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Belarus preparing familiar formula for upsets

by Bill Meltzer /

"My tasks are different from those of a [Steve] Yzerman. On our team, the coach nominates the roster." -- Sergej Gotcharov, Team Belarus GM

The biggest change for Team Belarus at the 2010 Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver is not likely to be the composition of the roster on the ice. Rather, it will be found behind the bench. Last month, former Washington Capitals head coach Glen Hanlon announced his resignation as head coach of Team Belarus. The announcement comes with less than 100 days to go before the start of the Olympics.

Belarus Ice Hockey Association President Vladimir Naumov said that a full-time replacement would be named by early December. In late November, Andrei Gusov was tabbed as interim bench boss for a preparatory tournament before the Association named Yunost Minsk head coach Mikhail Zakharov as Hanlon's full time replacement.

Zakharov, 47, has been coaching the country's top club team, Yunost Minsk, since 2003, winning four national championships and the 2007 Continental Cup. He was also the head coach of the Belarusian Under-20 junior national team from 2003-05 and an assistant coach of the men's national team in 2004. As a player, he represented Dynamo Minsk in the Soviet league for 11 years and captained the Belarusian national team

Given the short lead time before the Olympics, Zakharov was a logical choice to steer Belarus. It will be his input that Sergej Gotcharov, the general manager of Team Belarus and general secretary of the national federation relies on to finalize the roster.

"My tasks are different from those of a [Steve] Yzerman," Gontcharov said via email. "On our team, the coach nominates the roster."

Zakharov's roster choices are unlikely to vary much from Hanlon's. Unlike the elite hockey countries, Belarus has slimmer pickings when it comes to the national team. Besides, the formula for success is already in place.

Under Hanlon's guidance, Belarus made a habit out of playing the spoiler at the IIHF World Championships. On two occasions in the last four years (three years with Hanlon as its head coach, one as an assistant), Team Belarus earned a spot in the medal round of International Ice Hockey Federation World Championships. This past spring, at the 2009 IIHF World Championships in Switzerland, the Belarusians scored upsets over both Finland and Slovakia and Finland and reached the quarterfinals. In so doing, Belarus moved up to eighth in the IIHF's world rankings.

The typical Team Belarus roster is anchored by savvy veterans on defense. The team usually has a bend-but-don't-break defensive philosophy and relies on forwards to help out on the backcheck. Belarus must be opportunistic offensively because it usually gets outchanced. If I were the decision-maker, I would craft the same sort of team -- with mostly the same players -- that appeared at the most recent World Championships.

Andrei Mezin, Dynamo Minsk (KHL) -- The 35-year-old Mezin has extensive international experience and has shown the ability to get hot at times. He's had a solid KHL season so far with Dynamo Minsk and was outstanding at the World Championships this past spring (4-1 record, 1.72 goals-against average, .948 save percentage). In addition, Mezin has played both in the North American minor leagues and in various European pro leagues, so he's unlikely to be phased by the atmosphere and crowds in Vancouver.

Vitali Koval, Dynamo Minsk (KHL) -- The 29-year-old Koval gave a solid account of himself at the 2008 World Championships, posting a commendable .912 save percentage in six starts. He had a pair of starts at the most recent Worlds, backing up veteran Mezin. At 6-foot-2 and 220 pounds, Koval covers a lot of net, especially in close. He backs up Mezin in the KHL for Dynamo Minsk, but could be a starter on some clubs.

Igor Brikun, HK Gomel (Belarus Open League) -- The 23-year-old has excelled in Belarus Open League, which also includes clubs from Latvia and Ukraine. The caliber of play is a step below Russia's top minor league (Vysshaya) in terms of its overall quality and depth of talent. More importantly, he has compiled experience playing for the junior national team and has served as the third goaltender for the senior team.

Ruslan Salei, Colorado Avalanche -- Back problems have limited the gritty veteran blueliner to one game this season. The 35-year-old still does not have a time-table for his return to the Colorado lineup. But an Olympic roster spot should be held for him if he's able to return. If not, Team Belarus will lose its defensive backbone and a player it relies on to play a leadership role.

Oleg Leontiev, Yunost Minsk (Belarus Open League) -- The ageless (well, 39-year-old) Leontiev is still going strong in the Belarusian league and is, of course, extremely familiar to Zakharov. A former player in the Russian Super League (the predecessor of the KHL) with Metallurg Magnitogorsk and SKA St. Petersburg, Leontiev played for Belarus in the 2007 and 2008 World Championships. This season, he leads all defensemen in the Belarusian league in scoring. More importantly, he'd provide a veteran presence to the Team Belarus blue line, especially if Salei is unable to go.

Vladimir Denisov, Dynamo Minsk (KHL) -- After two seasons in the American Hockey League, Denisov accepted an offer to return home to play for Minsk. In international competition, he often plays 20-plus minutes per game for Team Belarus, including time on the power play.

Sergei Kolosov, Grand Rapids Griffins (AHL) -- The big (6-foot-4, 217 pounds) defenseman is in his second season of North American pro hockey after cutting his teeth at the USHL level. The 23-year-old Detroit Red Wings hopeful is at his best when he keeps his game simple.

Aleksandr Ryadinsky, Yunost Minsk (Belarus Open League) -- The 31-year-old backliner has been a regular on the Belarusian national team since 2003 and averaged over 22 minutes of ice time per game at the World Championships in Switzerland this past spring. The 6-foot-2, 207 pound defensive defenseman plays with a bit of a physical edge to his game and is arguably talented enough to play in the KHL.

Viktor Kostyuchenok, Amur Khabarovsk (KHL) -- The 30-year-old Kostyuchenok has been a regular starter on Team Belarus for the last five years and gained the confidence and trust of now former national team coach Hanlon. While he's been an inconsistent player in the KHL, his international experience makes him a solid Belarusian national team candidate for the Olympics.

Andrei Bashko, Shaktar Soligorsk (Belarus Open League) -- The 27-year-old defenseman has become a regular on the senior national team over the last few years. He performed well in the Olympic qualification tournament and held his own at the World Championships. He also has KHL experience. Bashko could do a commendable job in a third-pairing defensive role.

Ivan Usenko, HK Gomel (Belarus Open League) -- A former member of the WHL's Swift Current Broncos, the 26-year-old Usenko cracked the Belarusian senior national team last year. Although he struggled at the 2009 World Championships, his mobility and occasional offensive flair (he has cracked double-digit goals in the domestic league) deserve another look in a third-pairing or seventh defenseman role.


G-A-P: 7-16-23
+/-: 1 | PIM: 2 | PP: 1

Mikhail Grabovski, Toronto Maple Leafs -- This is a no-brainer selection, along with the Kostitsyn brothers. In Vancouver, Grabovski will see all the ice time he can handle no matter what happens between now and then during the NHL season. He currently ranks fourth in scoring on the Maple Leafs.

Andrei Kostitsyn, Montreal Canadiens -- It's been a tumultuous year for both Kostitsyn brothers. Andrei, the elder had a miserable start for the Habs before playing better recently. Both Kostitsyn brothers will play on the top line at the Olympics.

Sergei Kostitsyn, Hamilton Bulldogs (AHL) -- One would figure that the player would be motivated to bring his A-game to Vancouver, especially now that he has rejoined his brother on the Canadiens' NHL roster.

Alexei Ugarov, HK Balashikha MVD (KHL) --
The 2010 Games will be his first Olympic tourney, but the 24-year-old winger already has three World Championships under his belt, and has scored seven goals and 10 points in his last 12 major international games. He has demonstrated in the KHL that he is skilled with the puck and knows how to finish plays when he's open in the slot.

Konstantin Koltsov, Salavat Yulaev Ufa (KHL) --
The former Pittsburgh Penguins first-round pick was a bust in the NHL, but is now a mainstay in the KHL and a proven national team player for Belarus. However, he will need to better his performance from the most recent World Championships.

Alexei Kalyuzhny, Dynamo Moscow (KHL) -- A standout in the former Russian Super League and a solid performer in the successor Kontinental Hockey League, the 33-year-old center is a lock for the Olympics. Don't be surprised if his name gets on the scoresheet a few times against high-profile teams in Vancouver.

Mikhail Stefanovich, Quebec Remparts (QMJHL) --
Selected by the Toronto Maple Leafs in the fourth round (98th overall) of the 2008 Entry Draft, the 20-year-old would be the youngest player on my Team Belarus roster. While he would probably not see much ice time (young players rarely do for European teams) the Olympic experience would be invaluable. The youngster boasts a quick and accurate wrist shot and above-average offensive instincts, despite question marks about his skating. Hanlon dressed him in four games at the 2009 Worlds and used him sparingly.

Oleg Antonenko, Avtomobilist Ekaterinburg (KHL) -- The 38-year-old Antonenko is a senior statesman on Team Belarus and has played in two previous Olympics as well as the qualifiers for Vancouver. Even at his advancing age, he was clutch for the Belarusians at the 2009 World Championships, scoring three goals and six points in seven games.

Andrei Mikhalev, Dynamo Minsk (KHL) -- A five-year veteran of the Belarusian senior national team, Mikhalev hasn't played as well so far during the KHL season as he did a year ago when he scored 14 times in 55 games. Nevertheless, the 30-year-old former Quebec Major Junior League (Chicoutimi) and CHL right winger is a virtual shoo-in for a roster spot in Vancouver.

Alexander Kulakov, Dynamo Minsk (KHL) -- The 26-year-old has been a regular on the national team for the last few years and merits another call. He was one of the bright young offensive stars of the Belarusian league but serves as more of a role player in the tougher KHL. Kulakov suited up in all seven games at the 2009 World Championships and was one of his team's most pleasant surprises at the Worlds two years earlier.

Sergei Zadelenov, Dynamo Minsk (KHL) -- Another long-time member of the national team and a former scoring champion in the Belarusian league, the 33-year-old Zadelenov has been plagued by injuries. If healthy, there's certainly room on Team Belarus for a player who averaged a point-per-game at the World Championships two years ago. The center lacks size and often gets overpowered by big North American opponents but he's skilled with the puck.

Yaroslav Chupris, Dynamo Minsk (KHL) --
The 28-year-old winger has been a star in the Belarusian league and a regular on the national team for the last three years. While his performance in the KHL and major international play will not turn many heads, he earned the trust of Hanlon enough to play in all game situations at the 2009 Worlds.

Sergei Demagin, Nizhnekamsk Neftekhimik (KHL) -- One of the younger candidates for the national team at age 23, Demagin starred in the Belarusian national league and cracked the KHL with Dynamo Minsk before being transferred to Neftekhimik earlier this season. He dressed in all seven games at the 2009 Worlds and scored his first goal at the international senior level. This would be his first Olympics.

Evgeni Kovyrshin, Keramin Minsk (Belarus Open League) -- The 23-year-old dressed in all seven games for Belarus at the 2009 Worlds, playing on the fourth line. He has proven to be a responsible two-way player in the domestic league and could skate a few Olympic shifts without hurting his team defensively.
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