Persons of Interest
The new KHL season is now a couple of days old, and even though we have not seen every team in action yet, there has still been plenty of drama. Spartak’s successful return, with a late equalizer and overtime winner against Dinamo Minsk, stands out, as does the close affair between SKA and CSKA, won by the latter again in extra time, that officially opened the campaign. But what I wanted to focus on today was: Interesting Individuals. These are players to whom I will be paying specific attention in this new season, and whose progress I am particularly looking forward to following closely. Read on, for the list!
A couple of notes about what this is not: it’s not a list of newcomers to the league or to their respective teams, although there are indeed some of those present (There is a truly excellent newcomers post right here, though, and I encourage you to check it out, along with the author’s other pieces!). Nor is it a list of those whom I consider the best players at each position. It is merely six guys whom I think will have interesting stories to tell in 2015-16. And just for fun, I selected one “unit’s” worth of players: a goalie, two defensemen, and three forwards, although I didn’t sweat the exact forward positions. Without further ado, then, on to the 2015-16 Team of Interest!
G Juha Metsola (Amur Khabarovsk): It has been a dire couple of seasons for Amur, featuring consecutive last overall finishes, but there is some cautious optimism in the air as 2015-16 begins. Local hero Alexander Mogilny has taken over administration of the team, after doing good work in Vladivostok with Admiral, and the sponsorship situation seems more stable than in recent years. On the ice, the team has added a number of players with real potential to be of aid, none moreso than Metsola, who posted the best save percentage in the Finnish Liiga in 2014-15 (.936 over 57 games with Tappara Tampere).
At 5’10” and 165 lbs., Metsola is never going to be a by-the-book butterfly goalie. Instead, he relies on frenetic activity and acrobatics to keep the puck out, as the highlight package above demonstrates quite enjoyably. Quick and mobile, he flings himself around the crease, and outside of it, in a way that the more staid goaltending coaches would probably find appalling. However, his numbers from Finland suggest that he has made it work for him in that league, and now the only question is whether he can do likewise in the KHL.
Amur are miles from even the modest glory of a playoff spot, although they seem to be pointed in the right direction at last. How far they get down that road depends quite a lot on how far Metsola can take them, and we will begin to find out the answer to that on Wednesday, when Amur open their season in Zagreb against Medveščak.
D Ziyat Paigin (Ak Bars Kazan): I confess to a personal motive for this one — in picking Paigin I am most definitely wearing my Oilers fan hat, as he was a late-round pick by Edmonton in this past June’s NHL Draft. The 20-year-old from Penza is a behemoth, at 6’6″ and 210 lbs., coming off his first season of regular KHL action. Now, young defensemen in the KHL are generally brought along slowly and young Paigin played only nine minutes a night over 33 games for Ak Bars last year, scoring a modest 1-1-2. He should see the ice more this season, if not much more, and there is a chance that he will again be with Team Russia at the World Junior Championship. However, he is still far from a feature role in Kazan, and time in lower Russian leagues is also a possibility; furthermore, I do not think it would be the worst thing in the world for him if it happens.
That said, there may be an opportunity knocking on his door in terms of the Ak Bars roster. The team lost a couple of very key veteran pieces of its defense corps this off-season, in Ilya Nikulin and Yevgeny Medvedev, and did not really find anyone of their calibre to replace them. In fact, this may turn out to be a re-tooling year for the Tatar club, in which case Paigin has a real chance to get himself established in the KHL and earn more responsibility as the year rolls along. Any potential entry into Edmonton’s pro system will have to wait until at least 2017, when his current contract is up.
We will see what happens, but slow and steady seem be the watchwords for Ziyat Paigin’s development at the moment. He was in the lineup for Ak Bars today, as they lost 3-1 in their season opener against Dinamo in Riga. Paigin played 12:19 — more than he is used to — and was -1 for the game. Patience is what is required here.
(Edit: Thank you to @marco_bombino for the note that Paigin, as a 1995 birthday, is no longer eligible for the World Juniors.)
D Nikita Zaitsev (CSKA Moscow): Unlike Paigin, our other defenseman has most definitely established himself, and he has done so at the tender age of 23. Zaitsev broke out and scored an impressive 12-20-32 in 57 games last season, tying for eighth in the league in points among defensemen. He was the youngest rearguard among the top 25 in points at that position. He can defend, too — while there are numerous caveats applicable to the plus/minus statistic, his +27 in that category, best among KHL defensemen in 2014-15 and third-best on his own team, catches the eye.
In short, he is an absolute stud of a prospect, with a real chance to become one of the very best all-round Russian defensemen in a long time. And this is likely to be his last KHL season for awhile, as NHL teams are most very definitely interested in acquiring his services once his current contract ends next summer (Zaitsev’s earlier numbers were nice but not great, and so he snuck through successive NHL Drafts with his name un-called). If there is a question about him, it relates to how much playing for a real powerhouse at CSKA has pumped up his numbers. But make no mistake, Zaitsev is the real deal, and a solid part of why I have his team as the early favourites to win it all this year.
It was a good opening to the season for Zaitsev on Monday; he recorded his first goal of the season, and went +2 in 20:31 of ice-time, as CSKA downed SKA St. Petersburg 4-3 in overtime. Fasten your seatbelts; this thing could be HUGE!
F Olli Palola (Vityaz Moscow Oblast): There are some fairly obvious parallels between Palola and the above-discussed Metsola. Here again we have a small Finnish player coming off a dominant season in the Liiga (with the same team, in fact) and signing with one of the KHL’s traditionally weak clubs just as it looks to start heading for respectability. The 27-year-old Palola, 5’10” and 175 lbs., has led the Liiga in goals in each of the past two seasons (he scored 29 in 60 games last season, 27 in 60 the year before), and has been in the top seven in points in both campaigns.
Vityaz, of course, are the KHL’s most notorious bunch, a reputation that they fully earned through their eager recruitment of North American goons in the league’s early seasons. However, the last couple of years have seen a concerted and welcome attempt to change their ways, and make the club into something more than a circus sideshow. Even if those efforts have not yet borne significant fruit in terms of the league standings, the recruitment of Palola shows that Vityaz’s management have not given up on them, and that is all to the good.
Signing Palola was in fact a real coup for small, unfashionable, Vityaz; he had been fully expected to come to the KHL this season, but it was Finnish club Jokerit Helsinki who were seen as favourites, reasonably enough, to get him. However, even with Palola on the roster, Vityaz are in very tough in the West Conference, and must be considered no more than faint-hopers for a first-ever playoff spot. Whether the high-scoring Finn can help change that is something we will start to discover tomorrow, when Vityaz host Metallurg Novokuznetsk.
F Nikolai Prokhorkin (Salavat Yulaev Ufa): Every season seems to turn up a few guys in need of a good redemption story, and 21-year-old Prokhorkin most certainly falls into that category at this point. In 2013-14, he was one of the brightest rising stars of Russian hockey, scoring 19-18-37 in 52 games for CSKA Moscow to lead the club in goals and points (Alexander Radulov was injured, but still). He was named to the All-Star game (he scored two points in that), and saw his first action for the Russian national team. The Los Angeles Kings, who had drafted him in 2012, were giddy with anticipation, and made a serious effort to lure him overseas in the summer of 2014.
And then it all went bad. Prokhorkin’s flirtation with the Kings put him in the doghouse at CSKA, even though he eventually opted to stay in Moscow. And when the 2014-15 season began, he first played poorly and then got hurt. In the end, Prokhorkin posted a scoring line of 41 gp, 9-11-20 — dismal compared to his 2013-14 success — and even got sent for a cup of coffee in the second-tier VHL, where he scored a single measly goal in seven games. The NHL talk dried up, CSKA cut him adrift after the season, and in due course he washed up where the Ufa River meets the Agidel in Bashkortostan.
Can he turn it around with Salavat Yulaev Ufa, and write a happy ending to his tale? There are reasons for hope. For one thing, Prokhorkin’s shooting percentage fell by a third between 2013-14 and last season, a function either of luck or of injury. That number should improve, and the youngster will be helped by the impressive amount of skill that will surround him in the Salavat Yulaev lineup. Prokhorkin is off to a good start, recording an assist in his first game for his new team, although the boys from Ufa went down to a disappointing 4-2 defeat in Omsk. There may even be some revenge to go with the redemption; a Salavat Yulaev-CSKA final is a very reasonable possibility, and in fact those two are my current picks to meet for the Gagarin Cup next spring.
Sergei Mozyakin (Metallurg Magnitogorsk): Because really, why would we not pay attention to Sergei Mozyakin? To be sure, honesty requires us to admit that Mozyakin has probably handed over the title of “KHL’s Current Best Player” to Alexander Radulov, but he remains the league’s all-time top scorer, with 445 points in 371 games. And there are still precious few who can emulate his uncanny ability to find the space on the ice that the opposing defensemen are momentarily ignoring, and to find it just as the puck arrives there. He shoots, too, with accuracy and with unexpected power for a man who stands only 5’11” and weighs 185 lbs. The big line at Mike Keenan’s Metallurg team, Mozyakin alongside Danis Zaripov and Jan Kovář, remains one of the KHL’s most dangerous, and one of the most pleasurable to watch based on pure skill.
Another reason to keep an eye on Mozyakin 2015-16: it is sad to say, but hockey careers do not go on forever. Mozyakin is now 34, and in 2014-15 we saw him hampered by the injury bug for the first time, really, in his career. He still managed 27-27-54 in 49 games, fourth in the KHL in goals and fifth in points per game, but he looked vulnerable, and there were some questions raised about just how much he had left in the tank. A good playoff run, where he scored eight goals in ten games, and a fine World Championship for Mozyakin were reassuring, but the fact remains that the best player in the history of the KHL is much closer to the end of his playing days than he is to the beginning, and should be enjoyed while we still can.
We shall leave aside the doom and gloom at this point; Mozyakin is a joy to any reasonable hockey fan, and you should watch him if you get the chance! That said, today’s season-opener for Metallurg was not one that will have a prominent place in the Mozyakin mythos. Though the Magnitogorskians won, 2-1 over Barys in Astana, the big line was completely shut out, and Mozyakin went -1 for the game. They, and he, will be back!
Now, this is obviously far from a comprehensive list of the fascinating players in the KHL — there are many more eminently qualified candidates (I really, really, considered working Sibir’s Damir Zhafyarov, a personal favourite, into the forward lineup, and that’s to name but one example). And so I would ask you, dear readers, who would be on your own team of interesting players to follow? You can jot down your list in the comment section, if you feel so inclined! In the meantime, there will be regular updates on the six men listed above, as they make their way through the 2015-16 season.