Weekly Russian Hockey News Notes: September 8th, 2015
A slightly-delayed and haphazard version of the news notes this week, but here they are! September 7th, as is customary, was a sombre day without hockey in the KHL — a fitting memorial for the 2011 Lokomotiv Yaroslavl air disaster. However, there was action in other leagues, and the KHL itself was back at it on Tuesday. A look at what’s been happening, below the jump!
When KHL action resumed on Tuesday, a great deal of attention was directed off the ice, towards the KHL Board meeting, at which the issue of foreign players in the league was discussed (for a full recap of that situation, go here). There had been rumours that league president Dmitry Chernyshenko might find his job under attack at the meeting, with Vyacheslav Fetisov tabbed to replace him. However, in the end, it all turned out to be a bit of an anti-climax. Chernyshenko retained his position, and Belarusan and Kazakh players will still be considered foreigners for the coming season. The one compromise was made was a tweak to the limit on foreigners on Russian clubs; teams are now allowed to have an unlimited number of outsiders on the overall roster, but can still only dress a maximum of five per game. This will allow the Ministry of Sport to keep its limit in place, but will protect teams from having to buy out contracts at a high cost.
The story may not be over yet, as the Belarusan and Kazakh Hockey Federations still have the option of an appeal to the arbitration court of the Eurasian Economic Union. And some KHL teams have expressed dissatisfaction with the terms of the new deal.
Whatever the merits and flaws of the compromise, keeping Chernyshenko seems to me a wise move at this juncture. He has been President of the KHL for less than a calendar year, and has done a fairly decent job under trying economic conditions (he deserves at least some of the credit for the fact that the KHL began this season with the same number of teams that it had in 2014-15). Firing him now would simply have created unnecessary instability in the league.
Two weeks into the 2015-16 KHL season, and the league’s top club is… Avtomobilist Yekaterinburg? Yes indeed — Avtomobilist won five straight in regulation, including victories over Metallurg Magnitogorsk and Ak Bars Kazan in that string, after losing their opening game on penalties to Traktor Chelyabinsk (that streak was broken today, in overtime, by Lokomotiv). That 5-2 record puts them two points up on Avangard Omsk and three on CSKA Moscow, although the latter have played one game fewer. Goalie Jakub Kovář has a .927 save percentage, defenseman Alexei Vasilevskiy has five points in seven games, and a balanced attack has six forwards already at four or more points.
It is a wonderful beginning for club that finished last in the KHL three seasons ago after flirting with bankruptcy, and making it even more amazing is the fact that they are doing it with a rookie head coach. Andrei Razin guided Izhstal Izhevsk to the VHL finals last year, before being tabbed to replace the well-liked Anatoly Yemelin in Yekaterinburg. So far, the transition has been unusually seamless, and that move looks like a brilliant one.
And then there the clubs that are doing perhaps not as well as they might be — SKA St. Petersburg for example. The defending Gagarin Cup champions suffered some significant player departures over the summer (Artemy Panarin, e.g.), and are missing Ilya Kovalchuk through injury, but even so a 3-4 record and eighth place in the West are not what was looked for from them. Sunday saw them visiting lowly Metallurg Novokuznetsk, where SKA stunningly fell behind 4-1 before scoring twice in the late going to at least make the score respectable. Now, SKA also changed coaches over the summer, in addition to the mitigating factors already mentioned, and a certain adjustment period is reasonable to expect. However, if things do not turn around for them fairly promptly — and Tuesday’s 3-0 win in Khabarovsk was a good start — they may be hunting for a new bench boss yet again.
Perhaps even more stunning than SKA’s problems is the poor performance of Salavat Yulaev Ufa. Before the season began, I had picked the Bashkir club to make the Gagarin Cup finals, but that seems laughably off-target right now. Only Spartak Moscow, in the entire KHL, have fewer points than Salavat Yulaev’s three after five games. It is a combination of defense and goaltending that is bringing down the boys from Ufa; they have given up the fifth-most goals in the league, and the teams who have given up more have all played at least one more game. Once again, an off-season coaching change may be playing a role here; Salavat Yulaev pried the afore-mentioned Yemelin away from Avtomobilist in the off-season, and it looked like a smart decision at the time. It may yet turn out to be so, as long as Yemelin is given the time needed to turn things around.
We should note, of course, that small sample sizes at work here in all cases. Things can change in a hurry, especially with three points handed out for a regulation win.
Perhaps in an effort to shake things up, Salavat Yulaev swung a small trade with Avangard Omsk last week. Off to Avangard is defenseman Ivan Lekomtsev, in return for fellow blueliner Maxim Goncharov. The “long story short” of this one is that Salavat Yulaev Ufa get younger and bigger, although Goncharov does spend an awful lot of time in the penalty box. The two players are basically a wash when it comes to scoring numbers.
One of the week’s most interesting acquisitions was made by Slovan Bratislava, who have signed veteran Czech defenseman Filip Novák. Novák won two Gagarin Cups as a member of Dynamo Moscow, and scored 3-11-14 in 32 games for them last season. He does not score a lot of goals himself, but has a reputation as a play-making blueliner, and should be of immense help to Slovan’s playoff hopes.
Friday saw the opening faceoff of the Women’s Hockey League season in Russia, as was discussed at length here. So far, there have been no surprises; defending champions Tornado Moscow Oblast top the table after two comfortable wins against SKSO Yekaterinburg and a tougher victory over Dynamo St. Petersburg. The battle for the individual scoring title is off to a fast start, with the usual suspects making their marks early on. Tornado’s Anna Shokhina has nine points after her team’s three games, and Olga Sosina, whose Agidel Ufa team swept their opening pair of games over Biryusa Krasnoyarsk on the weekend, has five points of her own through two matches.
The junior MHL also got its 2015-16 season underway this week, with one of the big questions being how the Russian national under-18 team would fare as a club in the league. Well, the beginning was a good one! The U18s made their debut on Saturday against Atlanty in Mytishchi, and won it handily by a score of 5-0. Artyom Ivanyuzhenkov, out of the Vityaz Moscow Oblast system, scored twice for the U18s, while Mikhail Berdin (Severstal) and Yegor Trifonov (CSKA) combined to earn the shutout. The youngsters could not, however, make lightning strike twice — the U18s dropped their second game, 2-1 to Dynamo St. Petersburg.
The MHL’s other new teams had mixed fortunes to open their MHL careers. Sarmaty Orenburg, like the U18s, kept a clean sheet in their debut match on Sunday. Artur Gaidullin was the goalie of record as the Sarmatians defeated Mamonty Yugry 3-0. No shutout for Giadullin in the team’s second game, but they won it anyway, 4-2 over Tyumensky Legion, and are currently 2-0 on the season. Dinamo-Raubichi Minsk, on the other hand, are 0-2 with both losses coming at home, and have been outscored 15-5 so far in their debut campaign. The new Belarusan team was was beaten 9-2 by MHK Spartak Moscow in their first game, and followed that up by losing 6-3 to another Moscow team, Krasnaya Armiya.
And the VHL, the second-tier Russian professional league, began its season on Tuesday with a matchup between last year’s finalists Izhstal Izhevsk and Toros Neftekhamsk. Toros, who won that championship series last spring, got two goals from Vasily Mordvinov, but it was not enough to prevent Izhstal from taking their revenge by a score of 4-2. The full schedule begins on Wednesday
Turning now to Russian players in the NHL: there was an astronomical honour handed out this week to the Washington Capitals’ Alexander Ovechkin, who has had an asteroid named after him. 257261 Ovechkin is a main-belt asteroid, and has an orbital period of 3.66 years. “Ovi” becomes the fifth Russian hockey player so-honoured, joining Vsevolod Bobrov, Valery Kharlamov, Vyacheslav Fetisov, and Pavel Bure.
The news was not nearly as pleasant for the Tampa Bay Lightning’s young goalie Andrei Vasilevsky. The 21-year-old from Tyumen will be out for up to three months, missing the early part of the NHL season, after undergoing surgery for a blood clot. Andrei, incidentally, is the brother of Avtomobilist defenseman Alexei Vasilevsky, mentioned above.
Time to check in with the little group of players whom we are following with particular interest in 2015-16!
G Juha Metsola (Amur Khabarovsk): 5 gp, 2.49 GAA, .908 SV%. Amur have lost four games on the trot since Metsola’s heroic performance against Slovan.
D Ziyat Paigin (Ak Bars Kazan): 7 gp, 0-1-1, +2, 2 PiM, 7:53 TOI/gm. A very good week-and-a-bit for the youngster, who went +3 and earned his first point of the season.
D Nikita Zaitsev (CSKA Moscow): 6 gp, 2-2-4, +4, o PiM, 19:42 TOI/gm. Good numbers, if not as spectacular as perhaps anticipated so far.
F Olli Palola (Vityaz Moscow Oblast): 4 gp, 0-0-0, -1, 0 PiM, 17:52 TOI/gm. Illness cost him a couple of games, but he’s still starting very slowly.
F Nikolai Prokhorkin (Salavat Yulaev Ufa): 5 gp, 1-3-4, +3, 2 PiM, 14:31 TOI/gm. Hard to fault Prokhorkin for Salavat Yulaev’s lowly position — he’s done fine so far.
F Sergei Mozyakin (Metallurg Magnitogorsk): 6 gp, 3-5-8, +5, o PiM, 21:46 TOI/gm. In a three-way tie for the KHL points lead, and leading the league’s forwards in ice-time.
And we’ll finish off with another poll (you can see last week’s question and results here)! This time, we want to know what you think of some of the surprising starts to the season:
And that’s it for this week’s news notes! The next edition will go on Sunday, as usual, and there will be something else here in the meantime.