Monday, September 10, 2007

Recap: Canada-Russia Super Series

As promised, here is a recap of the Canada-Russia Super Series. I will attempt to determine what went wrong and what went right for each team, though I admit that I spend a little more time talking about Team Canada.


There is a reason why Brent Sutter has a 19-0-1 record as a coach in international competition – he’s damn good at his job. He demands that his players are responsible and that they play hard every shift. He is not above benching a player for a mistake made on the ice, and he also rewards players with ice time. The result is that players compete with each other for ice time, and the on-ice product is world class.

Coach Sutter’s system involves not only defensive responsibility, but also a hard-nosed, physical style of play. Players have to be ready to block shots, take hits to make plays, defend your teammates, and crunch the opposition when necessary. The players in this Super Series bought into Sutter’s system from the very beginning, and they maintained the physical game until the very end.

Sutter also exuded an air of confidence throughout the Series. The Russians wanted to add three additional players to their roster for the Canadian leg of the Series, which was against the rules because rosters were frozen on August 26th, but Sutter allowed them to make the adjustments. Sutter’s attitude was that the Russians could do what they wanted to their team because Canada was still going to win.

I think that Sutter deserves a lot of credit for keeping the team’s collective head on straight during the Super Series. Team Canada could have gotten very cocky after winning so many games, but they always acknowledged that the Russians were good players. In addition, Sutter did not let the score of the game influence how the Canadians played the game – they always had the same level of focus, whether they were down by two goals or up by five.

In short, Brent Sutter, along with Andy Murray, would be on my short list of head coaches to hire for the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver.

Sergei Nemchinov, on the other hand, was the antithesis of Brent Sutter. His inexperience behind the bench was obvious, as he often looked dazed and confused, like he didn’t know what to do.

The games in Russia were particularly odd for many reasons. First of all, Nemchinov did nothing to match up his players to the Canadians. In fact, he would send his players out on the ice before the Canadian players, even when he had home ice, so Sutter was in complete control of the match-ups. Second, Nemchinov didn’t put his best players on the power play, which is probably the reason why they scored only one power play goal in the first four games. Third, the thought didn’t seem to enter Nemchinov’s mind to change the lines in order to spark the offence.


One of the downfalls of the Russian team was that they lacked leadership straight across the board. I think that this started with Nemchinov and ran through the entire team. The team would have flashes of great play, but the moment something bad happened, the entire team fell apart. It began in the first game, when Russia was up 2-0 by the 10 minute mark of the first period. They enjoyed a very lengthy 5-on-3 advantage, but failed to capitalize. Stefan Legein got Canada on the board a few minutes later, and Kyle Turris scored on a penalty shot only 45 seconds after that. This absolute, team-wide meltdown was the story of the Russian team for two weeks.

The Canadian team, on the other hand, boasted a number of players with leadership coming out of their ears. They made sure that the team did not panic and lose composure when something went wrong. They also kept the guys focused on the task at hand, no matter what hand they were dealt. The team had a difficult time in Russia, with the travel, hotel and travel issues, heat and humidity, unfamiliar food, and culture shock, and you have to give them credit for succeeding.


All three of Canada’s goaltenders were stellar in this Series. There was not one weak player among the three, and they all deserve the highest of praise. Jonathan Bernier has obviously recovered from the ankle injury that he suffered during the Memorial Cup. Leland Irving was great in his first 3 games as a member of Team Canada (he was on the last World Juniors team as a backup to Carey Price, but did not play in the tournament). And Steve Mason showed us all how calm he is in net, and how great a puckhandler he can be.

I would not want to make the decision regarding goaltenders for the next World Juniors team, because one of these guys is not going to make that trip to the Czech Republic. The consensus in the media is that Mason and Bernier have a slight edge over Irving, but if Bernier ends up with the LA Kings this season (as some suggest he might), then no one will argue Irving’s place on the team.

The Russians believed that their go-to guy in goal was Semen Varlamov, but he flopped…badly. Allowing 3 goals on 4 shots in the first period of the third game does not make a good goalie - he might have done a better job if he had made snow-angels in the crease. He did play considerably better in Saskatoon, but that’s not saying much. His teammates Sergei Bobrovsky and Vadim Zhelobnyuk were better, but even they couldn’t stop the onslaught of the Canadian offence.


The Canadian forwards seemed to do no wrong. They won 90% of their face-offs, which (a) kept them in control of the game and (b) didn’t give their goalies a heart attack when the face-off was deep in their zone. They forced turnovers and created quality scoring opportunities. They passed well, and though they could be cutesy at times with the puck, they also registered tons of shots on goal.

The skill level of these players is simply incredible. It is hard to pick out just 1 or 2 players who played above all others, but I will mention a few of those players that really stuck out to me.

(1) Brandon Sutter. As I’ve said before, this kid is GOOD, and he is my MVP of the tournament. He might not lead the team in scoring (though he did score 3 goals in his last 3 games of the Series), but he plays a spectacular defensive game – I would not be surprised to see him win a Selke or two in his NHL career. Sutter, along with Legein, made a terrific pair in this Series, and they are a big part of the reason why the Russians scored so few goals.

(2) Sam Gagner. Gagner has come a long way since January, when he finished the World Juniors tournament without a single point. He is now the leading scorer of the Super Series (with 15 points, including 6 goals), and the Series MVP. He is now with the Oilers’ camp, and I would not be surprised to see him make the team this year.

(3) Kyle Turris. I wasn’t sure what to expect from Turris in this Series. Though he had scored 60+ goals for the Burnaby Express, he didn’t play in the CHL and I wondered if he could elevate his game. Boy, was I wrong – he elevated his game and the puck…seven times, in fact, as he had the most goals of any player in the Super Series. Even better is the fact that he is a great two-way player who logged a ton of minutes on the PK. I would be surprised if Turris played more than one season of college hockey - I think we’ll see Turris in Phoenix sooner rather than later.

One player that disappointed me a bit was John Tavares. I don’t know if it’s because I had unrealistic expectations of Team Canada’s youngest player, but I thought that he would have dominated the game a lot more than he did. He certainly wasn’t used to being a defensively responsible player, and he turned the puck over to the Russians a number of times in the first couple of games, but he did get better as the Series went on. I guess I feel as though he should have been a better player in the Super Series because he and his agent are going on and on about how he should be drafted a year early because of his exceptional play – if he can’t stand out against a Russian team that is playing sub-par, then how can he justify asking the NHL to bend the rules to allow him into the clubhouse?

The Russian forwards were less than impressive. I expected Alexei Cherepanov to really make an impact on this Super Series, but that did not happen. Sure, he was injured and only played two games, but I expected him to show up and be an effective player from the very start of Game 1. He was so angry over being drafted so late in this year’s NHL Entry Draft, and I thought that maybe he would blow away the Canadian competition to prove all of the scouts wrong, but to me, they were proven right. Cherepanov was invisible in the first game and had a few spurts of offence in the second game. Until further notice, he will be an inconsistent player in my mind who doesn’t seem to want to show up and compete night after night, shift after shift.

Artem Anisimov was a fairly good player for the Russian team, but what got me was that he just up and left for New York after Game 6. I know that he has a contract with the Rangers, but I think they would have understood if he stuck around and finished the Super Series. This stunt of his showed me that he doesn’t stick with his teammates through thick and thin.

I actually give a lot of credit to the Russian players who found their heart and showed up to play in the final two games. They generated more scoring chances in this 120-minute interval than in the previous six games combined. They played like the games mattered, and that must have been hard to do since they had already lost the Series and their countrymen were essentially crucifying the team for their performance.


I mean this in the best possible way, but I didn’t always notice Canada’s defencemen. It’s not that they didn’t play well, but rather it’s because they did play well. The majority of the time the D-men made great passes, cleared the puck, forced turnovers and broke up Russian plays. I think that the forwards did such a great job that I only noticed the play of the defencemen when they were either absolutely spectacular or absolutely awful. Luckily, they seemed to be in position most of the time and had very few defensive breakdowns over the course of eight games.

The two defencemen who made the biggest difference, in my opinion, are Karl Alzner and Drew Doughty. These two guys were near perfect each and every game, and they will have great careers in the NHL.

Special Teams

The Canadian power play was off to a slow start, but they got it going and scored often; in total, Canada scored 19 power play goals in 8 games for a success rate of about 25%. Their penalty kill was also fantastic, as they allowed only 5 Russian power play goals in over 70 chances (approx. 93%). In my opinion, Canada’s special teams were probably the main reasons why they were able to win the Series so convincingly.


As I mentioned before, Brent Sutter’s system calls for a physical game, and the Canadian team bought in to this system hook, line, and sinker. They forced the Russians to play the game North American-style, and even though the Russians didn’t always want to get involved, the Series had its moments of intensity and nastiness, especially in the final two games.

Final Note…

This Super Series was basically an extended training camp for Team Canada, and many of these players were auditioning for spots on the World Junior’s roster. I think that most of these guys have earned their places on the World Junior team, but I doubt that the roster will remain the same come December. Who knows which players will be in the NHL this winter, or who will simply be dropped from the team. It will be interesting to see who will be added to the list. Remember, Angelo Esposito and Steve Stamkos were not in this Series…

It will be interesting to see how the Russian Hockey Federation will respond to their team’s performance. Their reaction is basically the same that Canada had in 1998 with the failure of the Men’s Olympic Team in Nagano. They may decide to make sweeping changes to the entire system, but I don’t think that is necessary. I think that their problems lie in the coaching, maybe the scouting, and probably the players themselves – maybe this group is just not a great crop of hockey players. As Bob McKenzie pointed out, this same group didn’t medal in the U-18’s a couple of years ago.

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