The IIHF World Championships are a fertile landscape for Cinderella bids. Played on Olympic-style ice (for now) in a setting called “quirky” by NHL fans and “ice hockey” by the rest of the civilized world, the tournament gives Finnish, Swedish, and Swiss-league pros a fighting chance against the class of the NHL and KHL. Finland won gold in 2019 without a single active NHL player on the squad.
The World Juniors, or World U20 Championships, are a different animal. 1st and 2nd-round NHL draft picks simply dominate the event. A grand total of 3 teams have combined to win the last 7 gold medals, and North America has won 11 out of 20 WJC golds since Y2K. Newly-qualified nations tend to lose by scores such as 9-1 and 11-0, making it almost impossible for teams like Kazakhstan to beat anyone except fellow underdogs.
Don’t tell that to Canadian hockey fans, who adopted the Kazakhstani kids as their own at the 2019 World Junior Championships in British Columbia.
Kazahkstan reached the WJC for the 1st time since 2009 last year, beating-out Latvia, Germany, and 3 other countries in 2018’s Division 1 tournament. When the Group B long-shots scored twice in an 8-2 loss to the United States, a crowd of 6000+ Victorians roared. The cheers grew louder in the relegation round as Kazakhstan surprised Denmark in 2 straight games to earn an invitation for 2020.
Who knows how a Czech Republic audience will react to Team Kazakhstan when the 2020 World Juniors face-off in Třinec and Ostrava on Boxing Day? One thing’s for sure – the teenage representatives of Qazaqstan Hokei Federasiasy have already accomplished a lot just by being there.
Kazakhstan at the WJC: Russia Lite vs NHL Might
At some point during the 2020 World Juniors, a North American broadcaster will criticize Kazakhstan for not shooting the puck enough. That’s because the Kazakhstanis still use elements of an old Russian style of pond shinny which looks unfamiliar and is therefore deemed inferior. Kazakh coach Sergei Starygin played for more than a decade in the Soviet Union and currently coaches Snezhnye Barsy Astana of the MHL, a prospects’ affiliate of the Kontinental Hockey League. Team Kazakhstan is just as likely to skate in circles as straight lines, and will spend extra passes in the attack zone looking for the “perfect” shot instead of a bunch of slappers and rebounds.
Kazakhstan was out-shot 43 to 19 by Denmark in 4-3 relegation round win from 2019. The favorites went on to out-shoot Kazakhstan 25-16 in a follow-up contest only to lose 4-0.
Kazakhstan did something that very few teams have managed to do after earning promotion to the top World Junior tournament, starving off relegation to defeat Denmark 4-0 in the second relegation-round game in Vancouver. #wjc2019 RECAP: https://t.co/l8IdQjSr3b https://t.co/Z0uFTryOft
The system still works. When playing against comparable size and speed, Kazakhstan has every chance to win no matter what the shot-counter says.
That’s where the good news ends. Group A will be filled with NHL athleticism and skill. Finland – which won the 2019 title in Canada – will ice at least 13 National Hockey League draft picks. Team Sweden forward David Gustafsson scored his 1st NHL goal for the Winnipeg Jets 3 weeks ago. Switzerland’s roster includes a blue line led by 19-year-old Tim Berni of the Swiss league’s ZSC Lions and New York Rangers prospect Nico Gross. While Slovakia’s numbers may look paltry in comparison, consider that the Slovaks beat Kazahkstan 11-2 in British Columbia last year.
Slovakia has a pretty good domestic league, and joins nations like Latvia in stocking large numbers of quality junior players in secondary leagues around the continent. Kazakhstan has had no such luck.
Is there any good news for Cinderella? Only that Kazakhstan iced a handful of talented 17 and 18-year-olds in Victoria. World Juniors rosters are comparable to High School basketball or football in that teams covet “upperclassmen” (in this case, players born in 2000) and can only get so far with a team full of youngsters. Developing forwards Andrei Buyalsky and Ruslan Dyomin combined for 3 points in 2019, and fans are excited to watch Oleg Boiko, who has scored 23 points in 42 MHL games this season, in 2 more World U20 cycles.
Kazakhstan’s broader problem at the top level – fatal in a WJC setting – is that the program doesn’t have the depth to find its comfort zone against the Top 10 of the IIHF. You need talented players to snag the puck and hold onto it, and to create a small gap between back-checkers and defensemen. Kazakhs teach a puck-play oriented hockey culture but there are prospects on the U20 squad who have essentially failed into the role. Forward Nikita Lyapunov has sleep-walked in the MHL this season, notching 2 points in 20 games. Tiny sniper Valeri Nitsevich has grown into an attacking role for a domestic pro team, but did not score a point in British Columbia.
Goaltender Vladislav Nurek is going to have his “pads” full trying to fend-off the 4 contenders in Group A.
Circle the Wagons or Crack the Whip
Those lonely bettors (if there are any) who have taken Kazakhstan to win the 2020 World Junior Championship at hundreds-to-1 odds should prepare themselves. Without a fellow weak sister in the Group A pool, there will be no evenly-matched “relegation semifinal” for Team KAZ – they’ll be deluged with shots and buzzing opposing forwards in 4 straight games between Christmas and New Year’s Eve.
If Kazakhstan wins a Group A game or 2 against all odds, it will be because of a hot goaltender or a crack blue-line unit taking its play to another level.
David Muratov must have a great U20 tournament for Kazakhstan to survive and play again in 2021. Muratov comes highly-touted, with The Hockey Writers opining that “he is a big body around the net and can play a more physical game…A stay-at-home defender, Muratov will be one of the team’s steadiest performers.” While Muratov may be a crusher on the domestic stage, he also knows how to stay disciplined in closely-officiated IIHF shinny. The 18-year old defenseman has only taken 3 penalties in 9 games full of ice-time for the WJC squad.
It’ll be interesting to see how Starygin steers his charges. Great Britain has shown how to survive in the elite World Championship despite icing a roster of minor-league pros – by playing wide-open, back-and-forth hockey at all costs. The Brits even traded goals with Team USA in the 2nd and 3rd period in 2019, content to allow the NHL skaters to ultimately blow them out. The result was that A) the attack gained confidence and B) key defenders did not sustain injury while blocking shots from teams Great Britain was going to lose to anyway. The U.K. roster stayed fresh and out-lasted France in a relegation game…exactly what coach Peter Russell had in mind.
Perhaps Kazakhstan will play a 2-wing lock, neutral-zone trap, batten-down-the-hatches defensive game at the World Juniors and try to steal a win to avoid relegation outright. Or, more likely, the U20 team could play loose and easy in Group A games, hoping to stay in shape to meet Germany or the Czechs themselves in a relegation round.
In that case, Daily Fantasy Hockey players with a WJC option could find bargains with Boiko and others likely to score 3+ points in the round-robin. Just don’t draft Nurek after Day 1 if Kazakhstan decides to stay upright in the defensive zone for a few games. He’ll see an awful lot of rubber and a whole lot of 3-on-2 rushes.
Kazakhstan’s Team Schedule at the World Juniors
The IIHF provides a lot of nice resources to its fans, but something’s missing in how the Federation commonly displays its schedules. Browsers can learn about a WJC country and view the tournament’s overall schedule, but you can’t access a team schedule with an individual country’s games all in a row.
Edit: Yes you can, but only by using the tricky dialogue box to the upper right of the schedule on the IIHF’s dedicated 2020 WJC page. Onward and upward!
Kazakhstan Group A Schedule 2020:
Thursday, December 26th: Kazakhstan vs Switzerland (9 AM EST)
Friday, December 27th: Kazakhstan vs Slovakia (9 AM EST)
Sunday, December 29th: Kazakhstan vs Finland (9 AM EST)
Monday, December 30th: Kazakhstan vs Sweden (9 AM EST)
All faceoffs same KAZ-time, same KAZ-channel.
Stay Tuned to 12oz Sports’s Team Kazakhstan WJC Coverage
Watch 12ozsportsradio.com for puck-drop previews and in-depth game recaps as Kazakhstan begins its unlikely quest to avoid relegation at the 2020 World Junior Championship.
Photo Attn: The Astana Times