Team Russia enters the Olympics as the heavy favorite. Here’s why that might be an exaggeration.
When the NHL announced that it would not attend the Beijing 2022 Winter Games, arguably no team benefitted more than Russia. Canada with NHLers was so deep that their third line could have been anchored by Stamkos. But with the KHL still in full swing during COVID, Russia had a number of NHL cuspers including Nikita Gusev, Vadim Shipachev and Mikhail Grigorenko primed for action if Artemi Panarin, Alexander Ovechkin and Igor Shesterkin were out. If Russia as expected had taken its top scorers and coaches, a second gold looked likely. Almost guaranteed. But that’s not what happened.
The first in a number of questions is where Ilya Kovalchuk entered the picture—and why. The former mega-earner was originally called in to manage relations with his fellow NHL stars, but he remained even after the NHL pulled out. The winger was playing as recently as the spring, his last stint in the KHL with Gagarin Cup champs Omsk. He stepped off the ice and straight into one of the biggest National Team General Manager roles without even so much as a coaching stint in between. His qualification for the job was limited to friendships with players who ultimately did not go, and the roster he brings reflects a lack of understanding of the talent Russia had and how to use it. If anything, Kovalchuk has built a reputation in North America of over-billing and under-committing, riling up dressing rooms and fanbases all the way to the bank. Ask New Jersey what they would trust Kovalchuk with, and the answers would probably not be repeatable. An unqualified GM in the most complicated Olympic situation in history spells trouble, and has apparently resulted in players being ill-equipped already, according to some articles out of Russia.
Then there’s the question of the roster, and the extent to which Kovalchuk will take responsibility for the players left at home if the ones he took don’t win. When looking at the forwards, for example, the postseason MVP Sergei Tolchinsky was not even called to camp, a teammate of Kovalchuk’s in Omsk who earned his spot at the Olympics (or at the very least, was a shoe-in for the long list). Andrei Kuzmenko, second in scoring to Shipachev and now an NHL free agency target, was brought on reserve. Damir Zhafyarov, a candidate for league MVP last year who carries his club team on his back, was left off the long list despite being the third-highest Russian scorer, as was the young sniper Matvei Michkov. Russia had the ability to ice one of the flashiest teams of Beijing, and might have needed to do so if winning was their aim. When you consider that Kirill Kaprizov and Nikita Gusev hustled to deliver an overtime win for gold versus Germany (yes, Germany) in 2018, you can see how tight the race gets without NHL talent. Finland under Jukka Jalonen look ready for their first chance at the top of the podium, and Sweden has the best goalie in the KHL behind a pretty decent group.
Kovalchuk is joined by bench boss Alexei Zhamnov in the string of weird choices, a former NHLer who has not served as a head coach in years. During his brief time leading a bench in the KHL, his results were underwhelming. Zhamnov’s assistant, Sergei Fedorov, debuted as a coach only in September with mixed results—despite having one of the most stacked squads in the league that qualified for last year’s finals, and a playing career worthy of jersey retirement. An inexperienced coaching staff and manager could cost Russia the repeat gold medal they’re aiming for. The players deserved better.