With the roster announcement deadline fast approaching, Russia coach Zinetulla Bilyaletdinov had one last chance to test some of his players from the Kontinental Hockey League and decide who deserves to make the cut for the 2014 Sochi Olympics. He did so at the Channel One Cup, a tournament from Dec. 19-22, between major European hockey powers. Russia hosted the event in Sochi at the arena where Olympic hockey tournament will be played.
WHAT'S CHANGED: As projected, coach Bilyaletdinov did not offer a place on the Channel One Cup roster to the player who leads the KHL with 21 goals and 48 points in 36 games, Metallurg Magnitogorsk captain Sergey Mozyakin. His longtime linemate Danis Zaripov did not make the roster for the tournament as well.
It is highly unlikely, but if Evgeni Malkin's injury proves to be serious, Artem Anisimov will be moved to the second line to replace him and another center will have to be added as a replacement. The choice will most likely be between former Winnipeg Jets player Alexander Burmistrov, who has had a resurgence with Avangard Omsk this season after electing to return to Russia over the summer, and Vadim Shipachyov, Kovalchuk's teammate with SKA St. Petersberg, who has had a solid year so far.
Ilya Nikulin – Evgeny Medvedev
WHAT'S CHANGED: So far the most impressive defense duo in contention for the Russian roster has to be the Montreal Canadiens pair of Andrei Markov and Alexei Emelin. Markov continues to be an offensive force and is currently 15th among all defensemen in the NHL with 19 points (no other Russian defenseman is in the top 30). Emelin recently came back from a knee injury and has made his physical presence felt ever since.
Slava Voynov recently had a three-game point streak and is one of the top defensemen for the Los Angeles Kings. With blazing speed and a superb slap shot, Voynov will be a cornerstone of Russia's defense corps.
WHAT'S CHANGED: The goaltending looks like the most vulnerable link for Russia at this point. Colorado Avalanche goalie Semyon Varlamov started the year playing like a Vezina Trophy candidate but his performance has slipped from elite status of late. The 2013 Vezina winner, Sergey Bobrovsky of the Columbus Blue Jackets, is sidelined with a groin injury and is not expected to return until early January.
Another prospect for Russia, Evgeny Nabokov of the New York Islanders, recently came back from a similar injury and needs time to regain his form. In this situation, Alexander Eremenko might be the best choice to start in goal but the Dynamo Moscow goaltender has very limited international-level experience.
NEXT IN LINE: Eighteen-year-old gem Valeri Nichushkin of the Dallas Stars is progressing rapidly, and with his quick hands and great skating ability, he is certain to earn consideration. It will not be surprising if Russia's coaching staff chooses him over Edmonton forward Nail Yakupov. Artemy Panarin, a teammate of Kovalchuk and Viktor Tikhonov, has 10 goals and 23 points in 35 games and remains a candidate as well.
Edmonton Oilers defenseman Anton Belov and Anton Volchenkov of the New Jersey Devils could give Russia added physical presence on the blue line. Belov is racking up more ice time and becoming one of the key players for his team. Volchenkov has a long history with Russia's national team and his experience competing at higher levels could certainly help.
If Nabokov recovers from his groin injury in time to show improved performance before the Olympics, he can still make the roster. He has had a couple of solid years for the Islanders, and despite being 38 years old, Nabokov is still a world-class goalie. Konstantin Barulin of Ak Bars in the KHL is having a decent season and his experience would also be helpful should any of the other goaltending candidates get injured.
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