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Tried-and-true approach may be Belarus' best hope

by Bill Meltzer / NHL.com
For secondary hockey powers like Belarus, there is not nearly as much talent from which to choose for the Olympics as there is for medal contenders such as Canada, Russia and Sweden.
 
As a result, the selections tend to be fairly static, with major alterations made to the roster only in case of injury to a key player. It doesn't so much matter what the players have done during the season with their club teams. It's more about what they've brought to the national team in recent years.
 
The modest pool of roster contenders is the bad news for Team Belarus General Manager Arthur Rekshta. The good news is that the team often overachieves, because it is a cohesive and experienced squad.
 
Apart from its historic Olympic upset of Sweden in 2002, the Belarusians have also fared surprisingly well at the IIHF World Championships. Under the direction of former Washington Capitals coach Glen Hanlon, the Belarusians earned a pair of trips to the medal round of the IIHF World Championships.
 
Hanlon, who has been fired as head coach as Dynamo Minsk, recently decided to step down as Team Belarus head coach less than four months before the Olympics. A successor has yet to be named but an announcement is likely in early December.

Nevertheless, the foundation is there to score a few more upsets.
 
"The players' attitude to training and games has changed," Hanlon said at his farewell press conference. "They understand that playing for the national team is a great honor."
 
As Team Belarus general manager, I would attempt to impart as much stability as possible. 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 out-chanced. By necessity, I would craft the same sort of team – with mostly the same players – who 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). 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 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, but he's a lock for the Olympics if his health permits it. The 35-year-old could return to the Colorado lineup by December, giving him plenty of time to get ready for the Olympics. As usual, he would fill a leadership role on Team Belarus and log a lot of ice time.

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 (6-4, 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 more than 22 minutes of ice time per game at the World Championships in Switzerland this past spring. The 6-2, 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 past five years. 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 during the past 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.



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.

Andrei Kostitsyn, Montreal Canadiens -- It's been a tumultuous year for both Kostitsyn brothers. Andrei, the elder, has had a miserable season for the Habs. Nevertheless, the slate will be wiped clean (at least from Team Belarus' standpoint) by the time the Olympics roll around. There's no other choice, as there aren't any other players available with multiple 20-goal NHL seasons on their resume. Both brothers will play on the top line at the Olympics.

Sergei Kostitsyn, Hamilton Bulldogs (AHL) -- A minor-league demotion and a pair of suspensions for refusing to play at the AHL level are not be a deterrent from selecting the 22-year-old Kostitsyn to play an important role for Team Belarus. Again, it is partially a matter of necessity and partially an outgrowth of the fact that international hockey performance can be a whole different animal than the NHL showing. One would figure that Sergei, in particular, would be motivated to bring his A-game to Vancouver.

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 (No. 98) 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.

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 3 goals and 6 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 QMJHL (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 past 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 past 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.
 
Bill Meltzer is a correspondent for NHL.com, writing the weekly Across the Pond feature on the hockey scene outside North America.


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