By Andy Potts – IIHF.com
The roster reflects a new generation of Belarusian talent, with big things expected from New Jersey forward Yegor Sharangovich (24) and plenty of interest in 20-year-old Flames prospect Igor Solovyov. Rookie goalie Alexei Kolosov, just 19, has positive write-ups from his first steps in the KHL and, if given the chance here, could establish himself as one for the future.
It’s a new-look goaltending stable for Belarus, with three players who have yet to feature in IIHF play for their country. Two years ago, Dmitri Milchakov did much of the heavy lifting as the Bison won promotion back to the top division. The 35-year-old is still playing for Metallurg Zhlobin, but gives way to players with an eye on the future in the form of Alexei Kolosov (19) and Konstantin Shostak (21). Both had a taste of KHL action this season, with Kolosov making nine appearances for Dynamo Minsk – posting a shut-out along the way – while Shostak had three outings with Severstal Cherepovets and more extensive action in Russia’s second tier with Molot-Prikamie Perm.
Another new face adds experience to the group. British-born, Canadian-trained Danny Taylor saw Deutschland Cup action for Team Canada in 2016/17. He might have been a contender for an Olympic spot the following season but took up an offer from the Senators where he played once in the NHL and 32 times in the AHL. Taylor first went to the KHL in 2014/15, joining Dynamo Minsk, and has also represented Medvescak Zagreb and Sibir Novosibirsk. He has played the last two seasons in Minsk, securing his Belarusian passport and eligibility for the national team. Now 35, he made his international debut for his new country during this season Euro Challenge action.
Four players – Nick Bailen, Kristian Khenkel, Yevgeni Lisovets and Ilya Solovyov – return from the promotion-winning team of 2019. The first three are familiar, bringing a wealth of KHL experience to the team. All three had good campaigns this time around, with Bailen compiling 35 (13+22) points while wearing the ‘A’ in Chelyabinsk, Lisovets providing a steady presence for Salavat Yulayev and Khenkel fulfilling a similar role at perennial big-hitter Ak Bars. Solovyov, meanwhile, is part of the new generation. Still only 20, this was his first season in adult hockey and he did enough in his 41 appearances for Dynamo Minsk to persuade the Flames to offer him a deal after selecting him in the 2020 NHL draft. At junior level, he impressed in the OHL with Saginaw, producing 40 (7+33) points in 53 games during the COVID-curtailed 2019/20 season and his progress has continued back home in Minsk.
Solovyov isn’t the only promising youngster involved this time around. Stepan Falkovski, who stands at an imposing 205 cm, was part of the chaotic relegation campaign in 2018. Since then, he has enjoyed a couple more solid seasons in the ECHL before returning home to play for Dynamo Minsk this season. With 20 points in 37 games in the KHL, he played his part in the team’s leap from rock bottom to playoff contender. Vladislav Yeryomenko, 22, spent his junior years in the WHL with the Calgary Hitmen before joining Dynamo Minsk for the 2019/20 season. Now he has almost 100 KHL appearances and a Belarusian championship under his belt and makes his senior international debut in Riga.
At the other end of the scale, Andrei Antonov returns to World Championship action for the first time since 2009. The 36-year-old was the top-scoring D-man in the Belarusian championship, with 33 (5+28) points for Yunost Minsk. Further experience is added by Salavat Yulayev’s Dmitri Korobov and Dynamo Minsk’s Ilya Shinkevich.
Yegor Sharangovich is the big new hope of Belarusian hockey. The 22-year-old is the only active NHLer on the team, scoring 30 (16+14) points in 54 games in his rookie season with New Jersey. The Devils drafted him back in 2018 and immediately brought him over for a couple of seasons in the AHL. This summer, he was loaned back to Dynamo Minsk, where he potted 17 goals in 35 games to power a strong start to the team’s KHL campaign, before returning to North America ready to compete at the highest level.
Sharangovich looks set to inherit the status once held by the Kostitsyn brothers. This year, Andrei is absent after a frustrating campaign split between Neftekhimik and Pardubice, but Sergei returns after missing the entire 2019/20 season. He returned to the ice with the Bratislava Capitals, and did enough to earn a call-up for his seventh Worlds.
The dual-national contingent this season involves three forwards. Geoff Platt, now with Salavat Yulaev, is a familiar face in the Belarusian camp, but Francis Pare and Shane Prince are poised for their World Championship debuts. Pare won a Gagarin Cup with Metallurg under Mike Keenan in 2014, the start of an on-going KHL career that most recently brought two seasons in Minsk. Ex-Sens and Isles winger Prince also completed a second season with Dynamo this term, and his creative flair brought him 49 points in 52 regular season games.
Pare is not the only Gagarin Cup winner on the Belarus roster, with Nikita Komarov helping Avangard to the title this season. However, the 32-year-old centre was used sparingly during the season and is generally more notable for his work rate than his production.
Young talent also gets a chance, with Alexei Protas poised for his World Championship debut. The 20-year-old was a late addition to the roster after the end of the Hershey Bears’ season in the AHL and will not be able to play until May 24, when he has completed quarantine. The centre, drafted by the Capitals in 2019, spent most of last season on loan at Dynamo Minsk, returning to North America at the end of the club’s KHL play-off campaign.
This year’s team has more players from the Belarusian championship, partly due to Mikhail Zakharov’s influence from behind the bench. Sergei Drozd, Stepan Lopachuk, and Mikhail Stefanovich have all played for Zakharov at Yunost, while German Nesterov gets the call after a good season with HC Gomel. However, the addition of 18-year-old Danila Klimovich, a centre who played in the Belarusian second tier with Minskie Zubry, might be the most eye-catching. He scored six goals in five games at the World U18s, making himself impossible to overlook for the trip to Latvia.
Mikhail Zakharov’s appointment as head coach of Team Belarus represented something of a change of direction. In the past, the country’s hockey federation often chose to appoint foreigners who could jet in, galvanise the team and bring a fresh view for a short tournament. However, that strategy failed miserably under Dave Lewis in Copenhagen, with the Canadian dismissed midway through the group stage as a disjointed roster lurched inexorably towards relegation.
Back in the top division, this season the call went to Zakharov, who has stepped away from club coaching to focus solely on the national program. Eight times a champion of Belarus with Yunost Minsk, the 59-year-old knows the depth of the country’s talent pool as well as anyone and, while his blunt approach can ruffle feathers, it can also get results. Zakharov led Belarus at the 2010 Olympics, but this will be his first World Championship as head coach, having previously been assistant from 1998-2001 and again in 2018.
Zakharov is assisted by Dmitri Karpikov, currently goalie coach at Yunost, and Mikhail Kravets, who was head coach of Vityaz in the last two KHL seasons.
Whatever happens in Riga, it can hardly be worse than the last Belarusian World Championship campaign. The 2018 tournament in Copenhagen saw Belarus in disarray off the ice, changing head coach mid-stream, and losing all seven games with a painful goal differential of 8-36. For a team used to security, if not spectacular success, it was a huge blow.
Since then, however, things have changed. A number of senior players have retired – eg long-serving defenseman Vladimir Denisov – or been replaced. At the same time, Dynamo Minsk has introduced a policy of giving more game time to local youngsters and was rewarded with a playoff spot in the KHL this season. That has an obvious knock-on effect for the national team, with more opportunities for local talent to mature.
This year’s Belarusian team is something of a work in progress, with several players getting their first taste of hockey at this level. This group will expect to be too strong for Great Britain and will fancy its chances of getting results against Denmark and Slovakia. A quarter-final place is probably too much to hope for, but Belarus will be confident of demonstrating that 2018 was an aberration and the team deserves a long-term place among the elite.