Russian junior hockey team had a surprising appearance followed by surprising dominance at November´s international Karjala Cup, the men tournament showcasing Russia, Finland, Sweden and Czechia. The young team won it and I summarized how did they do it in the article. Lot of optimism led to disappointing finish for Russia at the World Juniors after losing bronze medal game to Finland. Combining my eyes and unique data I tracked I found three points that could be behind the slow but steady fall.
Point number one: Luck from the Karjala slowly disappeared
Team Russia recorded expected goal differential 6.9 : 6.7 while outscoring their opponents 10 : 3 at the Karjala Cup. Askarov allowed 3.7 goals less than expected which was huge and shooters scored 3 three more goals than expected. Part of it might go to talent level of individuals but exceeding expectations that much must be attributed to the „luck“ factor. In other words this was not sustainable.
So let me quickly guide you through what happened at the World Juniors.
Russians came out of the game vs USA as luckier ones (5 : 3) when they outscored their expected output again. Those were 4 big wins against 4 strong teams (3 men national teams and strong US junior team). One can start believing in his/her own strength as a reason for winning while it was also a luck helping you on the way. And performance suggested winning might stop sooner rather than later. It did.
Next game Russia faced off against underdogs from Czechia who build their defensive structure to overcrowd neutral zone and protect the slot at all costs. Czechs scored the first goal and that was all they needed for the upset. Russia did not react well and lost the game (0 : 2) due to aspects specified later. Confidence might have been shaken but it is only a one game.
Another opponent, Sweden and their winning streak at stake. Russia started with a great energy and went ahead. Sweden came back and pressured its opponent massively to bring the game to overtime. Russia scored on the power-play ending the Swedish streak (4 : 3 ot). Another victory and potentially another fake confidence booster.
Russians won the quaterfinals against Germany in a low event and low scoring game (2 : 1). Nothing to celebrate especially when Askarov saved the team few times.
Semifinals and the strongest from the strongests, Canada. Canada scored in the first minute and just steamrolled Russia from start to finish. There was no chance given and scoreboard showed (0 : 5) as well as expected goals did.
Russians might have realized by now that their previous success was attributed to luck but they had one more game to play. The bronze medal game against always dangerous Finland. Russia started with a push. And push is the very correct word. We did not see a dominant team that would outplay anyone (I am not counting game against Austria). The push brought a goal but it was only one goal lead and lots of time left to play. Finland woke up. Similarly to Czechia, similarly to Sweden and similarly to Canada, Finland was better than Russia in in zone details and won (1 : 2).
Overall Russia at the World Juniors created 13.9 expected goals for and scored 12 while allowing 14.9 expected goals and 14 goals against (empty net goals are removed). Yes, despite accouting for games against Czechia and Germany, underdog countries, Russia was outplayed (had negative expected goal differential) at the tournament. And do not throw this at Askarov who saved a goal above expected.
Well, similarly to the Karjala Cup the team with their style played very even games, very even with no real dominance in any game. And when the game against Canada came it was apparent who is the better team. Maybe the team was not strong enough, maybe … maybe the luck factor was not treated with a respect. I won´t speculate if Russians overvalued their performance at the Karjala or not. Their swagger was gone quickly at the World Juniors though.
Point number two: Insufficient in zone details
Quick attacks were the strong weapon for Russia at the Karjala Cup but they were quickly neutralized at the World Juniors. Opponents used their time to prepare for games against Russia and saw what they did at the Karjala and how did they do it. It seemed like Russia decided to put more focus on slow attacks (longer possessions in the offensive zone (OZ)) after games against Czechia and Sweden. Their OZ play was inefficient against Czechs and the next game Sweden showed Russia how does it feel to be under relentless pressure. After that experience Russia refocused on getting better in their OZ play. Skilled forwards on Russia started to hold onto pucks more, first line played that way all tournament. But results were not tremendeous. It sinked them in last two games.
Was it wise to change the successful style of quick attacks and focus more on slower in zone possession game? Maybe not but what is more important is to identify what was missing in the OZ.
Watching the games I am confident to say that this was not for a lack of effort in the OZ. Russian players worked hard around the boards, were winning battles and had possessions outside of the slot. They fail to find both creative and dirty ways to get to the slot though. One of significant ways how to be dangerous in the OZ is activating your defenders. Defenders who can skate, switch positions with forwards, dance the blueline have an ability to create spatial chaos and one can say you need this in a modern style of hockey. Russians simply did not have this. Defenders were stationary prioritizing not giving up odd man situations and creativity level of Russian team in possession was low. Defenders were shooting a lot but hit so many shin pads and bodies in front of them in the process (and were scored against on these occassions too).
Another statistics display this nicely: 31% of Russian shot attempts were blocked while only 24% opponent´s shot attempts ended being blocked by Russians. Some players were specialists in hitting opponets. Defender Knyazev fired 65% of his shot attempts to block, 53% for Chinakhov, 45% for Kuznetsov, 44% for both Abramov and Kirsanov, 41% for Afanasyev, 40% for both Mukhamadullin and Firstov. Well just a brutal stats here.
The dirty way missing is displayed in the table below.
|Tipped shot attempts||7||15|
|Screened shot attempts||14||19|
|Rebound shot attempts||5||9|
It is tricky to find soft spots into the slot with stationary defence. Forwards needed to be very active, provide a lot of support for each other off the puck and attack the middle regularly including the net front area. This seemed to be inconsistent and depended heavily on certain players. Russia had few brave forwards who were driving the net but overall chemistry was missing and timing was off at times (which led to losing possession or low percentage shot attempt). That all contributed to statistics in the table and lost them games against Czechia and Finland.
Point number three: Too much structure?
It was decribed nicely by Jack Han (The secret to Soviet transitiona movement, Back in the USSR) how Russia approached their build up game all the way from their defensive zone. They put a lot of focus on their transitional structure and tried to control the game that way. While it led to decent results at the Karjala Cup it hit its obstacles at the World Juniors. Opponents were ready for this style and surprising for me was that Russia did not change even a bit when the situation called for. I am talking about the 0-2 loss against Czechs who build a stiff defensive formation. Even when trailing Russia went again and again for a slow paced starts of their possessions into their defensive zone. They killed time and thus lowered offensive output. Especially the most skilled guys tried over and over this build up strategy and forgot about other options. It was only the 4th line who was probably given more freedom and focused more on quick attacks and counter plays. Check this out:
|Russian center||Percentage of expected goals created from quick attacks when on ice|
|Khusnutdinov (line 1)||39%|
|Abramov (line 2)||20%|
|Safonov (line 3)||36%|
|Bashkirov (line 2 or 3)||29%|
|Ponomaryov (line 4)||58%|
Only the 4th line created most of their offence from quick attacks. They were the line with number of odd man rushes, goals scored and on top of that they created the most expected goals for Russia. Yes, they also gave up a bit more than others but this complements the story well. First three lines focused hard on build up plays, reverting back to defensive zone, establishing skating routes and going for passing combinations. This consumes time and this consumes expected goals overall.
At the end of the tournament you had your first line averaging around 2 expected golas for per 60 minutes at even strength. And that is simply not enough, especially for guys who are there to produce. It is very hard for me to identify the cause.
Was it too much for players to learn this structural strategy in a limited time?
Was it the right fit for their styles and abilities?
Do they just need more time to refine the style?
Or was there just a lack of execution this time?
We might also come to an conclusion that they should not keep repeating their build up approach and it was a missed opportunity to play faster. Or we can keep our mind open and wait if more practice, added tweaks to account for modern hockey can be added. We could also be at start of something special. But that is all just assuming on my part. Coach Larionov and Russian team knows much better than me.
To summarize, was this a disappointing performance for Russia? Yes. Is it possible to indetify „why´s“? Absolutely, I just tried my piece here and naturally Russian team will analyze their performance furthermore. One thing is clear. This team attempted something unique. A brave strategy that had its great moments and showed unmerciful weaknesses as well. I wish Russia all the best in continuing the way! And while this was not their time to shine, many players showed they will be good NHLers one day.