Weekly Russian Hockey News Notes: June 13th, 2015
Apologies again for the day’s delay in getting this post up, but the electricity gods seem to have been in a beneficent mood tonight, so I think we’re all set. Without further ado, the week’s interesting stories from Russian hockey are below the jump, and we’ll begin with some good news from the city pictured above!
For the past few months, it has appeared very likely that Slovan Bratislava would be among the teams departing the KHL at the end of the 2014-15 season. The team was bankrupt, without a sponsor, and had even taken the step of formally applying for readmission to the Slovak Extraliga. However, this week saw the dark clouds over Slovan at least partially swept away, with the tidings that — against the odds — the KHL’s oldest team is suddenly looking good to be present and accounted for when 2015-16 begins. The reports speak of a three-year deal with a yet-unnamed Russian sponsor from the field of energy and construction.
This is unquestionably great news, but what happened to bring it about? We don’t know for sure, but there are heavy suggestions that an early June meeting between Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico and Vladimir Putin was the key. If true, it would not be the first time that the Russian President has personally intervened to help a struggling KHL team — he is heavily rumoured to have been behind the rescue, a few seasons ago, of CSKA Moscow by oil company Rosneft.
We still await the official announcement, of course, and there remain opportunities for flies to get into the ointment. However, I think it’s safe to say that the chances of Slovan remaining in the KHL have gone from about 5% to 90% in the space of a few days.
Slovan’s were far from the only welcome tidings for the KHL on the team front. While talk of Dinamo Riga departing the league has quieted down in recent weeks, it was nonetheless good to get added confirmation that matters are under control there. Attention will now turn to building the team, on the ice and behind the bench, for next season, and the article linked above mentions Kari Heikkilä as a candidate for head coach. Heikkilä has KHL experience — he has been bench boss of Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk, Dinamo Minsk, Metallurg Magnitogorsk, and Lokomotiv Yaroslavl in recent seasons — but he has not enjoyed a great deal of success there. Furthermore, he himself has denied that there have been negotiations with the Latvian team (thank to Pekka Jalonen for the heads-up on that one). For now, we wait.
Amur Khabarovsk, as well, seem to have sorted out their sponsorship difficulties. The club has reportedly signed a deal for a year’s funding with OAK, Russia’s largest constructor of civilian and military aircraft. Amur’s colleagues in the Far East of Russian hockey, Admiral Vladivostok, have meanwhile appointed a new President in Ziyavudin Magomedov, head the Summa Group investment company (this move likely indicates whence much of Admiral’s funding for next year will come). Vladimir Miklushevsky, Governor of Primorsky Krai, will be Chairman of Admiral’s Supervisory Board.
Enough of the front office talk, but we’ll stay in the Far East for a moment. Amur celebrated their new fiscal stability this week with a couple of defense-strengthening acquisitions. Czech rearguard Jan Kolář is coming over from Admiral, where he posted a very respectable 23 points in 56 games last year. By strange coincidence, his +/- was also +23, this on a team that was basically dead even in goals for and against, so he could be a real catch for Amur. Kolář will join another new arrival in Mikhail Tyulyapkin, a more traditional defensive defenseman who spent 2014-15 as captain of now-defunct Atlant Moscow Oblast. We are a long way from writing Amur into the 2015-16 playoffs, but those two moves should represent genuine improvement.
What an odd off-season it has been for Ak Bars Kazan! The defending East Conference champions have seen a number of key parts of their 2014-15 side depart; defensemen Ilya Nikulin (destined for parts unknown) and Yevgeny Medvedev (Philadelphia Flyers) are gone, as is forward Sergei Kostitsyn (new team also unknown) and goalie Anders Nilsson (ditto, but probably an NHL team), who had such a spectacularly good playoff run. There is also serious talk that forward Alexander Burmistrov will leave, either for the NHL or for elsewhere in the KHL.
This week, another figure joined the Ak Bars exodus, as forward Kirill Petrov will try his luck with the New York Islanders, the team that drafted him back in 2008. Petrov had a tough time of it in 2014-15 — he fell to 15 points in 47 games after 29 in 53 the year before. However, he’s only 25, and he’s big (6’3″, 225 lbs). The Islanders should be able to find a use for him.
Help for the Kazan team may be on the way, but it comes with its own set of problems. Finnish goalie Jussi Rynnäs, who spent most of 2014-15 doing just fine for the AHL affiliate of the Dallas Stars (.920 sv% in 39 games) is said to be moving to the Tatar capital. That is a bit odd, since even with Nilsson gone, Ak Bars retain the services of a real young stud goalie in Emil Garipov. The Kazan native, still only 23 years old, had the KHL’s best save percentage in 2013-14 — .952 in 20 games. He followed that up last year with a still-impressive .933 over 23 contests. Can Ak Bars keep him happy as a backup for another season, if Rynnäs does appear? It would seem a bit unlikely, so this is a situation that bears watching.
Petrov won’t be the only KHL export at the Islanders’ camp this fall — as the linked article indicates, Latvia’s Miks Indrašis will be there as well. The 24-year-old forward, who went 16-15-31 in 59 games with Dinamo Riga last year, has also attracted significant interest from Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod, in case things don’t work out for him in North America.
There’s a fascinating rumour out there about a former NHL scoring star making his way to Russia; Dany Heatley is said to be a target for both SKA St. Petersburg and CSKA Moscow. The 34-year-old Heatley played for Canada at the Vancouver Olympics, and between 2005 and 2010 he scored 444 points in 399 NHL regular season games. The last couple of years, however, have not been kind to him. After a measly 28 points in 76 games with Minnesota in 2013-14, he signed with Anaheim, only to be banished to the AHL, where he scored a similarly tepid 20 points in 43 games.
Heatley can take some comfort from the career arc of Jonathan Cheechoo. Like Heatley, Cheechoo had a run as one of the best in the NHL, winning the Rocket Richard Trophy in 2005-06 with 56 goals. And he, too, ended up playing in the AHL, unable to find NHL employment. Cheechoo then came to the KHL in 2013, and has 86 points in 103 games with Medveščak Zagreb and Dinamo Minsk — an excellent scoring pace! SKA and CSKA must be hoping that Heatley can do something similar (the two players are very close in age, as well), but it’s a risky pick-up — Cheechoo’s AHL numbers before he crossed the ocean were much better than Heatley’s.
There were a few other deals of interest this week, which we’ll consider briefly: SKA have acquired defenseman Yegor Yakovlev from Lokomotiv Yaroslavl. Yakovlev was a scoring threat from the blueline in junior hockey, and seems to be finding his way in the KHL (7-8-15 in 53 games in 2014-15, plus a berth on Russia’s World Championship team).
Medveščak Zagreb looked outside the league for a couple of players, signing defenseman Blake Parlett from the AHL’s San Antonio Rampage and forward Jesse Saarinen from HPK of the Finnish Liiga. The latter is particularly intriguing — Saarinen is small, but tremendously fast.
HK Sochi, meanwhile, have brought Ben Maxwell back to the KHL. The 27-year-old Canadian scored 14-13-27 in 46 games for Ugra Khanty-Mansiysk last season before finishing the campaign with Oulun Kärpät in Finland.
A longtime mainstay of the Kazakh national team, forward Vadim Krasnoslobodtsev, has returned to his old home with Barys Astana after a couple of seasons playing for Torpedo. The Nizhny Novgorod side will look to replace him with newly-acquired Swedish forward Linus Videll, who comes over from Dinamo Riga.
There were other deals, of course, but those seem to be the most interesting at the moment.
Amidst all the coming and going, there was a good deal of chit-chat this week about the possibility of the KHL and the NHL signing a transfer agreement, which would apparently see players able to sign a deal in one league even if they were still under contract in the other (this aspect was promptly denied by the KHL). Some monetary compensation would flow the way of the team losing the player if this happened. Currently, the two leagues have a “Memorandum of Understanding,” which prohibits players under contract from switching leagues, although it does have its loopholes.
There isn’t much to say about this one , as no deal has actually been signed yet, and big questions remain. Primary among them: how much compensation are we talking about? Until that is answered, we’ll file this situation under “wait and see.”
Finally, a minor tweak to the KHL season! The opening day of the KHL regular season has traditionally featured one game, between the previous year’s Gagarin Cup Finalists. From now on, however, the two combatants will be the Gagarin Cup winner and the Regular Season champion. And so 2015-16 will begin with a rematch of the thrilling West Conference Final between SKA Petersburg and CSKA Moscow! We now simply await the rest of the schedule, and that should be along soon.