Russian Hockey News Notes: October 19th, 2015
Speed, power, and skill: Olga Sosina goes coast-to-coast against Arktik Universitet Ukhta on Monday (ht to Denis Osipchuk)
A somewhat-delayed edition of the news notes this time, but here they are! We will wander through the KHL, as usual, and check in with the Women’s Hockey League and the NHL as well. However, the big news of the past seven days was of course the coaching upheaval at SKA St. Petersburg and Metallurg Magnitogorsk. Below the jump, we will begin with those stories, and discover which coach has already found a new team, who’s taking a few days off, and which other team’s coaching change got overlooked a little bit.
Let us recap: Andrei Nazarov has been fired by SKA St. Petersburg, after the defending champions’ startlingly awful first couple of months of the season. Sergei Zubov is his replacement at least for now, and that whole situation we discussed in some depth here on Saturday. There is little to add to it at the moment, except that SKA did win their first game under Zubov, albeit not in a particularly impressive fashion; the St. Petersburgians eked out a 2-1 victory at home over the KHL’s last-place team, Lada Tolyatti, on Sunday.
As for Nazarov, he was not out of work for long. It was announced today that he has signed a two-year contract to return to Barys Astana, where he worked in 2014-15. Barys fired Nazarov’s replacement, Erlan Sagymbaev, back in September, and Yevgeny Koreshkov has been holding down the job in an interim capacity. The Kazakh team certainly needs something to get them going; Barys are 8-16 on the season, in 12th place in the East, and facing the real possibility of missing the KHL playoffs for the first time.
And also this weekend, Metallurg Magnitogorsk announced that Mike Keenan would step down from the head coaching position there, to take up some sort of yet-to-be-defined advisory role with the team. There are rumours that Keenan, who is in the process of obtaining Russian citizenship, will be hired by the Russian Hockey Federation in some capacity as well. Right now, he is taking a few days off to think things over, according to Metallurg GM Gennady Velichkin. Once the dust settles a little bit, there will be some thoughts about it all here.
The departures of Nazarov and Keenan dominated the news this past week, unsurprisingly. However, those two were not the only KHL coaches leaving their jobs. Dinamo Minsk’s Lyubomir Pokovich also stepped down this week, under somewhat mysterious circumstances. Pokovich insists that it was his choice, but has been very reluctant to discuss the details. Whatever the reason for the coach’s departure, Andrei Kovalev will take over for him in the interim.
Dinamo’s season has been closer to disappointing than not; they are currently tenth in the East Conference, which is a let-down after last season’s playoff appearance. However, the Belarusan club also has games in hand, a genuine star of an offensive d-man in Nick Bailen (16 points in 21 games, third-most among KHL blueliners), and every reason to be hopful about another trip to the post-season.
The coaching news pushed to the side a major item regarding the KHL’s future plans. The last few months has seen a lot of talk about the possibility of a team from China joining the league, and this week a KHL delegation visited the country to talk hockey with Chinese officials. As you are probably aware, Beijing will host the 2022 Winter Olympics, and China is far from a hockey powerhouse, so there is definitely interest in growing the sport there.
Among the interesting revelations from the meeting: it appears that there will be a series of KHL exhibition games in China next March, involving teams that miss the playoffs. There will also be some games involving MHL side Sakhalinskie Akuly and Chinese youth teams from Heilongjiang Province, which borders Russia along the Amur, or Heilong, River. There was even some discussion, apparently, about the possibility of full-time Chinese representation in the MHL as early as next season. Interestingly, there seems to have been little firm talk of when we might see a Chinese team in the KHL itself, although league Board member Slava Fetisov insisted today that it “is only a matter of time.”
It was an off-season of departures for Lokomotiv Yaroslavl; the team said good-bye to useful NHL-bound forward Sergei Plotnikov, to retiring goalie Curtis Sanford, and — most damaging of all to the team’s hopes for this season — to Canadian-Belarusan scorer Geoff Platt, who got caught up in the foreign player kerfuffle and had to be sent off to CSKA Moscow. The Yaroslavl side did manage to capture high-scoring Swedish blueliner Patrik Hersley (34 gp, 11-10-21 for Sibir in 2014-15), so the summer was not a complete write-off, but few looked for them to challenge for the top spots this season.
And I do not expect that anyone foresaw Lokomotiv opening the season at 18-6, giving up only 27 goals in their first 24 games, and becoming the first KHL team this season to reach 50 points. We have discussed the amazing performance of goalie Alexei Murygin here in previous news notes: seven shutouts in 12 starts, a .973 sv%, and so on. However, Lokomotiv can score, too — their goals-scored total of 60 so far is eighth-best in the KHL. Of particular note there is forward Yegor Averin, now tied for second in the league in goals scored with 14.
The oddest thing? Hersley has only six points in 24 games. That is not awful in context — in fact it puts him in a three-way tie for the team scoring lead among defensemen — but it is less than what was expected. In any case, Lokomotiv have won ten games in a row now, nine of them in regulation, and are cruising along at the top of the standings with a seven-point cushion over Platt and CSKA.
The trials and tribulations of HK Salavat Yulaev Ufa have been big news in the 2015-16 season, but it looks like the tide may be turning for the Bashkir club. Four straight wins, during which they have scored 18 goals, have projected Salavat Yulaev up to fifth in the East Conference, and made the decision to install Igor Zakharkin as head coach look like a very shrewd one. Swedish forward Linus Omark (22 gp, 8-15-23) has bulled his way up to a tie for third in KHL points.
Salavat Yulaev’s latest victory came today against arch-rivals Ak Bars Kazan, who were overcome by a score of 2-1. Ak Bars, traditionally among the league-leaders, are surprisingly stuck in ninth in the East, and at some point we may need to start thinking about the long-term job prospects of their coach, Zinetula Bilyaletdinov.
The Women’s Hockey League has seen its first big upset of the season, just ahead of next weekend’s key encounters between Agidel Ufa and Tornado Moscow Oblast. And it is Agidel who now have the upper hand, after Tornado were beaten 2-1 by SKIF Nizhny Novgorod on Monday. Svetlana Kolmykova and Finnish veteran Karoliina Rantamäki did the scoring for SKIF, while Alevtina Shtaryova answered for Tornado. Last season, nobody would have looked askance at that result, but this is a rebuilding year for SKIF, and they came into the game with a 2-4 record. Furthermore, their only wins had come against lowly SK Sverdlovsk Oblast, currently 0-8 on the year.
Tornado restored order with a 4-1 victory over SKIF on Tuesday (three points from league-leading scorer Anna Shokhina), but the damage had been done; Agidel Ufa now have 23 points from eight games, two ahead of Tornado, who have also played eight. Agidel themselves got a bit of a scare on Monday, needing Olga Sosina’s wonder-goal (see clip at the beginning of the post) to pull off a 2-1 home victory over a very determined Arktik-Universitet Ukhta. The Ufa team, however, won a comfortable 5-2 victory against the same opponent on Tuesday, thanks to a hat-trick from Yekaterina Solovyova.
Back in the KHL, there were some very interesting player moves to look at this week, including one, long-rumoured, that finally got done just today. SKA have strengthened their forward corps markedly with the acquisition of Nikita Gusev, the 23-year-old who was the leading goal- and point-scorer on this year’s edition of Ugra Khanty-Mansiysk. Monetary compensation is headed the other way in that deal.
Gusev is a real up-and-comer, with a line of 7-7-14 in 23 games this year, so he will be of help to SKA probably right away. Spare a thought for Ugra, however! The team from the KHL’s smallest outpost (Khanty-Manisysk has just under 100,000 people) had been enjoying a fine season, solidly in the hunt for a first playoff berth in three seasons. The departure of Gusev puts a massive, massive, kink in those plans however, and it is hard to see how they will be able to keep up their challenge now.
Felix Schütz, whom we have discussed here in the last couple of news notes posts, officially completed his move to Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod early this past week, and has already suited up for his new team. So far, the 27-year-old German forward has an assist in two games, which is a decent enough start.
An interesting little trade to report from the past week! Slovan Bratislava sent Czech defenseman Filip Novák to Traktor Chelyabinsk in return for Canadian forward Francis Paré. Novák, who is now 33, has two Gagarin Cup rings won as a member of Dynamo Moscow, and is a decent enough “all-round” blueliner even if his days as a playmaker may be behind him (he has only two points so far in 2015-16). Paré, meanwhile, had four points in 14 games for Traktor, and is a useful depth forward. He also has won a Gagarin Cup, with Metallurg Magnitogorsk in 2013-14.
And Slovan were not finished adding to their roster. The team announced today that it has signed a former Montreal Canadiens first-round pick, forward Louis Leblanc. Leblanc had 29 points in 71 games for Norfolk of the AHL last season.
Sibir Novosibirsk have been rolling along this season; 44 points from 23 games has them third in the KHL, behind only Lokomotiv and CSKA. However, the Siberians will now have to deal with the loss of Czech defenseman Vladimír Roth, who has decided to return to his former club, HC Oceláři Třinec of the Czech Extraliga. The 25-year-old Roth had five points in 18 games for Sibir, after scoring 62 in 83 games over the last two seasons for Třinec. He will be missed, although very little seems to be seriously bothering Sibir at the moment; the team has taken at least a point from 11 straight games, and likely has the depth to overcome Roth’s departure.
Medveščak Zagreb shook up their goaltending a little bit this week. Cal Heeter, who struggled to an .856 save percentage in parts of six games this season, has departed for Hamburg Freezers of the DEL. To replace Heeter, Medveščak have brought in Sweden’s Joakim Lundström from Leksands. Lundström does have some KHL experience; he posted a sv% of .915 in 18 games with Admiral Vladivostok in 2013-14.
We’ll hop briefly across the ocean now and check in with a couple of Russians in the NHL. Alexander Ovechkin had a mixed week; he was first press-boxed for Washington’s game against the Sharks last Tuesday after sleeping in and missing practice. Restored to the lineup for the Capitals’ subsequent game against Chicago, “Ovi” got together with fellow-countryman Yevgeny Kuznetsov and did this:
Elsewhere, Chicago’s Artemi Panarin, who came over from SKA during the off-season, is the NHL’s early rookie leader, with seven points from six games.
Time to check in with the little team of KHLers whom we’re following with particular interest this season!
G Juha Metsola (Amur Khabarovsk): 22 gp, 1.72 GAA, .938 sv%. For the first time in awhile, we see Metsola’s numbers actually drop a bit this week. Still, Amur went 2-1, including a famous win over CSKA, and remain in touch with the playoffs.
D Ziyat Paigin (HK Sochi): 10 gp, 0-2-2, +1, 2 PiM, 7:28 TOI/gm. The good: young Paigin had a powerplay assist this week as he played his first two games at his new team. The bad: he is only getting 5:40 per game at Sochi, and did not dress for today’s big win over Jokerit. Still a work in progress!
D Nikita Zaitsev (CSKA Moscow): 19 gp, 4-6-10, +12, 4 PiM, 20:57 TOI/gm. The scoring numbers for Zaitsev are behind where I thought they would be, to be honest. Tied for the team lead in plus/minus is fine, though.
F Nikolai Prokhorkin (Salavat Yulaev Ufa): 21 gp, 6-4-10, +4, 35 PiM, 16:05 TOI/gm. Found the net this week against Metallurg Magnitogorsk in a wild 6-4 victory for the resurgent Salavat Yulaev. If we were grading his season so far, it’s probably a “B.”
F Olli Palola (Vityaz Moscow Oblast): 15 gp, 1-1-2, -7, 4 PiM, 14:59 TOI/gm. He returned from injury this week in time to help Vityaz to two straight victories. And maybe the three-weeks off did him some good; Palola recorded his first assist of the season in his team’s impressive 3-1 triumph over Avangard Omsk.
F Sergei Mozyakin (Metallurg Magnitogorsk): 22 gp, 17-13-30, +8, 0 PiM: 21:20 TOI/gm. Five goals plus three assists makes eight points in three games this week. He now leads the KHL in points by four, and in goals by three. Ladies and gentlemen, Sergei Mozyakin.
We’ll forego the poll this week (some technical issues that I need to work out there), so that will be it for this edition of the news notes! They will be back next Sunday, and in the meantime there will be other musings here as well. Thank you for reading!