foot-4 Podkolzin and 6-foot-3 Yegor Afanasyev (NSH), combined with the finesse and playmaking touch of Amirov, Chinakhov, and Mikhail Abramov (TOR). The powerful Podkolzin has struggled at times in the KHL, with just two goals and six points in 24 games, but his professional and international experience should make him a key producer at this year’s tournament.

Russian captain Vasili Podkolzin will be a crucial part of the team’s offence

The bottom-six will likely see more of a battle for roster spots between players like Vasili Ponomaryov (CAR), Vladislav Firstov (MIN), and Ilya Safonov among others. With nine points in as many games for the Shawinigan Cataractes of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL), Ponomaryov is a rare non-homegrown player on this Russian squad. His relentless work ethic and two-way presence are hard to ignore, making him a lock for a role in the top-nine.

Although Russia’s forward group should have no trouble finding the back of the net, it’s worth mentioning that there were a couple of notable snubs left off the team’s preliminary roster in Danil Guschin (SJ) and Alexander Pashin (CAR).

At 5-foot-8 and 5-foot-7 respectively, the choice doesn’t come as much of a surprise given Russia’s history of bringing a bigger lineup to the tournament, but you’ve got to wonder if they’ll regret leaving out two of the more skilled players available to them.



Defence: Changing of the Guard

With an even more drastic changing of the guard than the forward group, Russia’s defence will see an all-new contingent as last year’s crop of 2000-born players is phased out. The loss of their defensive stalwart, Alexander Romanov (MTL), will definitely hurt as Russia doesn’t have a clear successor going into this year’s World Juniors.

The closest thing to a No. 1 defenceman for Russia will likely be New Jersey Devils 2020 first-rounder Shakir Mukhamadullin. The 6-foot-4 defender has a rare combination of physicality and mobility, collecting two goals and nine points through 30 games for Salavat Yulaev Ufa of the KHL this season while boasting a passing accuracy of 93 percent. The 18-year-old will be relied on to munch a fair amount of minutes on a Russian defence that lacks experience at this tournament.

New Jersey Devils 2020 first-rounder Shakir Mukhamadullin will likely play significant minutes for Russia

Behind Mukhamadullin, other notable names on the preliminary roster include Semyon Chistyakov (NSH), Roman Bychkov (BOS), and Yan Kuznetsov (CGY). Although Chistyakov will likely play further down in the lineup, Scott Wheeler of The Athletic rates the 5-foot-10 blueliner as Russia’s best defenceman right now thanks to his well-rounded 200-foot game. We’ll see if he can truly live up to that title at this year’s tournament.

The inexperienced defence may be Russia’s weak spot, meaning their goaltenders will be asked to do a lot of the heavy lifting. Luckily they’ve got the right guy between the pipes for the job.



Goaltending: Askarov Returns

Hyped up as one of the next great Russian goaltenders, 18-year-old Yaroslav Askarov will be back in the crease for the second consecutive World Junior Championships. He featured in five games at last year’s tournament as a 17-year-old, posting a 2.71 goals against average (GAA) and .877 save percentage (SV%) – poor numbers by his lofty standards. The Nashville first-rounder seems to have taken another step forward this season, putting up a ridiculous 0.96 GAA and .962 SV% through seven games for SKA St. Petersburg of the KHL.

Yaroslav Askarov will be Russia’s starter at this year’s World Juniors

If Russia is going to medal at this year’s event, it will likely be on the back of a stellar performance from the 6-foot-4 netminder, who may face a lot of rubber behind that inexperienced defence.

Overview

As a hockey powerhouse, Russia will have their eyes on another medal at the 2021 World Junior Championships, though it certainly won’t be an easy task given the competition. Drawn into Group B, Russia will face off against fellow powerhouses in the United States and Sweden as well as the Czech Republic and Austria.

Scoring and goaltending shouldn’t be a problem for the Russians, but there will be questions surrounding their defence as well as a general lack of experience throughout the roster. And while Larionov is a hockey legend, you have to consider his inexperience behind the bench as this will be just his second year coaching at this level.

2021 World Junior Championship Team Czech Republic Preview

By Devin Little – The Hockey Writers

Despite having home-ice advantage during last year’s World Junior tournament, the Czech Republic’s team fell short against superior competition. This year, expectations are low, but that doesn’t mean that you should write-off this team before the tournament begins. After all, there is still a solid collection of talent here.

There should be a good number of returning players, as well as some high-potential additions that should excite hockey fans from Edmonton to Prague. Lumped in with Group B along with Russia and the United States, among others, this tournament should provide the stage for some of these up and comers to truly make a name for themselves.

Team Czech Republic’s medal drought goes all the way back to 2005 where they won the bronze medal. Despite that lack of success, plenty of talent has worn the red, white and blue for the Czech Republic, including David Pastrnak (BOS), Petr Mrazek (CAR), and Filip Hronek (DET). Who will be the next star player to announce themselves on the World Junior stage?

Goaltending

Last year’s team was anchored by Lukas Dostal in goal, but the former third-round pick of the Anaheim Ducks fizzled out with a sub-par .878 save-percentage (SV%) in three games. Now that he has exceeded the age-threshold, a new face, or faces, will tend the nets for Team Czech Republic. The first candidate to seize the job returns from last year’s team: Nick Malik.

Malik, who split time last season playing in the OHL with the Soo Greyhounds as well as over in the Czech Republic, played in a single game during last year’s tournament and was lit up, resulting in a .864 SV%. To his credit, the 2021 draft-eligible goaltender has seen four games of action this season in the Czech Republic’s lower league and has a sparkling .921 SV% to show for it.

Another goalie that could steal the spotlight in Edmonton is would-be newcomer Jan Bednar. Selected 107th overall in the 2020 draft by the Detroit Red Wings, Bednar was the final goalie cut from the Czech’s U20 team last year. He is known as a boom or bust goalie that could steal a game in this tournament if he’s in his groove. A battle between Malik and Bednar should yield some interesting results once the tournament begins next month.



Defense

An interesting name to keep an eye on is Stanislav Svozil, whom some in the scouting community currently project as a first-round pick in the 2021 draft. Watch him do his thing on the ice for just a couple of minutes, and you’ll begin to see why.

The young defender has good size at 6-foot-1 and 172 pounds, and his instincts around the ice are already sharp. Quite frankly, for a team that is lacking in star-power, Svozil has the opportunity to really stand out at this tournament, which would of course increase his draft stock. This is a kid that warrants a watchful eye once the tournament begins.

Returning defenders should include Martin Hugo Has, a Washington Capitals prospect, and Simon Kubicek, who had a solid three points through five games in last year’s tournament. Given that the latter went undrafted during the 2020 draft, he should have plenty of motivation to show up just like he did a year ago. Again, this group doesn’t have star-power, but it should have enough guys that can carry their weight.



Offense

The offensive side of the puck is where Team Czech Republic could (and should) find some success. They’ve got a number of talented players that should be on the roster, including one player that some had projected as a first-round pick in the 2020 draft: Jan Myšák.

Jan Mysak of HC VERVA Litinov

Drafted 48th overall by the Montreal Canadiens, Myšák is a do-it-all forward that can play multiple positions up and down the lineup. In last year’s tournament, the versatile forward had two points in five games and finished with an even plus/minus rating despite being overmatched nearly every time he hit the ice. Another year older now, he should prove to be a catalyst for this year’s squad.

Other forwards to watch include fellow 2020-draftees Pavel Novák, selected 146th overall by the Minnesota Wild, and Jaromir Pytlik, selected 99th overall by the New Jersey Devils. Despite some flaws in his game – namely, his skating – Novák has a good shot and should be able to notch some points if given the proper linemates. Pytlik is cut from the same cloth as Myšák in that he’s a do-it-all forward, but with lower upside.

Outlook

This a group that features some well-rounded players as well as some with intriguing potential. Svozil in particular could use this stage as a way to truly announce himself as a top prospect in next year’s draft. That being said, this is a group that lacks the sheer quantity of top-end talent that other

n nearly every World Junior tournament, there’s that one team that exceeds expectations and makes some serious noise. Team Czech Republic is certainly a candidate to do just that, though they are going to need a lot to go right in order to do so. Whether they medal or not, this is a group worth watching due to the talent of certain individuals that should be a lock to make this team.