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Young Kazakhs gaining international experience

by Bill Meltzer
A year ago, Team Kazakhstan was the Cinderella story of the Under-20 World Championship. After a seven-year absence, the Kazakhs returned to the elite division of the World Junior Championships and beat the odds by pulling off the relatively rare feat of avoiding relegation the year after being promoted. Wins over Switzerland and Denmark secured a return trip.

This time around, the Kazahks no longer have the services of several key players who aged out of World Junior Championship eligibility. A year ago, the Kazakh attack was led by Kazzinc-Torpedo affiliated forwards Evgeni Rymarev, Evgeni Gasnikov and Yakov Vorobiev (also rendered as Vorobyov in some spellings). Only Vorobiev is back from among last year's group.

The Kazakhs feature 10 players who are age 18 or younger, and their inexperience has been obvious. In two games so far, Kazakhstan has been brutalized by 9-0 and 15-0 scores to Germany and Canada. 

While it's true that the games have not been competitive, the only way for a program like Kazakhstan's to improve is to match up against superior opposition and gain valuable experience. The World Juniors tourney has historically been dominated by 19-year-old players, and when you add the depth-of-talent gap into the mix, it can make for lopsided scores.

Team Kazakhstan does not figure to win either of its two remaining preliminary round games against Team USA or Team Czech Republic. The critical games from Kazakhstan's viewpoint, however, will come in the relegation round. Most likely, the Kazakhs will have to beat both Latvia and Slovakia to have a shot at avoiding relegation.

The odds are decidedly against the team managing to stave off relegation for another year. Nevertheless, Kazakhstan continues to have one of the better programs among the nations on the borderline between the elite international level and the Division I level. Most of the players on Kazakh head coach Oleg Bolyakin’s team last year and this year are a mystery to North American fans. The Kazakhs have been devoid of previously drafted NHL prospects on their World Juniors rosters.

The Kazakh players are used to playing together, both domestically and in international competitions in various age categories. A quick glance at the roster reveals that 14 players on the Kazakh World Juniors roster come from the Kazzinc-Torpedo system (also known as Torpedo Ust-Kamenogorsk), including Vorobiev and well-regarded defenseman Leonid Metalnikov. Last year there were a dozen players on the roster affiliated with Torpedo. That's no coincidence.

Torpedo has typically been the most dominant developmental club in Kazakhstan and its senior level team also plays at the Vysshaya level in Russia, one step below the Continental Hockey League. Most Kazakh players who have reached the NHL trace their roots to Torpedo.

For instance, both San Jose Sharks goaltender Evgeni Nabokov and Toronto Maple Leaf Nik Antropov came up through the Torpedo system and played hockey internationally for Kazakhstan (Nabokov has primarily played for Russia as his career has taken off). NHL alumni with Torpedo ties include former Los Angeles Kings right winger Konstantin Pushkarov and former Colorado Avalanche backup goaltender Vitali Kolesnik. In addition, former New Jersey Devils prospect Maxim Birbraer (born in Kazahstan before moving to and representing Israel) now plays for Torpedo.

"Our national team does not reflect its true strength in international competitions. Our school brought many stars, some of which were successful in the NHL," said Kazzinc-Torpedo vice president Yuri Petukhov in a recent Russian-language interview.

On the current World Juniors Kazakhstan roster, there are a couple of key players who are not affiliated with Torpedo. Returning forward Nikita Ivanov plays for the KHL's Krylia Sovetov Moscow. Defenseman Evgeni Bolyakin, the head coach's son and arguably the most talented player on the squad, plays in Russia for Amur Khaborovsk and came up through the Kazakhmis Karaganda system in his homeland.
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