December 26, 2009

Meet Russia's Olympic KHLers

Aleksey Morozov

Russia's Olympic team included nine non-NHL players, all from the domestic KHL of course.

North Americans are well aware of the likes of Sergei Fedorov, Viktor Kozlov, Alexander Radulov, and to a lesser extent Dmitri Kalinin, so I wanted to focus on the curious players we don't know too much about.

To learn more about these players I turned to Sergey Averiyanov. He's an Olympic credentialed journalist from Russia, already in Vancouver preparing for the 2010 Winter Games. He is an amazing wealth of knowledge of Russian hockey, including the KHL.

I asked Averiyanov if he could provide a bit of insight on the KHL players, starting with the dangerous forward unit of Sergei Zinoviev, Danis Zaripov and former Pittsburgh Penguin Aleksey Morozov.

"When Zinoviev, Morozov and Zaripov used to be linemates in Ak Bars they were considered the best Russian troyka after KLM (the great 1980s Russian line of Vladimir Krutov, Igor Larionov and Sergei Makarov)," says Averiyanov. "But after some personal issues they split up and Zinoviev left the Kazan powerhouse."

"Three apiece they were Russian Super League (the KHL's predecessor league) kings in PP so Bykov would have an option to reunite them if the hard times strike.

"Morozov and Zaripov have been playing together since the end of lockout season. Zaripov is technically skilled at the same level but is more speedy and always ready to crash the net. Sometimes he resembles Datsyuk a little bit but Pavel still is head and shoulders above Zaripov.

"Zinะพviev is a beautiful center, nice to watch. Smooth skater, great passer, very good at reading the game, mentally tough but at the same time very hard person to deal with. He would earn #1 or #2 center spot in most NHL teams with only Pittsburgh to be the obvious exception. Now he is in KHL Top-3 in points (shares 2-3 with Radulov with Sushinsky at #1 place) and shares #1 (with Sushinsky) in assists.

All three are definitely NHL caliber players."

Averiyanov also informed me of the two KHL defensemen that are not on most North American radars, Ilya Nikulin and Konstantin Korneev.

"Nikulin seems to be a "classic" Russian defenceman: is always ready to go to attack but not prone to some positional mistakes. He has size to play physically, at least the European way. He is big buddies with Ovechkin since their Dynamo Moscow days.

"Korneev is quite stable all-around defender with no evident pros and cons. He was lucky enough to play in CSKA and seems to be a Bykov's favorite."

All five of these KHLers were key parts of coach Bykov's master plan that has captured the last two gold medals at the World Championships.

Make no mistake, these "unknown" KHLers are no weak spot for Team Russia. In fact, they may just prove to be a surprise strength.

What About Max?

Although I am far removed from the KHL, the one KHL player I was surprised not to see on the Olympic roster was Maxim Sushinsky, a long time Russian league scoring sensation.

Here's what Averiyanov had to say about Sushinsky's omission:

"I really like Max - he is one of the most skilled Russian players and scorers of his generation, his work ethics raises no concerns.

"He is a typical self-made man who was tempered while a little boy: his father ran away from his family. That's why he took his mother's maiden surname to play under. Since his first steps in hockey was considered to be too small-sized but survived and turned himself into real pro and one of the most respected players in the league. And as long as stats go he's really hot right now.

But in the past he always had a problem to show his best hockey being played physically against. Besides we have so many good wingers to choose from."

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