Weekly Russian Hockey News Notes: June 19th, 2015
There was some big news in the world of Russian hockey this week! Some interesting details on how the KHL will run its 2015-16 season emerged, but they were overshadowed by a sudden — and astonishing — change of coaching personnel. And then there were the usual comings and goings of the off-season, plus some interesting hints re: possible future KHL expansion sites. So read on!
The biggest news item of the week dropped with no forewarning whatsoever on Wednesday, when Vyacheslav Bykov, Head Coach of defending champions SKA St. Petersburg, announced that he was leaving the team for family reasons. While the phrasing of Bykov’s resignation notice immediately suggested serious health issues, this has since been denied, which is all to the good. Whatever the cause, it’s a big blow to SKA, who have already seen some other key parts of their championship team depart this off-season (the most recent example is forward Jimmie Ericsson, who signed with Skellefteå of the Swedish league this week).
Of course, the big big big question now becomes: who replaces Bykov? SKA have indicated that it will be a Russian, which narrows the possibilities somewhat. One fairly obvious name that came up right away was that of Oļegs Znaroks, current Head Coach of the Russian national team (and technically Latvian, although nobody seems too worried about that). That rumour was immediately and forcefully denied, and the front-runner for the post at this point seems to be Barys Astana and Team Kazakhstan bench boss Andrei Nazarov. “Interesting” is, I think, the best way to sum that up — Nazarov is unquestionably a talented coach, but his propensity for completely flipping out is well-known, and worrisome.
We await further developments on the replacement front, and in the meantime wish Vyacheslav Bykov all the best (he apparently has a job waiting for him in Chelyabinsk should he choose to end his retirement)!
As mentioned, the KHL released some details about the 2015-16 season earlier this week, although the actual schedule is not yet out. The biggest, and most welcome, item is that the league has now received financial guarantees from all teams, and so will go into the new season with 28 squads, same as last year (Atlant Moscow Oblast are gone, of course, but will be de facto replaced by the revived Spartak Moscow). That scenario did not appear at all likely just a short time ago, and it is worth celebrating.
Other details: the KHL regular season will be 60 games long. Each team will play each other team twice (once at home, once away), and the other six games will be arranged on the basis of geography, rivalry, or both. Presumably to aid in broadcasting, the KHL has mandated a maximum of seven games on any given night, and teams are guaranteed at least one day of rest between matches. Returning to the schedule are the periodic league-wide breaks when the Russian national team is playing in the Euro Hockey Tour — those were done away with last season, in a move that ended up pleasing exactly nobody.
Finally, and sadly from my point of view, the KHL has no plans to revive the Nadezhda Cup (the “Cup of Hope”), which it ran for two years as a post-season tournament for teams that missed the playoffs. I’ll miss it, although I’m well aware of being very much in the minority on that one!
It’s been a busy busy summer in the Far East, as we’ve talked about a couple of times! This week Amur Khabarovsk and Admiral Vladivostok upped the ante by pulling off the biggest trade in the history of the KHL. Here’s how it broke down:
To Amur — F Tom Wandell (57 gp, 7-13-20 in 2014-15 with Avangard and Admiral), D Pavel Volodin (19 gp, 0-0-0), F Oleg Li (17 gp, 2-2-4), F Alexei Byvaltsev (10 gp, 0-1-1), F Alexander Goroshansky (34 gp, 2-10-12), F Vladislav Ushenin (53 gp, 11-6-17), F Vyacheslav Ushenin (59 gp, 6-10-16), F Yevgeny Grachev (41 gp, 2-2-4 with Lokomotiv), plus the rights to unsigned F Konstantin Sokolov (37 gp, 3-3-6).
To Admiral — F Yevgeny Orlov (55 gp, 10-5-15), F Dmitry Lugin (60 gp, 11-16-27), F Mikhail Fisenko (59 gp, 11-10-21), 1st-round draft picks in 2016 and 2017.
So, 14 “assets” in all changed hands. As for which team won the deal: well, Wandell is a highly useful forward, and the Ushenin twins are both promising talents, but I think Admiral ended up with the higher quality overall. Lugin, a 25-year-old who was Assistant Captain with Amur this past season, is of particular interest.
Some talk this week that forward Mikhail Grigorenko, the Buffalo Sabres’ pick at #12 overall in the 2012 NHL draft, may be signing with CSKA Moscow. Grigorenko scored very well with the Quebec Remparts in junior hockey, but his development road since turning pro has been very bumpy indeed — long stints in the AHL have been the norm, and his offense has not yet arrived at the NHL level. Grigorenko is a Restricted Free Agent this summer, and Buffalo may need to offer him a one-way deal to keep him in North America. If no agreement can be reached, and he does end up in the KHL, the Sabres will still hold his North American rights.
With one young starlet possibly leaving North America for CSKA, there’s also talk of a similarly promising talent coming back the other way. The rumour mill this week has 23-year-old stud defenseman Nikita Zaitsev talking about a potential deal with the Toronto Maple Leafs. The talk was quickly played down by Zaitsev’s agent, but if it does come to fruition, that’s a heck of a pickup for the Leafs. Zaitsev scored 12-20-32 in 57 games for CSKA in 2014-15 — excellent numbers for any defenseman, let alone a young one. But for an injury, he would no doubt have featured prominently for Team Russia at the World Championship.
We discussed last week the possibility of Finnish goalie Jussi Rynnäs leaving the Dallas Stars organization to join defending East Conference champions Ak Bars Kazan, and that move became official just a few days ago. As mentioned in the previous post, this leaves the Snow Leopards of Tatarstan with something of an embarrassment of riches in goal; in addition to Rynnäs (.920 sv% in 39 AHL games last year), they also still have Emil Garipov (.933 in 23 KHL games) on the books. If Ak Bars can keep them both happy — and it’s a big “if” — then they will be sitting pretty at the netminder position. It could happen, as Garipov and Anders Nilsson seemed to co-exist fairly happily in 2014-15.
Gordie Dwyer will be the new Head Coach of Medveščak Zagreb. The former NHLer had been in charge of the QMJHL’s Charlottetown Islanders until earlier this spring, and will replace Doug Shedden behind the bench in Zagreb.
The KHL’s only Croatian entrant has been a busy bee in the player movement department as well this off-season, saying good-bye to nine individuals while bringing in another 13. This week saw mixed fortunes for Medveščak; the team signed veteran Finnish forward Tuukka Mäntylä, but also lost the services of former Captain Andrew Murray and defenseman Mark Flood. Flood, who has signed with Lada Tolyatti, is a particularly big departure; he scored 8-15-23 for Medveščak last season.
A very quick note on the VHL’s 2015-16 team lineup: it appears now that Rubin Tyumen will maintain their place in Russia’s second league, after an agreement was reached between the team’s fans and the government of Tyumen Oblast to cover Rubin’s expenses. On the downside, Dizel Penza and HK Lipetsk are likely to miss the season, due to financial problems. They may be replaced by teams in Dmitrov and Voskresensk (with Samara a possibility as well), but there’s a lot of waiting and seeing to do here.
A few other signings of particular interest this week! Swedish forward Calle Ridderwall, who played for Lev Prague in 2013-14, is returning the KHL with Sibir Novosibirsk after a year in the Swedish league. Ridderwall’s SHL numbers in 2014-15 were ok though not eye-popping (17-13-30 in 54 games with HV71), but he should be a useful addition to the ranks in Siberia.
Toronto Maple Leafs farmhand, forward Brandon Kozun, has inked a deal with Jokerit Helsinki, presumably as part of the Finnish club’s quest to fill the skates of the departed Steve Moses.
And Dinamo Riga, with their place in the KHL now assured, have started in on the player acquisition side of things by signing Czech defenseman Tomáš Kundrátek from the AHL’s Hershey Bears. Kundrátek scored 5-22-27 in 59 AHL games last season, which is good, although there are also injury concerns. Still, a decent signing.
With the NHL free agent season fast approaching, there is a fair bit of talk out there about who may be signing with whom, and some interesting names have popped up in connection with the KHL (we talked about Dany Heatley last week). There have apparently been discussions involving such players as Keaton Ellerby of the Winnipeg Jets organization and Scott Glennie, a former 8th-overall draft pick who was a team-mate of Rynnäs in Texas this past season (Glennie scored 14-25-39 in 69 games). Most intriguingly, at least to me, is the rumour that another 8th-overall pick, forward Devin Setoguchi, may be considering KHL offers. Setoguchi is best known for his productive stints with San Jose and Minnesota, but he suffered a down year in the Flames’ organization last year, going pointless in 12 NHL games and 3-7-10 in 19 AHL contests.
Still on the rumour front, Avangard Omsk is said to be chatting with the Los Angeles Kings’ Jamie McBain and another NHL defenseman “of a higher calibre.” I am very interested to see who the latter might be.
We will close off here with a couple of quick notes on possible KHL expansion. In Grozny, capital of the Chechen Republic in the Caucasus, plans are proceeding for the 6,000 seat arena which will apparently be built to KHL specifications. Chechnya, still recovering from two devastating wars in the last 20 years, is a newcomer to the hockey scene, as Grozny hosted its first organized match just over a year ago. As for the KHL possibilities, those are likely still some years away, but the construction of the arena, as part of the region’s admittedly uneven progress towards peace and stability, is likely a thing to be welcomed.
And it appears that the plans for a Chinese team in the KHL are moving forward! KHL President Dmitry Chernyshenko recently described as “technically possible” the idea that China could have a team on the circuit as early as the 2016-17 season. That’s far from an iron-clad confirmation, of course, but this is definitely a scenario to keep an eye on!
That’s about it for this week! At some point, we need to have a chat about the KHL and the AHL, because there are a lot of interesting players moving from the latter to the former this summer, and perhaps we will get to that next week. In any case, News Notes will be back next Friday!