Thursday, December 24, 2009

You just broke my heart, comrade


The Russian Hockey Federation announced its roster for the upcoming Olympic Games in Vancouver. Here's the 23-player team (I've placed the players in their most likely configuration, based on past pairings and the various comments of coaches):

Ovechkin - Fedorov - Semin
Kovalchuk - Malkin - Afinogenov
Zaripov - Datsyuk - Morozov
Kozlov - Zinovjev - Radulov

Markov - Nikulin
Tyutin - Gonchar
Volchenkov - Grebeshkov
Kalinin - Korneev

Nabokov
Bryzgalov
Varlamov

Now, before we get to the wailing and moaning (of which there'll be plenty), I'll post what would have been my team. Note, the roster's are largely similar; players I would have chosen who were not ultimately selected are bolded:

Ovechkin - Malkin - Semin
Kovalchuk - Zinovjev - Frolov
Zaripov - Datsyuk - Morozov
Saprykin - Tereschenko - Radulov
Fedorov

Markov - Nikulin
Tyutin - Gonchar
Volchenkov - Grebeshkov
Zubov

Nabokov
Bryzgalov
Varlamov

The actual team isn't all that different than mine. The most significant players who will be the biggest part in determining success or failure are found on both teams (OV, Semin, Kovy, Dats, Morozov, Rads, Markov, Niku, Gonch, Tyuts, Volch, Nabby, Bryz). That said, here's why the team they chose is 1) wrong, and 2) could easily cost them gold:

1) 8 defensemen - This is probably the biggest mistake. Playing on the small ice, and with the availability of big minute dmen, e.g. Markov, Gonchar, Tyutin, Nikulin, Volchenkov, who should each be playing over 20 mins a game, it makes no sense to take 8 d. Playing the bottom pair only makes it harder for the rest of the group to get into the game, fee the flow, exert their will on the play. I recall Markov, and perhaps others, making such comments while playing reduced minutes with 8 defensemen in various national team tournaments. I think it's assured that every other nation, especially those realistically in the medal hunt (Can, Swe, Usa, Fin, Cze), will be taking only 7 dmen (playing 6 regularly with one as a injury replacement). NHL teams, who play on the same size ice as that of the Olympic Games, only dress 6 per game. There are no injury replacements during the tournament. If one Russian forward gets injured during the tournament, they will be playing w/o 4 full lines and will need to unnecessarily go to a forward double-shifting, or not playing two forwards, while having an overabundance of dmen. Is it worth it to have 8 mediocre min of Dmitri Kalinin at the risk of having your forward lines all messed up? Silly. Classic, stupid Russia. Can't imagine the good laugh Canadian coach Mike Babcock gets out of this.

2) Not taking Alexei Tereshchenko (aka playing Fedorov w/ OV and Semin). In 2008, the IIHF celebrated its 100th year anniversary. It held its annual world championship tournament in the Canada, the "birthplace of hockey," for the first time ever. Gorgeous Quebec City saw a beautiful gold medal game between Canada and Russia featuring star-studded lineups for both teams, despite that the tournament took place during the NHL's Stanley Cup Playoffs. Canada was attempting to win gold on home soil (something rarely if ever done at the WC's, and something Russia was unable to do the previous year) and Russia was attempting to win gold for the first time as independent from the old USSR. In one of the greatest hockey games in recent memory, featuring absolutely breakneck pace, up and down action, Canada took a 4-2 lead into the third period in front of a madly patriotic and hugely entertained crowd. Russia would improbably fight its way back with two 3rd period goals before winning it on a 4-on-3 pp goal in OT off the stick of Ilya Kovalchuk. While people will surely remember that decisive goal (and even the tying goal off the same stick), people may not remember that it was Alexei Tereshchenko's opportunistic goal in the middle of the final frame, off a scrambly, broken rush, that got the comeback started. A defensively responsible center who's had success playing with both Radulov and Morozov, two locks at right wing on the team, he's a player that can be useful in a shut-down role and who can provide offense when needed. An important part of the last two gold-medal WC teams, he was, as much as Ovechkin and Semin and Kovalchuk and Nabby, a hero of that gem of a game in Quebec City. It's an absolute tragedy that he will not be going to Vancouver.

And part of the reason he won't be there is because 40-year old Sergei Fedorov will be. Fedorov played an important role as the center, and de facto baby-sitter, on the QC line with OV and Semin, Russia's most talented inseparable duo. One of the greatest players the sport has ever produced, Fedorov is still a skilled, supremely defensively capable and smart player; he was the conscience on the line with those deadly freelancers, he let them do the painting while he did most of the plumbing, and some of the retouching work. Great fit at the time. 20 mos. will have passed though, and Feds, god bless him, does not still have the wheels or the hands to keep up with probably the two most offensively talented players on the planet. He's currently playing 14 min a game for Metallurg Magnitogorsk in the KHL, and he's tied for second on the team in points, 7 points behind Stanislav Chistov. I love Fedorov as a 13th forward, a sort of player-coach, on the bench to tell the young players to stay the course, dump the puck in when necessary, not get frazzled by the Canadians' inevitable dirty play after the whistle, their forearms to the head after the puck's gone, etc. - and make no mistake, it is Canada who Russia who will be fighting for gold; Sweden will put together a great team, and they will be expertly coached, but it's Russia and Canada who are the creams of the crop. Fedorov's experience, calmness, and the respect he commands from Russia's younger players will all be valuable. But in a 13th forward role, not as the team's top center, trying to keep up with and get the puck to and from Ovechkin and Semin. Jesus, the thought of OV and Semin being held back or stifled offensively because they're forced to play with a player - a legend notwithstanding - born when Khrushchev was still alive and healthy, that's enough to give any sane Russian fan the screaming fantods.

3) Afinogenov over Frolov. Afinogenov has had a fairly successful season playing in a strictly scoring role, paired with great offensive players (Kovalchuk and Antropov) on a team that plays no defense whatsoever. I'm sure Russia's coaches Bykov and Zakharkin are familiar with Afinogenov's point totals, but I'm not sure there are as familiar with his many turnovers in his own end as he (attempts to) exit the zone (in his defense, it's largely because he's trying to get the puck to Kovalchuk who flies up the ice as soon as there's a hint that the puck is going the other way). I've seen most of Atlanta's games this season, and I like Afinogenov as a player, he's blindingly fast, he can do some things with the puck, he works hard all over the ice, but he makes risky plays, he's not a great finisher, and his ability to get the puck out of the zone when it really matters worries the hell out of me. I have no idea why Alexander Frolov has been so maligned in Los Angeles and it's an absolute shame if that has anything to do with why he didn't make the Olympic team. He played great in the WC in Berne, is great down low with the puck. Frolov has played with Handzus for three seasons on the Kings' shut down line, he's a warrior, makes smart plays with and without the puck, would be a great complement to make room for Kovalchuk, and has a nice finishing touch around the net. He was an absolute lock for the team before the season started, it's a huge mistake to not have him in Vancouver.

4) Viktor Kozlov over Oleg Saprykin. I know Kozlov's game very well. I watched him play almost every game as a Washington Capital over the last two seasons. Big, skilled, decent passer, great wrist shot, not all that fast, not physical at all, smart, soft-spoken, gets along with OV and Semin, has had basically zero playoff success, plays for the Bykov and Zakharkin's domestic team, Salavat Ufa. Kozlov made one of the key plays in the quarterfinal win against Canada in Turin in 2006, shaking loose behind the net and finding a cutting Ovechkin for the game's first and eventual game-winning goal. That said, Kozlov is a second-rate skilled player - he's currently seventh on his KHL team in points (!) - that brings nothing of what Russia lacks, forechecking tenacity, toughness, defensive commitment, penalty-killing ability. But these are the exact traits that Saprykin brings. Saprykin can't dangle the way Kozlov can, he can't pass as well, but he can get in on the forecheck, separate Canadian defenders from the puck, crash and bang, and open up room for the Russian dancers to dance. He's had a miserable year in the KHL, even being a healthy scratch at times before recently being traded, but he always lights it up when he puts on the national team sweater. He was a force in Berne, great on the PK, and had chemistry playing with Radulov. He played great in the recent Eurotour which was Bykov's last chance to evaluate players. Saprykin brings to the table qualities that are rare among their crop of forwards. On the big ice, I probably wouldn't take him, but in the faster and hitting-focused game of the small ice, Saprykin makes more sense than Kozlov.

Russia has a great team regardless. But so does Canada. So does Sweden. It's going to take a little bit of luck to win this thing regardless. One errant puck off the wrist of Ovechkin or Malkin will have a much greater impact than whether Kozlov or Afinogenov should be there. But every player and every decision has an opportunity to make the difference between gold and silver or shameful bronze. I'm hoping for the best, but I think some of the wrong decisions have been made.

19 comments:

Anonymous said...

Your blog keeps getting better and better! Your older articles are not as good as newer ones you have a lot more creativity and originality now keep it up!

rananda said...

Thanks. Anonymous, any chance you'd want to let me know who you are and how you found this blog? I'm just curious.

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turnshot said...

I agree with EdwinaHugh.

Rananda, no posts about the World Juniors?

rananda said...

EdwinaHugh is making some really good points.

No WJC post. I didn't have the heart/energy. The Russian team was abysmal, mostly due to the Russian Hockey Fedration's complete disregard and disdain for its junior program. They hired an old coach who literally has NO idea what he's doing. He picked the wrong players, leaving off obvious choices either because of personal or political considerations. He had no game plan for coaching the team, they never practiced any breakouts or the power play, had no offensive of defensive system. The team apparently spent all their practices working on one-timers and 2-on-1's and 3-on-2's. It was going to be a young team regardless, but they were completely unprepared and it showed. It's really not worth talking about. Russian coaches suck at anything other than skill development.

Odo said...

the lack of love for aFrolov is quite the mystery. i can only attribute it to a difficulty for other players to mesh with his game, which offensively centers around his ability to maintain puck possession, but seems to offput teammates, as he spends so much time with his back to them. too often the eventual nice pass just slides through prime areas while the would-be recipient reacts too slowly to capitalize.

aside from that, i agree with EdwinaHugh. also, i reckon the lack of player development is a reflection of the historical russian lack of respect for, perhaps even outright disgust with human life. improving the average is a waste of time; only exceptional talent is worth attention (of the privileged oligarchs with resources). the others will soon be back to burning their sticks for warmth and plowing fields with their skates like the rest of the peasants. sure, you might win a few more games with a good breakout and forechecking system, but the effort to build that cuts into valuable being drunk time, and true success just falls from the sky at the capricious whim of a cruel creator anyway.

rananda said...

i dont think player development, or lack thereof, is the problem. player development is where it's always been. russia has such a smaller pool of hockey players to choose from than canada, yet it produces an equivalent number of top end level players (though not nearly as much depth (see generally number of available rinks, youth programs)). the players arent the problem. it's how the players are instructed to play within the team that's the problem. that is to say, there is very little instruction. no such thing as line matching in russian hockey. russian coaches move up the ladder by developing successful players. which doesnt really make sense bc developing players is about skill development. coaching a professional or world junior-level team is not about further developing their skills, it's about developing a strategy and getting the right players on the ice at the right times. i have some other theories as well that relate to the original course of development of the soviet hockey program and tikhonov in particular. whatever, i agree abuot valuable drunk time and the cruel creator.

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