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Defense, goaltending key to Russia's gold hopes

by Mike G. Morreale /
Close your eyes and imagine for a moment you're a goalie and you suddenly realize Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin and Ilya Kovalchuk are bearing down on you.

That fear and anxiety is something opposing goalies will feel while competing at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. You know darn well if that high-flying trio's objective isn't hitting the twine behind the goaltender; it's trying to put a hole right through it.

And, that unit could very well take the ice come February, because after finishing a dismal fourth in the 2006 Winter Games, Russian General Manager Vladislav Tretiak's team is primed for gold-medal contention this time around.

As the GM for Team Russia for a day, I'm here to create one of the more dynamic clubs these Olympics have ever seen. Let's face it; Russia always has been noted for its explosive scorers, and the 2010 team will certainly be armed with plenty.

The difficulty comes in mixing my lightning-quick point producers -- who also have a propensity to throw their weight around every so often -- with a few defensive grinders in an attempt to frustrate the opposition on the smaller North American rinks.

Some names you'll recognize, but a few others might be foreign. That's OK; they'll be plucked from their teams in Europe and provide the complementary pieces needed to round out the unit. For the record, our 23-man roster will consist of 13 forwards, 7 defensemen and 3 goalies.

Evgeni Nabokov, San Jose Sharks -- Look for the Kazakhstan-born netminder to earn the majority of starts for coach Vyacheslav Bykov. In the month of October, Nabokov was 9-3-1 with a 2.53 goals-against average and .912 save percentage. The runner-up for the Vezina Trophy in 2008 was the anchor of the '08 World Championship squad that won gold.
Ilya Bryzgalov, Phoenix Coyotes  -- An easy choice here as Bryzgalov simply has been impenetrable this season. I'd consider him the backup at this point, following a tremendous opening month of the NHL season in which he posted an 8-3-0 record, 1.78 GAA and .930 save percentage with three shutouts.

Nikolai Khabibulin, Edmonton Oilers -- We could use some added experience here and "The Bulin Wall" adds just that. He was the first Russian goalie to win the Stanley Cup as a member of the Tampa Bay Lightning. He won a gold medal for the Unified Team in '92 and a bronze with the Russians in the '06 Games.

Sergei Gonchar, Pittsburgh Penguins -- One of the finer point men on the power-play will be sidelined another two weeks while he recovers from a broken left wrist, but that injury shouldn't deter him from earning a big role with the Olympic club. After all, he was slowed by a shoulder injury last season and a knee injury in the playoffs but still equaled a career-high in the postseason with 14 points in 22 games.

Anton Volchenkov, Ottawa Senators -- Volchenkov also is on the mend, from an elbow injury, but there's no way I'm leaving Ottawa's best defensive defenseman off the Olympic roster. He's scheduled to rejoin the club in a week. In 10 games this season, the 6-foot-1, 226-pound blue liner has 23 hits, 30 blocked shots and a plus-4 rating.

Denis Grebeshkov, Edmonton Oilers -- He's struggled out of the gate this season, but Grebeshkov is a veteran of international competition, having won two gold medals in the World Junior Championships and two golds at the World Championships. His shot-blocking ability is a huge boon for the Russians.

Fedor Tyutin, Columbus Blue Jackets -- The 26-year-old is coming off a career season as he recorded personal bests with 9 goals and 34 points in 2008-09. His propensity to step in front of oncoming forwards and shots is something this club needs. 

Vitaly Vishnevski, Lokomotiv Yaroslavl (KHL) -- On the international stage, Vishnevski has represented his homeland at the World Junior Championships (1998, 1999), the World Championships (1999, 2001) the World Cup (2004) and the Winter Olympics (2006). I like the fact Vishnevski is a punishing, stay-at-home defender. He spent eight seasons in the NHL before joining Lokomotiv in 2008-09.

Dmitri Kalinin, Salavat Yulaev (KHL)  -- The 1998 first-round draft pick (No. 18) of the Buffalo Sabres provides experience and dependable defensive play along the blue line. Kalinin, a veteran of nine NHL seasons, won gold in 2008 and '09 for Russia in the World Championships, and he has been a point-per-game player in Russia this season.

Dmitry Kulikov, Florida Panthers -- I had to take a flyer on someone, since the dependable Andrei Markov will be unavailable after surgery to repair damaged tendons in his leg. But the rookie Kulikov is ready for this assignment. He doesn't have international experience, but has shown great poise and smarts for a 19-year-old. He also doesn't shy away from doing some of the small, unnoticed things that make for an effective defenseman. 

Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals -- Do I have to say his name? Do you need an explanation? At the time of his upper-body strain, Ovi led the League in goals (14), points (23) and shots (86), and topped his team in hits (40).

Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh Penguins -- A right shoulder injury has kept the 2009 Conn Smythe Trophy winner out for a few weeks, but he is on the mend now. After leading the 2008-09 regular season with 113 points and the '09 Stanley Cup Playoffs with 36 points, Malkin will look for the hat trick with plenty of production in the 2010 Olympics.

Ilya Kovalchuk, Atlanta Thrashers -- Kovalchuk suffered a broken foot in late October, but returned earlier than expected on Thursday, scoring in his first game back. There's no way he doesn't make the roster. He has 306 goals and 567 points in 553 NHL games.

Pavel Datsyuk, Detroit Red Wings -- Nothing seems to slow Datsyuk down. He finished 2008-09 with 97 points (32 goals, 65 assists), matching his career high established one season earlier. I love the fact he's recognized as the best two-way player in the League, as shown by his winning back-to-back Selke trophies.

Alexander Semin, Washington Capitals -- The next-best Russian forward for the Capitals, behind Ovechkin, just so happens to be among the top-six Russian forwards in the game. He finished with 6 goals and 13 points in nine games to help lead his country to a gold medal in the World Championships last year.

Alexei Kovalev, Ottawa Senators -- Kovalev, signed by Ottawa this offseason, already has 398 goals and 947 points in 1,165 career regular-season games. A veteran of international competition, he's represented his country in two Olympics and three World Championships. How delightful it'll be to have a second line consisting of Datsyuk centering for Semin on the left and Kovalev on the right.

Alexander Frolov, Los Angeles Kings -- Kings coach Terry Murray is out to turn Frolov into more of a two-way player. The 6-foot-2 left wing was selected for the 2006 Games in Turin, Italy, but only played three games after suffering an injury. There's no doubt he'll be itching to make a bigger impact this time around.

Evgeny Artyukhin, Anaheim Ducks -- Every team could use a 6-4, 255-pound right wing who enjoys mucking it up in the corners. That's Artyukhin, and his role won't change on this Russian All-Star unit. Artyukhin was eighth in the League with 249 hits and 16th with 151 penalty minutes in 2008-09, so here's hoping he can become that thorn in the side to those opposing snipers in February.

Nikita Filatov, Columbus Blue Jackets
-- Filatov has immense talent, but Columbus coach Ken Hitchcock would like to see his 2008 first-round draft choice (No. 6) become more of a two-way player. He's missed a few games with back pain, but his fast feet and quick hands would be a welcome addition to the squad. Filatov won a gold medal at the 2007 Under-18 World Championships and a bronze in the '08 World Junior Championship.

Sergei Fedorov, Metallurg Magnitogorsk (KHL) -- To complement this offensive machine, it's imperative to bring some players with defensive acumen; Fedorov is that type of player. Don't forget, Washington Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau had Fedorov manning the blue line at times last season. Plus, Fedorov has played in a few big games in his day and has nerves of steel.

Alexander Radulov, Salavat (KHL) -- We'll round out the roster with some skilled puck-handlers, starting with Radulov. After registering 48 points in 52 games last season in the KHL, Radulov hasn't missed a beat this year, scoring at better than a point-per-game average.

Aleksey Morozov, Kazan Ak Bars (KHL) -- Since leaving the NHL following seven seasons in Pittsburgh, Morozov has been quite productive in the KHL for Ak Bars. He's connected for 152 goals and 333 points in 286 games.

Sergei Brylin, SKA St. Petersburg (KHL)  -- Here's my sleeper pick for the Russians. Brylin is capable of playing all three forward positions, is a sound penalty-killer and the consummate team player. He has tons of experience too, playing a part in all three New Jersey Devils Stanley Cup titles, in 1995, 2000 and 2003. He's the type of player we'll need in the clutch.

So, what do you think? It's certainly no easy task determining the best fit for a Russian team so deep in offensive talent and flair. But I'm confident this particular club has gold-medal potential.

There are some notable absentees from the roster, including forwards Alexei Yashin, Slava Kozlov, Nikolai Zherdev and Maxim Afinogenov.

As mentioned earlier, Markov was not included since he's out until February with a leg injury. Alexei Zhitnik, who plays for Dynamo Moscow, and Sergei Zubov (SKA St. Petersburg) also were notable omissions along the blue line. I have a great deal of respect and admiration for Zubov, but I'm banking on the young legs of Kulikov.

Goalie Semyon Varlamov, while good, just doesn't have the international experience of the three goalies chosen for our roster.

Legendary Soviet Union goalie Vladimir Myshkin, who took the loss against Team USA in the "Miracle on Ice" game in February 1980, feels the Russians have a great opportunity this Olympic year.

"I feel we have a good chance but I'm not going to specify percentages," Myshkin told through an interpreter. "Right now, some of the best forwards in the world are Russian players."

His advice: "They have to believe in victory."

I believe my roster has that belief.

Mike Morreale is's Southeast Division expert, and, as such, is quite familiar with many of the big-name Russians in contention for berths on the Russian Olympic roster. Contact Mike Morreale at

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