Weekly Russian Hockey News Notes: October 5th, 2015
It was a fairly active week in the Russian hockey world, so there is lots to get through. In particular, with NHL training camps wrapping up, we will check in with how some of the Russian and ex-KHL contingent are doing. We’ll also take a look at some international women’s hockey, and of course the usual round-up of KHL stories. Read on!
Veteran defenseman Sergei Gonchar, who had been at training camp with the Pittsburgh Penguins, has been released from his try-out contract. Given that he is now 41 years old, it is more than possible that he will decide that it is time to put his feet up, and call an end to a spectacular playing career. The native of Chelyabinsk came up through the ranks with Traktor, and played a couple of seasons with Dynamo Moscow early in his career. A 1992 draft pick of the Washington Capitals, he came to North America in ’94, and would play for the Caps, Penguins, Senators, Stars, and Canadiens, winning a Stanley Cup with Pittsburgh in 2008-09. He also managed to work in a brief stint with Lada Tolyatti, and two lockout-related runs as a member of Metallurg Magnitogorsk during that span. Internationally, he represented Russia at four Olympic Games and a number of World Championships.
If this is indeed the end of his playing career, Gonchar will retire with an NHL regular-season scoring line of 1301 gp, 220-591-811. That is a truly superb number of points for a defenseman, particular one who played through the depths of the “dead puck” era in the late 1990s and early 2000s (Gonchar ranks 16th all-time in NHL points by a blueliner). He has also been, by all accounts, a model citizen, and an excellent veteran mentor to younger players. While a part of me would like to see one more year on the ice for him, there can be no doubting that he has done his bit for hockey, and is surely entitled to a pleasant retirement! Our poll question this week will ask whether he should also get a nice Hall of Fame plaque, and in case you are wondering I voted “yes” on that one.
Off to the international hockey scene! When we checked in last week, the Russian women’s team had won the first three of a four-game set against Japan. They made it sweep on Tuesday, defeating the Japanese 6-3 thanks in large part to a hat-trick by Biryusa Krasnoyarsk’s Valeriya Pavlova, and then traveled to Germany for a trio of games there. Once, again, the Russian women achieved the sweep, defeating Germany 2-1, 3-1, and 5-1. Forward Tatyana Burina, who plays her club hockey for Tornado Moscow Oblast, had a particularly good series against the Germans, scoring in all three games.
The women’s U18 team, meanwhile, was also in action this week at a three-nations tournament in Germany. Russia faced Switzerland on September 30th, and came away with a 9-4 victory on the strength of four goals from Fanuza Kadirova of Arktik Universitet Ukhta. On October 1st, goalie Valeriya Merkusheva slammed the door on hosts Germany in a 5-0 tournament-clinching victory for the Russian team.
All-in-all, then, it has been a highly successful couple of weeks for both Russian women’s teams, as they compiled a 9-0 record in total. The players now return to their Women’s Hockey League clubs, ready for the resumption of regular-season play this coming Wednesday.
A little addendum to this weekend’s post on KHL attendances: Alexander Agapov makes the excellent point via Facebook that the two teams bringing up the rear in attendance, Vityaz Moscow Oblast and Ugra Khanty-Mansiysk (both are averaging about 2500 fans per game), happen to hail from the league’s two smallest population centres, which puts their crowd numbers in some context. Podolsk, where Vityaz hang their hats, has a population of 224,000 while Khanty-Mansiysk is even smaller, at just under 100,000 people. I mentioned that we will be revisiting attendance at roughly the halfway point of the season, and as part of that we will take a look at size of the various potential fanbases. Thanks to Alexander for the note!
As noted, NHL teams are making their final roster decisions prior to the start of the new season, and a number of players with KHL connections have received news, good or bad, in the last few days. Here are a few of those stories:
In 2014-15, Jokerit forward Steve Moses broke the KHL record for goals in a season, with 36. That feat earned him a one-year deal back in North America with the Nashville Predators. However, Moses’ road to NHL stardom has hit a bit of a bump, as he failed to make the Preds out of training camp, and will begin the season with their AHL affiliate in Milwaukee. All reports suggest that this will be a temporary demotion, as Moses re-adjusts to the smaller North American rinks.
Also failing to find NHL employment was Kevin Lalande, a KHL veteran who has seen time with Vityaz, Dinamo Minsk, and, last season, CSKA Moscow. Lalande had been on a try-out with the Minnesota Wild for 2015-16, but failed to muscle his way into the NHL picture with that organization, and was sent to Iowa of the AHL. It now appears that Lalande will leave the Wild altogether, with early reports having him already in Minsk preparing to rejoin Dinamo (defenseman Marsel Ibragimov, a draft pick, and money were sent to CSKA for his rights) .
That’s a move that makes sense for everyone. Lalande has dual citizenship from his first stint in Minsk, and in fact is one of the goalies for the Belarusan national team; signing with Dinamo likely guarantees him World Championship time next spring. And, while Dmitry Milchakov and Jeff Glass have provided Dinamo with at least decent netminding this season, there is a reasonable chance that Lalande (.934 sv% with CSKA last season) will be an upgrade at the position.
Last year’s playoff hero for Ak Bars Kazan, Swedish netminder Anders Nilsson, has had a more successful quest for an NHL job than Moses or Lalande did. The Edmonton Oilers officially annointed Nilsson their backup goalie for 2015-16 on Sunday when they placed last year’s starter Ben Scrivens on waivers. Nilsson, who had a KHL-record six post-season shutouts in 20 games in 2014-15, has played in three exhibition games for the Oilers (about 120 minutes total action), and has yet to be scored upon. He will begin the season behind Cam Talbot on the goaltending depth chart.
Nilsson will not be the only recent KHLer lining up in Edmonton’s colours this season, as former Salavat Yulaev forward Anton Slepyshev has made the team as well. Slepyshev scored 2-2-4 in seven pre-season contests, and generally earned positive reviews in his first taste of North American hockey. The Oilers, however, did send out Russian defenseman Nikita Nikitin, who has been assigned to the Bakersfield Condors of the AHL.
It has been a mixed bag at training camp for the Chicago Blackhawks’ two off-season acquisitions from SKA St. Petersburg. Artemy Panarin? He’s doing just fine, thank you very much (see clip above), despite battling injuries a little bit. Viktor Tikhonov, meanwhile, may be AHL-bound.
The Detroit Red Wings have signed forward Yevgeny Svechnikov, their first-round draft pick this past June, to a three-year entry-level contract. Svechnikov, whose fascinating story we discussed here in a previous set of news notes (scroll down to the bottom of that link), will spend the 2015-16 season on Cape Breton Island with the QMJHL’s Screaming Eagles.
Turning now to the KHL: yesterday’s brief post here had some highlights of Mr. Matt Ellison of Dinamo Minsk scoring a hat-trick on Saturday in a dramatic come-from-behind victory over Avangard Omsk. Ellison’s performance in that game was so well-received that it was held over; on Monday, Ellison once again scored three as Dinamo again overcame a deficit to win, this time against Barys Astana.
Those two victories, in addition to moving Ellison quite suddenly up to second in the KHL goal-scoring standings for this season, have re-energized Dinamo’s season. The Belarusan club is suddenly right back in the playoff positions, with games in hand as well. And, as noted above, they have a probable improvement in the goaltending to look forward to as well!
Over in the East Conference, meanwhile, there is an unusual name atop the Kharlamov Division standings. The Kharlamov includes traditional KHL powerhouses Ak Bars Kazan and Metallurg Magnitogorsk, but it is little Ugra Khanty-Mansiysk who top the table with an 11-7 record at this point. Now, Ugra have played more games than their divisional rivals, so that is a factor, but it is nice to see nonetheless. Of particular note for the Ugrans have been forwards Nikita Gusev (6-6-12 in 16 games) and Igor Bortnikov (18 gp, 6-5-11), while goalie Vladislav Fokin’s .945 save percentage in nine games has been a big part of the success as well. Ugra have not seen the post-season since 2012, but are looking good to change that this season.
Another unlikely team doing well this season is Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk. That group is generally viewed as the “second team” in Tatarstan, but currently find themselves six points ahead of their more storied regional rivals Ak Bars Kazan. And Neftekhimik are threatening to make the playoffs for the first time since 2012-13, when local hero Nail Yakupov joined the squad during the NHL lockout and journeyman defenseman Renat Mamashev had a brief moment in the sun as the best scoring rearguard in the KHL.
I invite you to check out Arto Paalovara’s recent article on this season’s success in Nizhnekamsk for more details on how they are doing it!
Alexei Murygin’s record-breading shutout run has came to an end on Monday. The Lokomotiv Yaroslavl goalie was beaten by Roman Horák of Vityaz Moscow Oblast, for his first goal against in 302:11 (Lokomotiv still won the game, mind you, 3-1). That is more than a full game better than the KHL old record of 237:33, which belonged to former Lokomotiv netminder Curtis Sanford. However, Murygin’s new mark came up painfully short of the all-time Russian hockey record. That was set by Czech ‘tender Jiří Trvaj for Lada Tolyatti during the 2003-04 Russian Superleague season.
A couple of KHL player moves of interest this past week:
Andrei Kostitsyn has found himself a new home. The 30-year-old Belarusan winger had his contract with Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod cancelled a couple of weeks ago, and has now signed with HK Sochi. Kostitsyn’s first game with Sochi was a promising one, as he recorded an assist and helped his new employers surprisingly overcome Dynamo Moscow by a 4-3 score.
Andrei’s younger brother Sergei remains at Torpedo, although rumour has linked him with a move to Dynamo Moscow.
Dinamo Riga have placed German forward Felix Schütz on waivers. It is a disappointingly quick end to Schütz’s time in Latvia; he appeared to be one of the off-season’s more astute signings, but scored only 1-1-2 in 11 games, and was deemed surplus to requirements.
Speaking of Latvia, former Salavat Yulaev defenseman Artūrs Kulda has signed a contract for the rest of this season with Jokerit Helsinki. Kulda, whose younger brother Edgars plays for Dinamo Riga, had become a free agent at the end of last season. He attempted to find an NHL job, but was unable to get a North American team to offer him a one-way deal (thanks to Aivis Kalniņš for that tip), and so will return to the KHL for another season at least.
Kulda, a big defensive rearguard by trade, is a great signing for Jokerit. The Finns were early-season pace-setters in the West Conference, but ran into a tough spot in the schedule and are 1-3 in their last four (two losses to CSKA and one to SKA, so hardly cause for deep concern, but still). They are still a very strong contender, and Kulda will only make them better.
And finally, we still await iron-clad, official, word that Vyacheslav Voynov will end up a member of SKA St. Petersburg. That news, however, could well come through this week.
As usual, we will finish off with a look at the six players whom we have tracking with particular interest in the 2015-16 KHL season:
G Juha Metsola (Amur Khabarovsk): 16 gp, 1.74 GAA, .936 sv%. Metsola’s numbers keep going in the proper direction, and Amur can actually see the final playoff spot not too far above them. Much work to be done yet, but their goalie is earning his money.
D Ziyat Paigin (Ak Bars Kazan): 8 gp, 0-1-1, +2, 2 PiM, 7:55 TOI/gm. A decent week for the kid in the second-tier VHL with Bars Kazan, as he had an assist and went +2 in three games. Now 9 gp, 1-3-4, -2 overall during his VHL stint, and he’s getting 21 minutes of ice time per game.
D Nikita Zaitsev (CSKA Moscow): 15 gp, 4-5-9, +11, 4 PiM, 20:41 TOI/gm. Two points, and +3, in three games this week for Zaitsev, who is now tied for third in the KHL in goals by defensemen. For what it’s worth, he’s also tied for fourth in plus-minus, although a number of the players ahead of him are team-mates.
F Nikolai Prokhorkin (Salavat Yulaev Ufa): 15 gp, 5-4-9, +4, 33 PiM, 15:47 TOI/gm. Prokhorkin had some disciplinary issues this week, getting sent off and serving a one-game suspension for a needless hit against Dynamo Moscow. He did score a goal upon his return, however.
F Olli Palola (Vityaz Moscow Oblast): 13 gp, 1-0-1, -7, 4 PiM, 15:10 TOI/gm. A bad season got worse for the poor guy this week. He played only one game, in which he went -4 and got injured. Palola is now out for an undetermined period of time, and the only hope is that the unwanted break serves as a sort of reset button for his season.
F Sergei Mozyakin (Metallurg Magnitogorsk): 16 gp, 10-9-19, +5, 0 PiM: 21:09 TOI/gm. Mozyakin is actually in a bit of a slump, with points in only two of Metallurg’s last six games. However, he also had a hat-trick this week against Vityaz (yes, that was the game in which Mr. Palola went -4), and is tied for second in the league scoring race. So, glass half full!
And here’s this week’s poll! As noted at the beginning of the post, the question deals with Mr. Gonchar:
And that’s it for this week! Note that next week’s news notes will happen on Monday, due to the Canadian Thanksgiving holiday. In the meantime, however, there will be other things here at the blog, so do check back, and thank you for reading!