The defending gold medalists bring over one of their strongest teams I've seen in several years, with far and away the best forward group in the tournament. Their defensemen are a major weakness, which wasn't aided by losing their top defender and Red Wings draft pick Alexei Marchenko to season ending knee surgery.
Disclaimer: Russia's final roster has not been released yet [as of this writing, last week], but odds are that these players will be on the team.
The following are notes on some of the top NHL prospects in Team Russia's line up based on my own observations of the players and from discussions I've had with scouts and front office executives:
Alexander Khokhlachev, C, Boston Bruins: Khokhlachev has been the focal point of the OHL Windsor Spitfires. He's a very talented puckhandler who sees the ice at a high level and had scouts thinking last summer that his raw skill set was at the least one of the top 15-20 in the draft. He's a small guy whose listed at 5-foot-10, although that may be a tad overstated, but has shown good work ethic on the ice to try and overcome that deficiency. His strength is still well behind where it needs to be.
Yaroslav Kosov, RW, Florida Panthers: After being selected in the fifth round last summer, one Russian source told me, "I don't know how the Panthers knew about him because nobody in Russia knows who he is, but man is he a good player." Sure enough Kosov has more points in the KHL this year than more touted offensive talents like Nikita Kucherov and Maxim Kitsyn. Kosov does not fit the prototypical Russian mold of an 18-year-old NHL prospect, as he is a gritty, physical power-forward and shows an effective defensive game. He has decent hands too. On a team filled with skill, expect Kosov to be the sandpaper.
Nikita Kucherov, RW, Tampa Bay Lightning: Kucherov was considered a first-round talent within the industry going into the 2011 draft, but fell to the second round likely due to transfer issues being a Russian player playing in Russia. Kucherov had a record-breaking performance at the Under-18s last spring where he displayed high-end playmaking, a plus shot and good skating abilities. He's a small player with a slight frame, but shows fine work ethic to try and make up for it. Expect him to be a key scorer for the Russians.
Evgeny Kuznetsov, C, Washington Capitals: Kuznetsov has been playing very well over in the KHL during his 19-year-old season and has ended up logging the most ice time among forwards on a first place team. His raw skill set is as good as anybody in the prospect world as he is plus skater, puck-handler, passer and shooter who at any given moment can dazzle and flash NHL star potential. Kuznetsov gets plagued sometimes with inconsistency and he isn't exactly a defensive stalwart, but he is going to be leaned on for his offensive gifts and is a legit candidate for Tournament MVP.
Nikita Nesterov, D, Tampa Bay Lightning: Nesterov is a solid offensive weapon who doesn't show plus skills, but has enough of a well-rounded package to be effective in several aspects of the game. He's a decent skater, with solid puck skills and can be an effective puck rusher. He also shows an above-average shot from the point, and better overall decision-making this year has led to him putting up a lot of points in Russia's Junior league. He has only average size, but he does like to lean on opponents and doesn't shy from the physical game.
The Russian roster tentatively includes a few players who have been passed over in the draft either once or twice, but are good enough to possibly get looks this year:
Daniil Apalkov, C: Apalkov has been a top player the last few years in Russia's Junior league. He's a pretty exciting offensive player who is a good skater with plus hockey sense as he shows top-end creativity and vision with the puck. Despite being on a team with many talented NHL prospects, Apalkov has what it takes to score with the rest of them.
Zakhar Arzamastev, D: Arzamastev was a pretty curious pass-over in the previous Entry Draft, as most scouts in the industry saw him a legit mid-round talent, with some even saying he deserved to go in the top two rounds. Again, transfer questions were the likely reasons. With Alexei Marchenko sidelined after a major knee injury, Arzamastev enters the tournament as Russia's No. 1 defenseman. He doesn't fit the profile of such a role on a top team, which is why defense will be an issue for Russia. However he's a smart, effective puck-mover who reads the play pretty well, but doesn't show high-end ability in any regard.
Nikita Gusev, LW: He may have been passed over in the past two NHL entry drafts, but don't let that fact fool you. In terms of pure puck skill and hockey sense Gusev could match up with just about any player in this tournament. One Russian scout described him as "Russia's best kept secret" and he will likely shine at the World Juniors as he did in the Subway Super Series a few weeks ago -- a mini tournament between Canadians in the CHL and Russian Juniors. He's a very small player and only an average skater, but has the playmaking ability to wow observers.
And that brings us to our two top prospects for the 2012 NHL Entry Draft:
Nail Yakupov, RW: Yakupov in considered the consensus No. 1 pick in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft after leading the OHL in scoring in his pre-draft year -- albeit as a player whose draft year was pushed back due to a late birth date. He's a well above-average skater with a technique that is nearly flawless and he couples it with high-end puck skills, shooting ability and vision that is steadily beginning to reach that same high level. He's a small guy too, but also plays a pretty high-energy, physical game as well.
Mikhail Grigorenko, C: While Yakupov is considered by most as the likely No. 1 pick, there are several people within the industry who are starting to lean Grigorenko's way. One NHL Head Scout said on the matter, "I consider both of their upsides equal, but Grigorenko plays center and that could be the tie-breaker." A Russian scout added, "I've seen Grigorenko and Yakupov play many times, and I have Grigorenko clearly ahead."
For the record I too have Grigorenko ahead of Yakupov. Yakupov is the frontrunner as of now, but Grigorenko does have what it takes to pass him according to many in the industry. He's a high, high-end possession weapon, which is the selling point to me in a time where we see how puck possession is what wins hockey games. His puck skills and hockey sense are great, he's an above-average skater with a big body, but his one major knock is his on-ice work ethic.
If you have any questions about a player not mentioned, or would like to ask about players profiled, you can leave a comment below.
Corey Pronman is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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