2021 IIHF U18 Championship: Team Russia (Forwards)
Steve Kournianos | 4/22/2021 | Nashville |
NASHVILLE (The Draft Analyst) — It’s getting harder to identify the odds-on favorite in a best-on-best tournament like the IIHF under-18 world hockey championship, which begins on Monday in suburban Dallas. Although this particular event has been dominated by the Americans (10 gold medals) since it began in 1999, the IIHF has crowned a different champion in each of the last three events, with the Swedes coming away victorious the last time it was held in 2019. Yet one notable omission from the list of recent winners is Russia, which hasn’t won U18 gold at this tournament in 14 years.
Whether the explanation for Russia’s title drought is simply a case of either bad luck, or weak rosters, or inconsistent play, or all three, the reality is that they always seem to struggle to medal in general, let alone finish first. Although Russia lost in overtime to Sweden in the 2019 gold-medal game, and last year’s squad — considered one of the best they would have ever iced — never got a chance to compete because of the global pandemic, the Russians have mustered only one silver (2019) and one bronze (2017) in the last eight IIHF tournaments at the U18 level.
This year’s group, however, is entering the tournament with sky-high expectations, specifically because of its strength up front. On paper, this is one of the Russia’s best forward groups they have assembled for the tournament, and it was this very group (2003 & 2004 birth years) that led them to gold at the 2019 under-17 World Hockey Challenge and 2020 Youth Olympic Games. Therefore, since beating up on those birth years has come easier for the Russians than most of their predecessors, it’s safe to bet on this group to break the gold-medal schneid and bring home the U18 world championship trophy for the first time since 2007.
Below are detailed profiles on the notables within Russia’s vaunted group of forwards who will play in the upcoming tournament.
Yurov is a legitimate candidate for the first round in next year’s draft, and for good reason. He’s been a significant possession driver from the wing for a Stalnye Lisy squad that was hit hard by graduations, and his 25 points in 23 games as a 17-year-old rookie is just as impressive as both his shot total (94) and ice-time (18:47); the latter being among the highest of all his Team Russia peers who played in the MHL this season.
Although teammate Matvei Michkov is going to attract the most attention, the reality is that Yurov is no slouch in the shooting department and he too can absolutely clobber the puck. Yurov by season’s end was the go-to option on the right half wall during power plays, but there’s more to his game than just offense, as Yurov kills penalties and is on the ice for all the key moments in close games.
We’re at the point in the season where Svechkov should be no stranger to anybody following the 2021 draft class. But if this tournament is your first time getting a glimpse at him, you’re probably not going to be disappointed, especially since the NHL’s Central Scouting arm gave this stylish two-way center an “A” rating in both the preseason and midseason watch lists. He’s certainly convinced us that he’s not only a first-round talent, but also has potential to become a star at higher levels. And his international opponents in Texas should be quite familiar with Svechkov, who crushed the 2019 World under-17 Hockey Challenge with six goals in eight games.
Svechkov, who split his draft season between a mediocre Ladya squad in the MHL and Togliatti in the adult-age VHL, didn’t have the luxury of playing alongside notable weapons like most of his under-18 peers. But he’s clearly the kind of center who can dominate shifts on his own, and do so in all three zones without looking like a puck hog. Svechkov is deadly in open ice, but it’s the world-class moves he’s pulled off in traffic that separates him from any Russian first-year draft eligible for 2021. His 19:19 of ice time with Ladya is the highest of any U18 teammates and he won nearly 54 percent of the 20-plus draws he took per game.
There’s really no other way to say it — the hype surrounding Michkov is very real and very justified. Try as you may, but there isn’t a single metric one can use to sharpshoot his ridiculous rookie season in the MHL, which he capped off with a goal-scoring crown at the age of 16. Yes, he played on a loaded team and was given every opportunity to shine. But there’s simply no legitimate argument to be made that will marginalize a neophyte who not only destroyed record after record, but did so as the youngest player in a circuit that produces close to a dozen or more NHL draft picks a year.
It’s easy to compare him to the likes of Alexander Ovechkin or Pavel Bure because of Michkov’s finishing prowess, but he’s actually quite unique and already has his own identity. He competes hard in all three zones and has an obvious competitive fire that prevents him from looking nonchalant. Even in the postseason against a stifling, veteran Loko Yaroslavl defense, Michkov was both confident and successful when attacking the middle. There’s only so much puck to go around in a best-on-best tournament, but expect Michkov to attract most of the attention whenever he’s on the ice.
A hounding two-way winger who as a 17-year-old during the regular season led a veteran Krasnaya Armiya forward group in scoring, Poltapov should be summoned by Team Russia to put out fires on both the penalty kill and in late or close scenarios. The best way to describe Poltapov is by calling him a tough out. He is a relentless puck pursuer and uses Pavel Datsyukian stick work to loot unsuspecting opponents, but he’s also filled the scoresheet with distinction.
Poltapov posted team-best totals with 25 goals, 27 assists, and 46 hits in 61 games, and he can score goals in every conceivable fashion. Poltapov also isn’t a stranger to international competition, as he netted a hat trick against Brandt Clarke and Canada-Black in the 2019 World U17 Hockey Challenge quarterfinal. He finished that tournament with seven points in six games to help Russia win its second of back-to-back gold medals.
Petrov, who was taken first overall by the OHL’s North Bay Battalion in the 2020 CHL Import Draft, is a soft-mitted dual threat from the flanks who this past season led Krylia Sovetov in both goals (22) and shots (212). A right shot who plays mostly at left wing, Petrov is an offense-first sniper who has a lethal shot-release combination but also keen vision and the confidence to go tape-to-tape across the seam. He is both confident and competent at handling the puck, although he spends a significant amount of time away from board battles and always looks to slip into openings for a quick shot at the net.
Petrov has good size and is an average skater in multiple areas, but he does possess strong balance and can be agile in tight spaces when looking to buy an extra second or two to bring his elite shot into the mix. Petrov, who starred for Russia at multiple under-17 events, can serve as either playmaker or sniper, and this season improved his intensity and compete level off the puck.
A sturdy, dual-threat winger who has played on the top line of a rebuilding Omskie Yastreby squad, Miroshnichenko also plays a North American style thanks to his size, hands, and strong puck protection. He wasn’t as rugged or as intense a competitor in league play as he was during his international showings, so it will be interesting to see if he ramps up his competitiveness under the bright lights of a major best-on-best tournament. Miroshnichenko was huge for Russia at the 2020 Youth Olympic Games, scoring a hat trick in a semifinal win over Finland while playing on the top line with Michkov and center Ilya Kvochko. He’s a right shot who can play either wing, but Omskie Yastreby used him mostly on the left side, where he can operate and create from the half wall or dominate the low slot and net front.
Miroshnichenko is a strong, powerful skater whose hands and decision making stay in concert with his impressive acceleration and top speed. He is just as deadly on the rush as he is in tight spaces, although you’d like to see him keep his feet moving at all times and engage more in his own end. He’s not as raw as most young power wingers, which is a testament to his game considering he just turned 17. Although he presents stylistic comparisons to a prime Milan Lucic, however, Miroshnichenko has some maturing to do in addition to rounding out his game off the puck.
A pure playmaking center who next season should take over as SKA-1946’s top-line center, Ivantsov never once looked like he was one of the younger forwards on a loaded team, and he was rewarded with an increased role and bigger minutes. Ivantsov finished second on the team in assists (26) and ranked fourth in overall scoring with 34 points. He’s an excellent passer in any situation and his keen vision can make any teammate a threat, to include stay-at-home defensemen. Simply put, you can never take your eyes off him in the offensive zone and he will exploit the tiniest of openings.
Ivantsov also is an excellent checker and faceoff man (58.7 percent on 746 draws), and he was used on SKA-1946’s top penalty-killing unit quite frequently. He can blanket any danger spot in the defensive zone and he also consistently supports his defensemen below the circles. Ivantsov’s skating package is more impressive than initially assessed and on multiple occasions he has caught reliable defenders off balance with rapid inside-out moves. Additionally, Ivantsov can be a fiery competitor with a never-say-die attitude. It’s scary to think that he can be so effective in the tough areas of the ice despite weighing less than 160 pounds.
Katalevsky is one of the better 2003-born Russian prospects who plays out east, and he was rewarded with a full season in the adult-age VHL for a Bars team that also went through a rebuild. Although the two-way center was a top-liner for a strong Irbis squad during brief moments in the MHL junior league, he settled in nicely as a winger with Bars, serving in a bottom-six role but earning and maintaining a regular shift. His production in the VHL was what you’d expect from a teenager (7 goals, 9 assists in 43 games) and he was used in special-teams situations, albeit sparingly.
Katalevsky won’t dazzle you with any particular skill and he is as meat-and-potatoes as they come. He is a good skater with a short stride, but what makes him stand out is his anticipation — Katalevsky can read a play as well as any of Russia’s first-year eligible prospects and his positioning is as close to impeccable as you’ll find for a teenage center. He simply has a knack for finding the puck and delivering it exactly where it needs to go. He may not seem like he plays physical or compete with intensity, but Katalevsky sets the right example and plays a clean, selfless 200-foot game.
If there’s any one prospect who needs to come as close to destroying the competition in Texas as anyone, it’s the enigmatic Lazutin, who entered his draft season as one of Russia’s top 2003-born forwards but disappointed in both league and postseason play. Lazutin, much like several of his under-18 teammates, delivered an impressive performance at the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge in 2019, recording a team-best nine points in playing a critical role for Russia in winning gold. Unfortunately, that tournament appears to be the only noteworthy bullet point on his pre-draft resume, as Lazutin shuffled between SKA-1946 and the lesser affiliate SKA-Varyagi without hammering down a solid stretch of consistent, inspired hockey.
Lazutin has good size for a center but both his his skating and his competitiveness lack pop. He’s been a passenger far too many times when he should have been exploiting smaller defenders the way he did at the international level. Lazutin has the creativity, shot, and buttery-soft hands to be an impact player, but he struggled mightily against the MHL’s better teams and was a complete no-show in the playoffs, which probably explains why Central Scouting went from giving him a “B” grade on their initial watch list to leaving him off the entire 350-plus prospect report from January.
A quick and enthusiastic dual threat from the wing, Buchelnikov split the season between SKA-1946 and SKA-Varyagi, but he could easily have spent the entire campaign with the deeper 1946 from either a merit or production standpoint. No matter which team he played or where he was placed in either lineup, Buchelnikov was a consistent scoring threat capable of making high-end finesse plays. Although he’s listed at 5-foot-9, Buchelnikov plays a spirited, high-energy game and will even throw his weight around. There wasn’t much of a gap between his production with the stronger 1946 (0.73 points per game) and Varyagi (0.81), but keep in mind he played far less with the former (13:43 TOI) than the latter (17:31). Buchelnikov is a deadly power-play option and he can blister the puck off the pass with accuracy.
A sturdy, well-balanced center who excels in the trenches and also in open ice, Gaidamak joined Omskie Yastreby later in November after his anticipated import season with the OHL’s Ottawa 67’s was cut short because of Ontario’s pandemic shutdown. He wasn’t as much of a difference maker as expected considering Omskie Yastreby was on the younger side, but he signed a three-year deal to stay with the organization nonetheless, and should be considered a favorite to center the top line next season.
Gaidamak checks a lot of blocks in both puck skills and intangibles. He’s a 200-foot center who is strong on faceoffs and kills penalties, but he also boasts a plus shot-release combination and can clean up near the goal. Gaidamak definitely is the guy you want controlling the puck the second possession changes hands, and he his calculated zone entries are effective whether rapid or deliberate. He also has leadership qualities and is leaned on to bail either his linemates or defensemen out of jams. Gaidamak’s skating is more powerful and deceptive than it is explosive, but he can fend off harassing back pressure while keeping on a straight path to the cage.