Nail Yakupov and Evgeny Kuznetsov were the featured ‘underagers’ on Russia’s past two U-20 World Junior teams, which won silver and gold respectively.
This year, the mantle may fall to talented 17-year-old winger Valeri Nichushkin, among four draft-eligible players bidding for a roster spot – and pending performances in the ongoing Subway Super Series.
Towering London Knights’ defenseman Nikita Zadorov has shown increasing dimension to his game during the series, while the precocious talents of Nichushkin have been more subtle.
Cracking the national team would be a particular boost to the stock of imposing forward Bogdan Yakimov as NHL scouts will not see him at the U-18 Worlds next April thanks to an October `94 birth date.
There is also added incentive this time as the world juniors return to Russia – starting next month in Ufa – for the first time since 2001.
Here is a report on Russia’s three young giants – plus scouting observations on OHL stars’ Sean Monahan and Connor McDavid.
Valeri Nichushkin (RW, 2013), Team Russia – there’s no denying the pure talent here, though It may take a brave NHL GM to select him with a top-ten pick next June .. signing a three-year contract this past summer with KHL club Traktor Chelyabinsk won’t help .. leading Chelmet of the Russian VHL (Rus 2) with eight goals in 15 games .. a healthy scratch for the opening game, but has dressed for three straight and been deployed on the third line .. a highly-skilled individual talent whose skating and puck skills place him among the upper echelon of this season’s draft class .. skating is crisp and fluid – and powerful .. reaches exceptional top speed within two or three strides – has excellent glide that carries him into a zone with dynamic pace .. also boast great ‘change of direction’ speed which, combined with his first-step quickness, makes him a threat in transition .. can carry and handle the puck well at top speed .. adept at driving wide to the outside, however doesn’t necessarily attack the net .. proficient at dropping his shoulder as a means of protecting the puck, and does a superb job of keeping it to his outside skate, allowing him to fend off inside pressure and make a play .. there have been concerns about the extent of his ‘tunnel’ vision as it appears that he doesn’t always see playmaking options – and consequently tries to do too much on his own .. his inconsistent physical play is another area that scouts would like to see improve .. does not really play a physical game even if he flashes a belligerent side at times .. can appear agitated when he is hit – and will get rattled with a strong forecheck or an aggressive physical encounter .. doesn’t activate his feet quick enough in the defensive zone and is often caught standing still .. definitely a potential game-breaker loaded with individual skill – and some issues that may raise alarms.
Nikita Zadorov (D, 2013), Team Russia – participated in the two games against the OHL stars .. a very mobile and poised defender, whose size and athleticism have been on good display .. did a solid job of killing penalties and providing staunch defensive efforts .. did not log that many minutes in the third period of Game 3, yet was out on the ice when the game mattered most – in the dying minutes to hold on to a 2-1 lead .. mostly keeps things simple, although still needs work on his defensive-zone positioning, namely getting better body coverage on his man in front of the goal .. would also benefit from punishing guys more in front of the net – and making it an area opponents want to avoid .. his 1-on-1 coverage is quite impressive as his massive stride and range swallow up the ice .. showed maturity handling the puck in this contest as his rushes were very selective yet also successful at gaining the zone .. made a series of smart plays to keep pressure inside the zone as well .. appears to be a prototypical defensive defenseman who does most things fairly well inside his own zone .. though offensively somewhat limited, his puck skills are steadily getting better as he adapts to the North American game .. an attractive prospect with the foundation to be a successful pro with proper defensive seasoning.
Bogdan Yakimov (C, 2013), Team Russia – fourth-line center is a workhorse who competes hard and is deployed as an F1 torpedo .. a raw, rigid skater who loses style and grace points due to some faulty mechanics .. however, he does establish decent speed once moving thanks to a strong lower body and deep knee bend that helps him extend his stride .. will play physical and take the body .. shows a consistent effort in terms of routinely finishing his checks – yet, at times, is not particularly effective and just bounces off of opponents .. puck skills are quite bland and unimaginative, as he habitually tried the same move when crossing over the blue line .. operates better in a cycle and down-low game .. can be a scoring threat however as he does have a modest shooting release and will use his large frame to shield pucks to get into better scoring or passing areas .. too easy to play against defensively – did not apply himself very well in this area .. caught standing still and always a step behind the action .. got progressively better as the game wore on and was able to hem Team OHL inside their zone and keep the play in the confines of the neutral zone .. still quite a raw prospect at this point, albeit does possess some okay qualities.
Sean Monahan (C, 2013), Team OHL – began the game on the fourth line with 15-year-old sensation Connor McDavid on the left and undrafted Barclay Goodrow .. shuffled around throughout the course of the game as Coach Steve Spott deployed him on a line with Ryan Strome and Brett Ritchie – though playing out of position on the left side .. competed hard and was instrumental in Team OHL’s first goal with an interception of an errant Mironov pass in the neutral zone .. proceeded to gain the offensive zone before sliding a perfectly-timed pass to wide-open Ottawa 67′s teammate Tyler Graovac for the empty net .. sustained a high compete level all contest, as he would skate the length of the ice several times on the same shift .. always in motion, his skating is not elite but has the propensity to improve due to a long stride .. considering how hard he works to rush back into a play, he is always somewhere near the action .. extremely smart coming off the boards and circling behind the goal to find the open man at the point or along the wall, as his head is always up .. stays aware of his positioning on the ice and doesn’t take unnecessary chances to force a play that simply isn’t there .. displays excellent patience – picks and chooses his moments accordingly .. used in all situations – played on both the power play and penalty kill .. a low-maintenance, multi-functional player who finds ways to get things done in any situation – and with any set of linemates.
Connor McDavid (C/LW, 2015), Team OHL – after taking the league by storm in his first month of OHL action, McDavid was invited to participate in the Canada-Russia Challenge to take in the ‘experience’ .. highly evolved offensive game and stellar puck skills, McDavid came out of the gate full of piss and vinegar as he charged deep into the offensive zone and displayed a strong appetite for the puck .. played out of position on the left wing – in what was likely the first time in his young career that he found himself lining up on the fourth line .. saw fewer and fewer shifts in the second and third periods due to it being a close, tight-checking affair .. blazes through the neutral zone exploiting his blistering speed and remarkable change of pace .. adept at eluding coverage as he is slippery and hard to hit .. surprisingly holds his own in traffic in spite of a still under-developed frame .. the sky is the limit here .. will get a chance to shine for Team Ontario at the upcoming U-17 World Challenge.