Longtime Sharks color commentator Drew Remenda often says that, in order for a team to be successful, “your best players have to be your best players.” Russia’s going to live and die by that line in this tournament. The Russians have one of the thinnest bluelines in the tournament. Fortunately, they have the forwards capable of shouldering the load.
Simply put, Russia’s top forwards are as strong as any team’s. Russia is tied with Canada for the tournament lead with four 70-point scorers. Alex Ovechkin, Vladimir Tarasenko, Artemi Panarin, and Evgeny Kuznetsov scored 50, 40, 30, and 20 goals, respectively. That doesn’t even include Nikita Kucherov, who scored 30 goals, and Evgeni Malkin, who posted 58 points in an injury-shortened 57 games. One of the forwards who didn’t reach either of those marks? Pavel Datsyuk, who does things like this.
This forward group doesn’t just score, but also possesses the puck exceptionally well. Of the nine forwards on the roster that played in the NHL last season, all but two (Kuznetsov and Panarin) have posted a positive, zone and score-adjusted corsi-for percentage relative to his teammates in his career, and all but two (Kuznetsov and Panarin again) have done the same with unblocked shot attempts.
That’s a great sign for Russia. Group B is loaded, and has two of the tournament’s best puck possession teams in Sweden and North America. Plus, it shows that the forwards are capable of carrying their weaker defensive group.
While not as strong as their forwards, Russia’s goalies are capable of doing the same. Varlamov and Bobrovsky are proven options, although they’ve struggled lately. Vasilevskiy may be Russia’s best goalie, and took the Lightning to within a game of the Stanley Cup Final following Ben Bishop’s injury.
The World Cup is short enough to somewhat mask Russia’s weaknesses on the blueline, and short enough to mean their familiarity with each other an advantage. All but two Russian skaters have played at the World Championships or Olympics within the last three seasons, and Head Coach Oleg Znarok has been behind the Russian bench at each of the last three World Championships. While Russia will still likely use the early part of the tournament to find chemistry with one another, their previous experience together may allow them to do so quicker than the rest of the field.
Perhaps more than any other team, Russia will rely on its forwards to lead them in the World Cup of Hockey. They’ll need their top forwards to be at their best, but few teams can match their skill up front. In a short tournament, that may be more than enough.