In the last World Juniors, the Calgary Flames only had Dustin Wolf playing backup for Team USA. This time around, the Flames will be properly represented at this year’s World Junior Championships taking place in Edmonton. Joining Wolf will be Connor Zary and Jakob Pelletier for Team Canada, and Yan Kuznetsov for Team Russia.
Both Zary and Pelletier are intriguing prospects. The pair are at their first tournament, and are playing alongside incredible players on a very deep Team Canada. The expectations for the duo will no doubt be high. Flames fans will have a solid rooting interest to see Canada defend their crown. However, the player to watch for Flames fans this year is Yan Kuznetsov.
Kuznetsov brings a lot to the table
For the first time ever, Team Russia has opted to take two players from the NCAA on their World Junior roster, with Kuznetsov joining fellow teammate Vladislav Firstov. Coming off of his freshman year at UConn, Kuznetsov was the youngest player in the entire league, and still managed to put up 11 points in 34 games. This as a defensive defenceman who started playing minimal minutes.
Since then his role has only grown. Kuznetsov has carved out a role on the UConn Ice Bus as a top pairing defenceman who can play in all situations. Not a flashy player, but a very smart, reliable defenceman who can be trusted with heavy minutes and lots of defensive zone starts.
The World Juniors is a tournament where scorers go to shine. A tournament where teams of young stars go to show why teams should draft them, or to show the teams that have drafted them what they are made of. In a tournament like this one, being able to shut down offence is even more important, and this is where Kuznetsov shines.
He has excelled at keeping opponents to the outside on rushes, and forcing them into the corner where he can strip them of the puck. Coming in at 6’4″, 209 pounds, Kuznetsov is the tallest and heaviest player on Team Russia, and among the largest in the tournament.
Looking at his body of work
While size isn’t the only determinant of skill, Kuznetsov clearly has both. In the clip below (Kuznetsov is wearing #2 at the top of the screen), see how simply and effectively he is able to strip his opponent of the puck, and pass it to his linemate. From there, he makes an incredible pass from his own zone up ice to find his teammate streaking in, which leads to a scoring chance.
However, just because he is defensive defenceman does not mean he doesn’t have great hands and the ability to make flashy plays. In the following clip, check out his ability to beat players one-on-one without being too risky and create chances.
But wait, there’s more. Kuznetsov also has an absolute bomb from the point, able to beat goalies with a very hard but accurate slapshot. He also has the intelligence to know when to go for the shot versus when to hold and make a play.
With Kuznetsov playing in the NCAA, this will likely be many Flames fans’ first chance watching the Flames’ 2020 second round pick, and the World Juniors is one of the best opportunities to see young prospects play. He will be suiting up on the second pairing for Team Russia alongside Daniil Chayka, who is draft eligible next year.
Team Russia will likely rely on their top pairing of Shakir Mukhamadullin and Semyon Chistyakov to take many of their offensive zone starts, which might mean Kuznetsov could see more starts in the defensive zone.
Up to the task
With Russia facing off against Team Canada in the tune-up game, then against Team USA in their first official game in the qualifying round, Kuznetsov will have his hands full with lots of high-end offensive talent right off the bat.
The key for him will be to shut it down, and shut it down effectively. While he has excelled at the college level to this point, he is still a few years away from being NHL ready. When he makes the jump to the AHL and NHL, he will be responsible for shutting down more and more difficult competition as the he progresses. This will be a great test to see just how good he can be against elite competition.
Who are you most excited to watch at the World Juniors? Let us know in the comments below or on social media
Photo credits: UConn Men’s Hockey