The MHL Gets Rolling
The 2015-16 quest for the Kharlamov Cup, championship trophy of the Russian junior league, starts on Wednesday on an island in the northern Pacific Ocean, when Sakhalinskie Akuly (“Sakhalin Sharks”) of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk play host to Khabarovsk’s Amurskie Tigry (“Amur Tigers”). After an off-season of tremendous tumult and reorganization in the MHL, the league enters 2015-16 with a very different look. Below the jump, we’ll explore the changes and contemplate the upcoming sixth season of MHL action!
It is a sleeker MHL that greets us this season, down to 31 teams from last season’s 39 (There were actually 38 when the 2014-15 campaign ended, after Czech club Energie Karlovy Vary folded partway through). The reduction in teams has shortened the Kharlamov Cup playoffs by one round as well, from five to four. Most of the departing teams were those either affiliated to pro teams outside the KHL, or not affiliated at all (some of the departed clubs have resurfaced in the second-tier junior MHL-B). And so we are left with 28 clubs from Russia, plus one each from Latvia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan. They will be organized like so for the coming season (affiliations, if any, are in brackets):
The roster of teams does, in fact, differ somewhat from what the MHL originally announced back in May, but that was to be expected. As you can see, 28 teams affiliated with KHL squads, one VHL-affiliated club, and two independents are what we have for 2015-16. Note that some KHL teams have no junior squads associated with them (e.g. HK Sochi), while others have their juniors in other leagues (e.g. Jokerit Helsinki, whose youngsters play on the Finnish circuit). Four KHL clubs (Dynamo Moscow, Vityaz Moscow Oblast, SKA St. Petersburg, and Metallurg Magnitogorsk) will have two squads in the MHL this coming season.
MHL teams will play either 40 regular season games (Central Division) or 44 (all other divisions), with the top four clubs in each division advancing to the playoffs. As mentioned above, the post-season will involve four rounds, with the eventual winners getting their hands on the Kharlamov Cup. The full schedule can be seen here (PDF, in Russian).
You may be wondering why Amurskie Tigry and Sakhalinskie Akuly, the MHL’s two easternmost teams by many, many, miles, are to be found in the Central Division of the West Conference. The answer, briefly, involves the availability of direct flights from Khabarovsk and Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk to Moscow; it is in fact easier for those two teams to get to the capital than it is for them to get to closer cities such as Novokuznetsk and Novosibirsk.
There are three newcomers to the MHL this coming season. Sarmaty, one of the Metallurg Magnitogorsk junior clubs, replaces a disbanded independent club in Orenburg, near the Russian border with Kazakhstan. Dinamo-Raubichi of Minsk, meanwhile, step in as Dinamo Minsk’s junior team, replacing the departed Dinamo-Shinnik Bobruisk.
The other rookie club is the Russian U18 national team, and that squad’s performance will be one of the big storylines to follow in 2015-16. One the one hand, the team’s management hopes that they have assembled the best 1998-born hockey players in Russia. On the other, Team Russia U18 will be playing against kids up to 20 years old — bigger, stronger, and more experienced — and that can make a heck of a difference right away. Of note, the Slovak U20 team plays in that country’s top professional league, and usually gets mauled by its opponents, but that is not quite the same as having a U18 team in a junior league. The inclusion of the Russian U18 team in the MHL is an experiment, and it will be most interesting to see how it turns out. We will get our first idea of the results on Saturday, when the U18s take on Atlanty in Mytishchy.
And now to the big question of the 2015-16 MHL season: who will win it all, in the end? I could not possibly begin to guess, actually — the MHL is a gloriously unpredictable league, or at least it has been in the past. The past two seasons have seen eight different teams make it to the semi-finals of the playoffs, and three of last season’s final four were making their first trip that far into the postseason (that number included both eventual finalists). Nor is the performance of the KHL parent teams necessarily reflected in their junior squads. The 2014-15 MHL champions, Chaika, saw parent team Torpedo finish 7th in the KHL’s West Conference and bow out of the playoffs in the first round. In 2013-14, KHL team Spartak Moscow finished 12th out of 14 in the West (and went bankrupt). Their junior squad, MHK Spartak, won the Kharlamov Cup. I could go on, but I think you get the point; pay no attention to the KHL standings in trying to predict the MHL.
A couple of little clues here, however: teams without KHL affiliation tend to have a tough time. Only once (Khimik Voskresensk in 2010-11) has non-KHL-affiliated team managed to make it to the final four. So fans of Atlanty, Olimpiya, Tyumensky Legion, and of course the Russian U18 team may find that there is a steep climb ahead of them. Furthermore, no non-Russian MHL team has yet made it to the semi-finals.
It is equally difficult to pinpoint any particular players to watch. Nobody particularly blew away the MHL last year, with Ivan Larichev of SKA-1946 scoring 32-34-66 in 53 games to win the scoring title. There is nothing wrong with those numbers, but they are a far cry from the 55 gp, 40-52-92 posted by Alexei Mitrofanov in winning the 2013-14 scoring race. Furthermore, many of the players who excelled in the MHL last season will find, as a result of their success, that they spend less time in that league in 2015-16. Indeed, Larichev himself is tabbed to begin the new season with SKA-Neva, the professional VHL farm team of parent club SKA St. Petersburg.
So expect the unexpected, a blank slate, an unpainted canvas, and all that! We will check back in with the MHL here throughout its season, as previously unknown young players start making their names and attracting some attention. In the meantime, I would encourage you to keep an eye on the MHL webpage; in the past, the league has had a happy habit of streaming select games live on its YouTube channel, and it is to be hoped that they keep that up this year!