Russia won’t name KHLers to initial World Cup roster

Sean Reynolds reports from Dallas where players comment on the dream of representing their country in hockey.

There was much to consider as Alexei Zhamnov and Russia’s World Cup delegation boarded a plane back to Moscow on Thursday. For starters, they had meetings planned to settle on the initial 16-man roster for the tournament.

Most interesting of all was a decision the group had already made: No players from the KHL will be among those named to the team next week.

“Right now we’re going to put 16 players from NHL,” Zhamnov told Sportsnet in an interview. “(For the remaining) seven spots, we’ll discuss. Maybe some players from KHL, too. Right now it’s most important for us to make the list of 16 players.”

This is always a delicate issue with the Russian national team. The domestic league is a point of pride – as are the homegrown stars that play there – but it hasn’t been easy to find harmony at past best-on-best tournaments that featured a mix of KHL and NHL players.

September’s World Cup in Toronto is a NHL/NHLPA-sanctioned event, and the Russian braintrust is focused heavily on those based on this side of the Atlantic.

There certainly won’t be a repeat of the 2014 Sochi Olympics, when 10 KHLers were named to the host team that lost out in the quarter-finals. Zhamnov is both general manager of Spartak Moscow and head scout of Russia’s World Cup team, but isn’t focused on boosting up players from the domestic league.

“If we want to bring KHL players they will be the right players for the national team – that’s all,” said Zhamnov. “We come for the World Cup and we don’t want to lose like every game, right? We want to win.

“If we take the players from KHL it’s going to be good players.”

Zhamnov and a delegation that included head coach Oleg Znarok have just completed a tour around the NHL, taking in five games over an eight-day stretch while meeting individually with a number of Russian players.

They like what they see.

As usual, the Russians appear capable of mounting a formidable attack – with Capitals centre Evgeni Kuznetsov and Blackhawks winger Artemi Panarin both enjoying breakthrough seasons to boost up a core that includes stalwarts Evgeni Malkin, Pavel Datsyuk and Vladimir Tarasenko.

Then, of course, there is Alex Ovechkin – on pace for another 50-goal season in Washington and showing no signs of slowing down.

“He is the best player and he is the guy that has to bring something special to the World Cup,” Zhamnov said of Ovechkin, whom he watched play three times during the visit.

Another player heavily on the radar as the team prepares to make its first 16 selections this coming Wednesday is Nikita Kucherov, who has 24 goals and 49 points for the Tampa Bay Lightning season.

The Russian management and coaching group had dinner with Kucherov and three Lightning teammates – goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, defenceman Nikita Nesterov and winger Vladislav Namestnikov – before their game in Pittsburgh last weekend.

What’s clear in talking to Zhamnov is that there’s a strong desire to include new faces in the team.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” he said. “We saw the young guys from Tampa. … Those guys are our future and we want to make sure everybody is healthy and they play in the World Cup.”

The former NHLer felt good as he wrapped up his visit to North America. He said they’ve settled on roughly “90 per cent” of the initial selections, which have to include at least two goalies and 14 skaters.

“We watch the (NHL) games on TV when we’re in Russia,” said Zhamnov. “Watching live, that’s much better. It’s important for us to just talk to the players and see how they feel and what’s going on.”

There are plenty of tough choices ahead for the Russian management group; how it handles the KHL-based players with a June 1 deadline to finalize the 23-man roster chief among them.

Ilya Kovalchuk has worn the national team jersey with distinction for more than a decade, but is currently being scratched by SKA St. Petersburg during the Gagarin Cup playoffs. Alex Radulov is another national team mainstay that merits serious consideration.

However, the Russians haven’t won a best-on-best event since the 1992 Olympics, and Zhamnov is focused more on identifying players that can get the job done down the line.

“For the World Cup we want to build a team who is going to be the future for Olympic Games,” said Zhamnov. “We want to make sure we take the right guys for the future. We want to see them in real games because World Cup, the best players come.

“We want to make sure the team’s competing.”