Weekly Russian Hockey News Notes: September 20th, 2015
All kinds of things in this week’s notes! We have canny veterans signing contracts, unlikely teams winning (and losing), possible skulduggery, and of course the usual updates on interesting players, polls, and so on. Read on, as get started with the tale of the one of the KHL’s best-ever players returning to the league!
The Ilya Nikulin saga is finally over! Probably the best defenseman, overall, in the history of the KHL, Nikulin was surprisingly cut loose by Ak Bars Kazan at the end of 2014-15, after ten seasons with the Tatar giants. Rumours of his next destination immediately began, ranging from quiet retirement to a contract with an NHL team (the Washington Capitals were much-mentioned with regards to the latter). This week we got the answer: Nikulin will be back in the KHL, having signed a one-year deal with Dynamo Moscow.
It will be a real homecoming for the 33-year-old; not only was he born in Moscow, but his professional hockey career began with Dynamo in the late 1990s. He won the championship of the old Russian Superleague as a Dynamo player in 2004-05, before adding another RSL title and two KHL championships as a member of Ak Bars. He has also been a fixture on the Russian national team for a decade now, wearing the captain’s ‘K’ for his country in a number of tournaments. Since the founding of the KHL in 2008, he has scored 217 regular season points in the league, second only to Kevin Dallman among defensemen, in 363 games.
This is obviously a huge signing for Dynamo, not to mention for the KHL itself, as the Moscow side is languishing a bit in seventh place in the West Conference at the moment. Nikulin is an excellent all-rounder and vastly experienced, and has the recent numbers (58 gp, 13-15-28 in 2014-15) to suggest that he has lots of useful hockey still in him. He practiced with his “new” club on Saturday, wearing number 77, and should make his debut for Dynamo in the massively important game against SKA on Monday.
Nikulin’s was not the only interesting signing of the past few days. Avangard Omsk Oblast, looking to maintain their hot start to the season (no regulation losses going into today’s game against Ugra), have signed veteran NHLer Martin Erat. Erat played for the Nashville Predators for more than a decade, and is second on the club’s all-time points list (481 in 723 regular-season games). However, his career suffered somewhat after he was dealt to Washington in 2012-13; his post-Preds numbers, posted with the Capitals and Coyotes, show only 67 points in 159 games. That is not awful, but it is far off what he did in his hey-day in Davidson County, TN. Still and all, Erat, now 34 years old, will lend some nice scoring depth to Avangard lineup that already has some pop to it in that regard; Vladimir Sobotka, Sergei Shirokov, and Alexander Perezhogin are all at or a near a point per game so far this season.
The KHL also saw its first head-coaching change of the season this past week, when Sergei Svetlov parted ways with Lada Tolyatti. The reasons for the change are not hard to see; Lada were 2-8, last in the KHL, when Svetlov departed. He has been replaced by former Dinamo Riga bench boss Artis Ābols, but there has been no immediate improvement in results, as Lada are now 2-10 and it looks like a long way to daylight.
So, having said all those nice things about Avangard and their offensive power and their lack of regulation losses, I need to mention that they strolled into Khanty-Mansiysk today and not only lost in regular time, but got shut out 3-0 (Erat, incidentally, is not yet in the lineup). The Omsk boys still top the East Conference table, by a hair over Metallurg Magnitogorsk. For oft-overlooked Ugra, the big win puts them into fifth place in the East — a highly respectable place form the to find themselves, although I remain somewhat dubious that they can maintain it for the entire season.
In the West, meanwhile, CSKA reside atop the standings of both the conference and the league at press time. However, the old Red Army team is only a point ahead of Jokerit, and the Finns hold two games in hand. For Jokerit, despite having the current KHL points leader in Brandon Kozun, the strength continues to be defense and goaltending; they have conceded only 12 goals in 10 games. They were, however, surprisingly beaten on Saturday in Helsinki, albeit in a shootout, by Vityaz Moscow Oblast, another unlikely team doing some productive work in the early part of the season. Largely on the strength of a 5-0 record in overtime and shootout games, Vityaz currently sit fifth in the West as they hunt for a first-ever KHL playoff berth.
We have noted, a couple of times here, the early season struggles of Salavat Yulaev Ufa, whom I had picked pre-season to represent the East Conference in the Gagarin Cup Finals. There’s a long way to go yet, of course, but Salavat Yulaev find themselves in a hot streak, winners of five in a row and now occupying the final playoff spot in the conference. They have, furthermore, managed to nose their record above the .500 mark; it currently sits at 6-5.
Another club having a nice spell after a bad start is Spartak Moscow. After starting the season at 2-7, the revived team has now beaten Medveščak Zagreb 7-1 and Slovan Bratislava 5-2 in their last two starts. Even more impressively, both of those Spartak victories came on the road. To put it another way, having scored 15 goals in their first nine games, Spartak have now scored another 12 in their last two. Time will tell whether this is a turnaround, or a false dawn.
Speaking of Spartak, the team was warned this week by the KHL for over-reporting attendance figures. Of particular interest was the September 14th game against Dinamo Minsk, for which Spartak reported 7727 attendees in the 8500-seat Luzhniki Minor Arena. Neutral observers claimed that the number, in fact, was smaller. Spartak blamed the problem on a new ticketing system, and the KHL has announced that it will perform its own counts at future Spartak games, with fines and such possible if the numbers still do not balance (the 7727 figure remains the official one for the game against Dinamo).
On that note, I have been tracking attendance for the KHL this season, and will have a preliminary report on that before the end of the month. Spoiler alert: if you’re going to games in Novosibirsk, buy your tickets early!
Medveščak have been in the news over the past few weeks, and not for a good reason; a number of their players from last season, including goalie Mark Dekanich, have alleged that they are still owed money for the 2014-15 campaign. Bill Thomas, another Medveščak alumnus, weight in this week as well, and I would invite you to check out Arto Palovaara’s post at SportsRants about the situation. Something fairly fishy is going on there, and even odder is the fact that the KHL Player’s Union — normally an outspoken organization under the leadership of Andrei Kovalenko — has so far remained silent.
We turn away now from KHL matters! The Russian women’s U18 team was in action this weekend, playing a four-nations tournament in Selb, Germany, against the hosts plus Austria and the Czech Republic. Mission accomplished — Russia won the competition with a 3-0 record, defeating Austria 11-2, Germany 6-3, and the Czechs 5-1. Team captain Fanuza Kadirova, of the RWHL’s Artik Universitet Ukhta, had four goals and four assists overall, but was somewhat overshadowed by her tournament linemate Darya Beloglazova, who went 3-7-10 in the three games. The other thing that Beloglazova, who plays her club hockey for the Pingviny hockey school, did this weekend was celebrate her 15th birthday, so she is definitely a name for women’s hockey fans to file away for future reference!
A quick update from the VHL, Russia’s second-tier professional league. That circuit added four new teams this year, and… well, things are not going well for them on the ice. The four newcomers (Kristall Saratov, Zvezda-VDV Dmitrov, Zvezda Chekhov, and Khimik Voskresensk) have played 16 games, combined, and have a recorded a collective one victory. And that lone win, by Zvezda Chekhov, came at the expense of one of the other first-year teams, namely Khimik. The rookie clubs have also been outscored to the tune of 20-74. Here’s hoping that they can get that turned around, and give their fans something to cheer about, but the omens are not particularly auspicious at the moment.
Dynamo Balashikha, SKA-Neva St. Petersburg, and HK Sarov are currently locked in battle at the top of the standings, with each having 12 points from five games.
We will turn to happier (we hope) matters, and the weekly update on our KHL players of interest!
G Juha Metsola (Amur Khabarovsk): 10 gp, 2.34 GAA, .918 sv%. Amur are still struggling, but Metsola’s numbers moved in a good direction this week. He stopped 31 of 32 against Traktor today, although his team lost in the shootout.
D Ziyat Paigin (Ak Bars Kazan): 8 gp, 0-1-1, +2, 2 PiM, 7:55 TOI/gm. He’s still toiling in the VHL, for Bars Kazan, where he has an assist and is -2 in three games. Paigin is, however, getting the ice time he lacked during his early-season KHL stint; he has averaged 19:26 per game in the lower league.
D Nikita Zaitsev (CSKA Moscow): 10 gp, 3-3-6, +6, 2 PiM, 20:13 TOI/gm. Zaitsev is almost exactly on last year’s points pace, playing about the same amount per game. We still await a big breakout from him, but he’s doing fine.
F Olli Palola (Vityaz Moscow Oblast): 9 gp, 1-0-1, -1, 4 PiM, 15:05 TOI/gm. He did it, folks! Palola finally got his name on the scoresheet this week (see Youtube clip above), even after being being bumped down to Vityaz’s fourth line. Now we wait to see if he can build on it.
F Nikolai Prokhorkin (Salavat Yulaev Ufa): 11 gp, 4-4-8, +5, 6 PiM, 16:34 TOI/gm. Three points in three games, and +3, for Prokhorkin this week as Salavat Yulaev turned their bad start around.
F Sergei Mozyakin (Metallurg Magnitogorsk): 11 gp, 6-8-14, +4, 0 PiM, 21:28 TOI/gm. An oddity today: Metallurg scored five goals without a single point coming from their big line of Mozyakin, Zaripov, and Kovar. Mozyakin is now tied for third in the KHL in points.
And it’s poll time! This week, the question is simple:
And that’s it for this time! More news notes next week, and there is a history post nearing completion as well, so please do check back!