Ten players to watch in first leg of 2019 CIBC Canada-Russia Series


Canada's Alexis Lafreniere (11) hoists the Hlinka Gretzky Cup following a gold medal win against Sweden. (Codie McLachlan/CP)

There’s plenty to look forward to at this year’s CIBC Canada-Russia Series.

As usual, the tournament serves as a primer for Canada’s 2020 world junior selection camp roster. It offers head scout Brad McEwen, head coach Dale Hunter and his staff the opportunity to evaluate players competing against some of the very best Russia has to offer.

While we normally have to wait until the Russians land to figure out exactly who is on their roster, the preliminary list shows a wealth of talent. Aside from injuries, we know what players will be participating from each of the three CHL leagues.

For the first time since 2013, the event will start in the QMJHL. November 4th marks Game 1, which will take place in Saint John, N.B.

The Russians enter the series as the defending champs for just the fourth time in the 16-year history of the event. Thanks to wins in Games 3, 4 and 5 last year, the Russians emerged victorious in the series by an 11-7 point count.

Here’s a list of ten players to watch in the first leg of the event as Russia begins its defence against the QMJHL.

10. G Amir Miftakhov (Team Russia):
Highly rated for the 2018 NHL draft, Mifthakov went selected and is currently playing in the VHL (the KHL equivalent to the AHL). Mifthakov is so highly regarded that he was the third goaltender for Russia’s bronze medal-winning team at the 2019 world juniors. He’s had plenty of international experience and although older, will likely battle first-year, draft-eligible Yaroslav Askarov for the starting job at the world juniors.

9. C Hendrix Lapierre (Chicoutimi Sagueneens): Assuming he’s healthy, and at this point it is questionable, Lapierre can take the next step toward earning a camp invite. He passed his first test with flying colours, performing as one of Canada’s best on a silver medal-winning Hlinka-Gretzky team in August. Lapierre finished second in tournament scoring with 11 points in just 5 games. His playmaking ability is the asset that makes him stand out from the crowd.

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8. LW Rodion Amirov (Team Russia): As a late 2001-born player, Amirov is eligible for the first time at the upcoming NHL Draft and is the top Russian skater for 2020. He’s a projected top-40 pick. His performance for Russia, helping them win silver at the U18 worlds was noteworthy. He does a lot of things well, from skating to shooting, while showing a willingness to play on both sides of the puck. He’s the top-rated Russian skater at this point. Head coach Valery Bragin tends to lean heavily on his older players, but Vasiliy Podklozin proved to be a younger player to buck that trend. Maybe Amirov will follow his lead.

7. D Justin Barron (Halifax Mooseheads): With teammate Jared McIsaac having paved the way before him, Barron will use his projected first-round status to try and push for an extended look. Barron is an excellent skater who should excel on the big ice in the Czech Republic. He’s proved he could play up and down the lineup in Halifax last year, has accepted a bigger role this season and has the ability to adjust his game to the competition. He plays a simple game, moving the puck efficiently while showing flashes of an unearthed offensive side. Only seven 2000-born defencemen were invited to the summer showcase, meaning this late 2001-born may get a sniff.

6. C Alexander Khovanov (Team Russia/Moncton Wildcats): Khovanov Found his stride last year after a challenging, injury shortened rookie season. The Minnesota Wild may very well find great value in this third-round pick, who’s operating at a two points per game pace through the first dozen games of the season. He should be motivated by representing his country while playing on home ice when the series shifts to Moncton for Game 2. Khovanov has a six-point game under his belt and has been held off the scoresheet just twice this season.

5. Benoit-Olivier Groulx (Halifax Mooseheads): His size and skill combination will appeal to Hunter. Groulx can do a lot of things based on his ability to think the game at a high level. He has big-game experience both internationally and at the 2019 Memorial Cup. The Anaheim prospect was a summer showcase invitee, which shows he is in serious consideration for a roster spot.

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4. G Olivier Rodrigue (Moncton Wildcats): You could make a strong case the Edmonton Oilers prospect was Canada’s best goalie at the summer showcase, stopping 31 of 33 shots sent his way over a two-game audition. Rodrigue does have some Hockey Canada pedigree having won an Hlinka-Gretzky gold and a Youth Olympics silver medal. His numbers are good (8-2-0-0, 2.85 and .905 save percentage), but not exceptional so far this season with Moncton. The goaltending race is wide open and Rodrigue can put himself in a good spot, likely getting the start in front of the home crowd in Game 2.

3. RW Raphael Lavoie (Halifax Mooseheads): With an acute ability to score goals, Lavoie will also be counted on for his play away from the puck and using his size to create space. He’s off to an incredible start with Halifax, having scored 11 goals. How much has his play away from the puck improved?

2. LW Vasily Podkolzin (Team Russia): There wouldn’t normally be so much hype surrounding a Russian player, but because Podkolzin was Vancouver’s first choice in the 2019 draft, many people will have their eyes set on this budding young talent. So far, he’s split time between three levels of Russian hockey this season. He performed well in all international events as an underaged player one year ago, and with a summer to train, it will be neat to see exactly where his game stands. He’s got great hockey IQ, goes to the net and doesn’t mind getting involved physically.

1. LW Alexis Lafreniere (Rimouski Oceanic): The projected first-overall pick for the 2020 draft has not disappointed this season. Through Wednesday’s games, he led the CHL in assists (27) and points (39), producing at well over a two points per game pace. He already has one year of WJC experience under his belt, and will wear the “C” for Team QMJHL. This series will serve as a gauge as to just how much Lafreniere’s game has grown over the summer and into the early part of the season.

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