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Leafs Nikita Zaitsev in action with Team Russia

Nikita Zaitsev negotiated the Russian team lineup on the opening day of the 2016 IIHF World Championships and came out of it not the winner but maybe the wiser.

By Frankie Fouganthin - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

Oleg Znarok, the coach of the Russian team at this year's World Championships, is a complicated guy. Born in Russia, he played most of his hockey career in the old Soviet League for Dinamo Riga and is known as Olegs Znaroks the Latvian as often as he is by his more Russian name. He finished his playing days in Germany and holds German citizenship.

He's coached the Latvian men's team, he's coached Dynamo Moscow in the KHL, but for the last year, he's been the coach of the Russian national team, which is a full-time job, as they play multiple tournaments over the course of the year.

Znarok has drawn on his familiar friends and colleagues and assembled a multinational, multilingual coaching staff for the Russian team that is as reflective of the breadth of the KHL today as it is his own life.

But the World Championships draws harder lines between this country and that than exist in the real world, and his team is all Russian. It is not all KHL, as is often expected by Western hockey fans. The Russians are assumed to be parochial and protectionist to a degree that may be, glancing at the choices Canada made in assembling their team, mostly projection.

This year's team is very NHL and very KHL both. And in a style that is both Russian and NHL, games are being played with roster spots. The Russians assembled a team at training camp, played some pre-tournament friendlies, including a session of the Euro Hockey Tour, and then drastically cut that roster to 18 names for the official start of the World Championships.

Ilya Sorokin is in ahead of Semyon Varlamov as Sergei Bobrovski's backup, and borderline NHL talents Sergei Kalinin and Sergei Plotnikov are in ahead of Alexander Radulov. Nikita Zaitsev's CSKA Moscow defence partner, the reliable and effective Denis Denisov, has been replaced by Anton Belov of SKA St. Petersburg.

Zaitsev had a recurring problem playing with the third and fourth unit players: he would move the puck up so quickly, either by chipping it off the boards or sending up a stretch pass, and the forwards would be so hopelessly behind the play, he nearly had to go retrieve it himself.

None of these cuts are necessarily permanent and none of those players cut have gone far, but while it was expected that a couple of spots would be held for the losing Russians in the NHL second round, the lineup for their opening game against the Czech Republic seemed to be missing a lot more than just one star forward.

Besides Zaitsev and Sorokin, the CSKA players chosen were Ivan Telegin, who is a gritty player who can occasionally surprise with his scoring touch, and Roman Lyubimov, who is a forgettable fourth liner who put up 14 points on the season but scored some surprising goals in the playoffs.

Sergei Mozyakin from the Gagarin Cup winning Metallurg Magnitogorsk is of course front and centre, but the rest of the KHL portion of the team is all SKA St. Petersburg, the semi-final losers. The SKA boys include three defenders: Vyachaslav Voinov and Maxim Chudinov, who are both right shots, along with Belov.

Znarok decided to go with an interesting defensive set up for the first game:

Alexei Yemelin Vyacheslav Voinov
Anton Belov Maxim Chudinov
Alexei Marchenko Nikita Zaitsev

I went into the game not agreeing with Znarok's deployment. I'm a Zaitsev fan, I watched him play as the top man on the second place team in the KHL, the team that beat the SKA boys. And while I think Marchenko is better than his coaches in Detroit have given him credit for, he's not the guy to play with Zaitsev. If you have Denisov, why would you ever choose differently?

The lineup was too NHL and too SKA, as well as too small—the fourth unit had only two forwards and an extra defenceman. No one looked like they had been put in a position to succeed.

The first job of a player is to earn his way out of that kind of a bad start, and Zaitsev gave it his all.

To start the game, Zaitsev and Marchenko were behind Plotnikov, Lyubimov and Kalinin. I had my eyebrow way up at the choice of forwards even more than the defensive deployment.

Irony was served when that group had the first good scoring chance.

Zaitsev got some ice time with the second unit of forwards, who included Artemi Panarin, and then was in his proper place on the left side of the top PK unit when Russia took the first of many foolish penalties.

Russia took two more penalties in the first period, one of which led to a Czech goal.

Voinov had become the top unit PK right-shot man by the time the goal was scored. He had not been effective in the game, he hadn't earned it, but he had the job.

Voinov's play had been marked by errors and omissions of all sorts. He grabbed the puck in the neutral zone and skated it in and fired off a softball that looked like he had two broken hands. He flailed at a puck on the PK and failed utterly to clear it. He stood and halfheartedly covered one of the Czech players as the goal was scored. He didn't even have his stick on the ice.

The rest of the period, where Zaitsev seemed to circle like a shark at his right point position in the offensive zone behind an increasingly better class of forwards, was frustrating in the limited number of scoring chances the Russians generated. This is Zaitsev's strength, backstopping offence. He is not your man to dig you out of disasters in your own end with the grinder line. He is not a third pairing defenceman at all.

Zaitsev had a recurring problem playing with the third and fourth unit players: he would move the puck up so quickly, either by chipping it off the boards or sending up a stretch pass, and the forwards would be so hopelessly behind the play, he nearly had to go retrieve it himself. He's not used to playing with unaggressive forwards. If Alexander Radulov is anything, it's aggressive. And it was Radulov's line he played on the ice with most.

Radulov may have watched it all on television, but he was not in the game.

After one, the score was 1-0 for the Czechs and shots were 9-8.

In the second period Znarok seemed to have soured on Zaitsev. In a mess of a period marked by rough Russian puck control, more foolish penalties and another Czech power play goal, he stuck with Voinov on the top pair in all situations and gradually shifted Zaitsev back to the third pair and the second unit power play. He was rarely on the ice shorthanded.

Voinov was doing not much of anything but hoping when the second goal was scored, but he did get off one boomer of a shot on the fruitless Russian power play.

The Czechs were playing tough, disciplined, solid defensive hockey, and the Russians were trying to cook up some offence. Turnovers were what they pulled out of the oven. Zaitsev baked up a couple himself, but everyone was guilty.

Near the end of the second, one of those moments happened when it all comes together, and you think there should be an audible click. The Russians had an epic storm of sustained pressure. They went through the entire defensive corp in rotation while they wore down the Czechs. Near the end of it all, Zaitsev finally got the call, came out and carried the puck right up the slot and shot it just wide. Second best chance on that sustained flurry of Russian zone time, the best being a Mozyakin shot off the crossbar.

After two, the score was 2-0 for the Czechs and the shots were 22-17.

In the third period Zaitsev was firmly anchored back with the third line, and his first shift he got in some backwards skating practice as his forwards simply could not keep the puck in the offensive zone. His next try, he carried the puck in with his trademark easy skating style where he zigs and zags through all the traffic. He whipped around the net to wait for someone else to come and join him—the hallmark move of a good player with bad teammates—and when he passed the puck off, he moved into the high slot and got off the only shot on goal himself.

It was uncomfortably reminiscent of watching Morgan Rielly in the old days, playing with the fourth line.

Znarok started up the line blender late in the game, and Zaitsev spent some time with Alexei Yemelin, a change in last name, not efficacy, and in the end the Russians were shut out 3-0 on two power play goals and an empty net capper, and outshot 27-25.

No one but the Czechs were happy with that, and the dully miserable Moscow crowd made their displeasure and boredom known.

Zaitsev played 16 minutes, Voinov 21, while Zaitsev had one of only two good scoring chances in the game. Both Alexeis and the ineffective Chudinov saw their ice time drop in the third period, and that coupled with Zaitsev's even but low minutes seems inply that Znarok couldn't figure out what to do with Zaitsev. Put him with Denisov and play them with Panarin seems obvious from thousands of kilometres away.

While the defence was ineffectively used, the real problem was a lack of offensive pressure. Mozyakin and Datsyuk were good, Artemi Panarin needs better linemates, and the grinder line needs to be replaced with an actual third line.

The Russians play on Sunday against Kazakhstan, a game that should give them a chance to develop some better systems.

A note on spelling: this story uses the IIHF spellings of the Russian names, which is what's on their jerseys. Vyacheslav Voinov is indeed Slava Voynov, late of the Los Angeles Kings.