VANCOUVER – Among the top favourites for 2010 Olympic gold, few teams have received more criticism than Russia for one perceived weakness: defence.
A few years ago, this criticism was perfectly legitimate. At the annual World Championship, Russian blueliners would pinch at inopportune times, giving up odd-man rushes on a regular basis. In their own zone, they would attempt feeble pokechecks instead of taking the body, and woe betide the Russian netminder who failed to smother a rebound, as opposing forwards on elite teams would happily rush to the net and bang in loose pucks.
No wonder Russia suffered some mighty collapses in international hockey. The most notable instance was the embarrassing 11th-place finish on home ice at the 2000 IIHF World Championship in St. Petersburg. But the 10th-place outing in 2004, marked by legendary coach Viktor Tikhonov's ill-fated comeback at age 73, wasn't far behind in terms of lowlights.
However, this is 2010. The Russians have tightened up significantly on defence going back to 2005, when they captured bronze at the Worlds in Austria. The improvement has been particularly evident under coach Slava Bykov, who took over the reins for the 2007 Worlds in Moscow.
Check out Russia's recent IIHF numbers, with the overall tournament goals-against average in parentheses:
2005 Worlds: 20 goals against in nine games (2.22)
2006 Olympics: 18 goals against in eight games (2.25)
2006 Worlds: 16 goals against in seven games (2.29)
2007 Worlds: 14 goals against in nine games (1.56)
2008 Worlds: 18 goals against in nine games (2.00)
2009 Worlds: 17 goals against in nine games (1.89)
Over those six tournaments, that's a cumulative average of 2.03 goals against per game.
Meanwhile, Canada is universally acknowledged to have the world's deepest and most talented defence corps. But how do the Canadian numbers over the same period stack up?
2005 Worlds: 24 goals against in nine games (2.67)
2006 Olympics: 11 goals against in six games (1.83)
2006 Worlds: 24 goals against in nine games (2.67)
2007 Worlds: 21 goals against in nine games (2.67)
2008 Worlds: 21 goals against in nine games (2.33)
2009 Worlds: 15 goals against in nine games (1.66)
That comes to an overall average of 2.30 goals against per game.
At the very least, it's hard to disagree that Russia's defence is competitive with that of Canada. While Bykov has elicited a greater commitment to team defence than in the past, few would argue that Russian forwards are more assiduous about backchecking than their Canadian counterparts.
Likewise, good luck finding a serious hockey observer who'd ascribe these numbers to Russia's goaltending being better than Canada's. (Equal, perhaps, in some situations, but not better.)
Bottom line: give due credit to the Russian defencemen for their team's defensive prowess.
So what's with the constant carping, especially from the North American media, about how Russia's Olympic blueline is its Achilles heel?
SportingNews.com: “If there's one question about Russia, it's defence.”
Star Tribune: “Defence is the big concern.”
CTV.ca: “The defence thins out [after the big-name NHLers] with three of the eight from the KHL.”
There's the crux of the objection. Some will still say: “If so-and-so doesn't play in the NHL, just how good can he be?” (Even though it's not really surprising that some talented Russians would prefer to play at home and make more money than they could in North America.)
It's foolhardy to conclude that non-NHL Russian defencemen can't compete successfully against NHL forwards. Look at Russia's last two World Championship teams, both of which edged Canada's all-NHL teams in the final. The '08 roster had five KHL rearguards, while the '09 edition had six.
The Olympics are not an 82-game marathon where physical pounding takes its toll. They are a six- or seven-game sprint to gold. Especially in this context, the KHLers can deliver the goods, relying on quick puck movement and good first passes.
Are Dmitri Kalinin, Konstantin Korneyev, and Ilya Nikulin on the 2010 roster just to prove some political point? By no means. All three made the last two World Championships squads, and all three deliver a good two-way game, as evidenced by their selection for this year's KHL All-Star Game.
Besides, Bykov is no fool. His mission is to win gold in Vancouver, and he has to do whatever he can to achieve that goal. Winning a gold medal with a few more NHL players would be more kindly received in Moscow than turning the roster into a complete KHL-fest and finishing fourth again, like in Turin. He's not bringing the KHLers out of charity.
Granted, Russia lacks Canada's sheer depth on defence, not to mention other rivals like Sweden and the Americans. (Certainly, losing veteran offensive dynamos Andrei Markov and Sergei Gonchar to injury during the NHL season must have caused conniptions for the Russian braintrust: both will log big minutes in Vancouver versus other teams' top forwards, and on the power play.)
Yet Bykov is taking defencemen in whom he has confidence, defencemen he believes give Russia its best chance to win. When you factor in the physicality of NHLers like Anton Volchenkov and Fedor Tyutin, which should make up for what Darius Kasparaitis used to bring, there really aren't a lot of holes. Even if there aren't a lot of Norris Trophy candidates either.
If you doubt Bykov's defensive acumen, well, the 49-year-old former CSKA Moscow star would be justified in asking: “What have you won lately?”