Russia’s head coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov is out to end his first full season with the national squad on a high – but World Championship glory in May is merely a stepping stone towards Olympic gold.
Bilyaletdinov, double Gagarin Cup winner with Ak Bars and a Russian Superleague champion with both the Kazan side and Dynamo Moscow in the past decade, has used the 2011-12 Eurotour campaign to introduce new faces into the national team. That has seen the end for some key players, most notably double World Championship-winning captain Alexei Morozov, who has not been called into squads this year despite a close relationship with Bilyaletdinov from their time together at Ak Bars. The likes of Maxim Afinogenov (SKA St. Petersburg) and recent Gagarin Cup winner Konstantin Gorovikov (Dynamo Moscow) also miss out after featuring in last year’s World Championship – and at the time of writing only eight of Bilyaletdinov’s 27-strong preliminary party went to Slovakia a year ago.
Some new faces need no introduction: the likes of NHL stars Evgeny Malkin and Pavel Datsyuk, unexpectedly free of play-off commitments, represent a bonus for Bilyaletdinov as he seeks to balance the demands of today with plans for the future. Others, like Gagarin Cup finalists Denis Kokarev (Dynamo) and Alexander Perezhogin and Alexander Popov (Avangard) arrive in top form after that epic battle for the KHL’s top prize.
And there is no surprise that some of the young guns who have starred in recent U20 World Championships are already earning their stripes at senior level. Vladimir Tarasenko, 21, took his World Championship bow a year ago. That promising forward is likely to be joined by Evgeny Kuznetsov, his team-mate in the 2011 U20 World Champion team and one of the stars of the recent KHL campaign for Traktor Chelyabinsk.
Elsewhere this season has seen Bilyaletdinov give chances to several less well-known players. CSKA’s Sergei Shirokov has been a rare bright spot for his struggling club following his return from two seasons in the US, and he has featured regularly in Euortour games for Team Russia. Meanwhile, Severstal pair Vadim Shipachyov and Evgeny Ketov will be hoping to make it into the final 25-strong party before Russia begins its campaign against Latvia in Stockholm on Saturday.
However, while Bilyaletdinov has freshened up the squad he inherited from Vyacheslav Bykov last year, results have yet to follow. A bright start in the first Eurotour stage was followed by a disappointing 3rd place on home ice in the Channel 1 Cup in Moscow, and inconsistent results saw the Czech Republic claim the crown of this year’s top European team. Critics have claimed that the new-look line-up was over-reliant on Alexander Radulov, a charge which may be put to the test once again in Sweden after Radulov returned to Nashville Predators after Salavat Yulaev’s season ended early. And other observers contend that there is little wrong with the players who managed eight scoreless periods on the run against Latvia, Finland and Sweden last month before finally lighting the red light deep in the second against the Tre Kronor.
Behind the bench, though, Bilyaletdinov is aware that a last hurrah for the old guard isn’t an option at the Worlds. “This is going to be a young team,” he told IIHF.com. “We have just a couple of years to be ready for the Olympics in Sochi. My job is to make a team which can make the highest step [in the 2014 Olympics].”
But if anyone was out to underestimate the Red Machine in Sweden and Finland, there is a warning as well: “This is not a team which will just lose games: we will fight for everything.”
The 2012 IIHF World Championship runs May 4-20 in Stockholm, Sweden and Helsinki, Finland. Russia’s group-phase games and quarter final (if it qualifies) will be played in Stockholm, with the semis and final all played in Helsinki. En.khl.ru will bring match reports of all of Russia’s games in the tournament.