Weekly Russian Hockey News Notes: February 1st, 2016
The KHL returned to action this past week after its All-Star break, and we saw the playoff picture continue to take shape, especially in the West Conference. Below the jump, we will discuss that story, more expansion news, the week’s action in the Women’s Hockey League, and a few other bits and pieces, so read on!
Update: tragic news from Russian youth hockey:
We mentioned, a couple of weeks ago, the story of Metallurg Novokuznetsk youth player Alexander Orekhov, critically injured and in a coma after being struck in the neck by the puck during a game in Novosibirsk. Sadly, those injuries proved too much, and Orekhov passed away on Tuesday, February 2nd, just a couple of months shy of his 17th birthday. The young forward was captain of the Metallurg ’99 youth team, comprised of children born in that year. He also represented Siberia and the Far East at the 2014 Russian Federal Districts Championships.
Orekhov’s death has led to statements of sympathy from throughout the Russian hockey world — SKA St. Petersburg have announced that a moment of silence will precede their game against Avtomobilist Yekaterinburg on Wednesday, and other clubs will likely follow suit. Orekhov’s Metallurg club, along with the Russian Hockey Federation and local governments in the region of Novokuznetsk, have announced that financial assistance will be allocated for his family. The tragedy has also produced some discussion on the issue of protective equipment for young players; former Soviet national player Alexander Kozhevnikov, among others, has called for the age limit for mandatory neck protection to be raised.
All condolences to the family, friends, fans, and team-mates of Alexander Orekhov.
There have been further developments on the expansion front, after last week’s comments, from KHL President Dmitry Chernyshev, stating that negotiations were underway with four foreign teams looking to join the league. The candidates, per Chernyshev, hail from China, Estonia, Sweden, and Great Britain, and we now have some updates on the latter two of those.
First of all, the Svenska Ishockey Förbundet — the Swedish Ice Hockey Association — has poured some cold water on hopes for a KHL entry from that country. The Association has apparently sent a letter to the KHL requesting that work on the project be stopped, and one of the SI’s directors commented that a Swedish KHL team is “impossible,” at least for now. And the Association intends to pass rules banning Swedish teams, at any level, from joining the KHL. These comments may very well be related, in some way, to a dispute between the KHL and the Swedish hockey people over the fact that a number of Swedish players have not been released from their KHL teams for upcoming national team games against Finland (Finnish KHLers, by contrast, have been allowed to play). It’s all very complicated at the moment, and we wait to see how things will shake out, but at this point it would be very surprising if matters were sorted in time for a Swedish KHL entry next season.
As for the British candidate, per Aivis Kalniņš on Twitter (and a hat-tip also to @vorkywh24 on this one), the prospective owner of the new team is Neil Black, who already owns the Nottingham Panthers and Braehead Clan of the Elite Ice Hockey League. Black commented today on the project, noting that the logistics were “complicated,” and that arena issues might put a British KHL team back to 2018. Now, there are certainly hockey rinks in Britain of suitable size (we mentioned examples in London and Manchester last week, and there are others), but there may be technical problems with bringing them up to KHL standards — for example, broadcast facilities and the like. I am honestly not sure on this one.
However, Black did make it clear that he is very interested in having his British teams work together with the KHL, and mentioned the possibility of exhibition games. So again, we wait for further developments on this one, but it is clear the work is being done on the possibility of a British KHL team. In any event, I would encourage you to check out Adam Mackman’s very interesting look at possible British KHL expansion… and not just because he says kind things about this blog in it!
Back on the ice, meanwhile, it’s time to take a look at how the playoff races are developing as the KHL regular season moves into its last few games:
- The West Conference post-season dance card is getting quite full. This week saw HK Sochi, SKA St. Petersburg, Dynamo Moscow, and Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod all clinch spots, joining CSKA Moscow, Lokomotiv Yaroslavl, and Jokerit Helsinki.
- That leaves but a single place open, and it currently belongs to Slovan Bratislava. The Slovak club are four points ahead of Dinamo Minsk, with both teams having five games remaining. Arto Palovaara has written this week on how Slovan, a team that nearly missed the KHL season altogether, are on the verge of making the playoffs, and it’s a good read — do check it out.
- Medveščak Zagreb are now eight points back of Slovan — a herculean effort and some favourable results elsewhere will be required for the Croatians to make the second season. For Spartak Moscow and Dinamo Riga, meanwhile, the only hope is mathematical, and its a very slim hope at this point.
- Vityaz Moscow Oblast and Severstal Cherepovets are officially eliminated from playoff contention.
In the East Conference:
- Avangard Omsk, who had clinched earlier, were joined in the “secured playoff berths” club this week by Metallurg Magnitogorsk, Sibir Novosibirsk, and Salavat Yulaev Ufa.
- Admiral Vladivostok should punch their post-season ticket in the next couple of games.
- And so there are three playoff spots up for grabs, and four teams are in the running for them. Ak Bars Kazan, Avtomobilist Yekaterinburg, and Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk currently occupy sixth, seventh, and eighth places respectively. However, the Kazakhs of Barys Astana are only one point out of eighth, and four out of sixth, so there is much work to be done yet. All four contenders have four games remaining.
- Traktor Chelyabinsk and Ugra Khanty-Mansiysk are in the same boat as Spartak and Dinamo Riga: still possessing a mathematical chance, but only that.
- Lada Tolyatti, Amur Khabarovsk, and Metallurg Novokuznetsk are officially out of the running.
CSKA Moscow, with a record of 42-14, are on the verge of securing their second straight regular season championship; the old Red Army team needs only a single point to accomplish that, and have four games left to do it in. They can also clinch if Lokomotiv drop even a single point, so it is going to happen one way or another. And it is hard to argue that CSKA are undeserving of the honour. As of tonight, they have won 11 straight games, conceded the fewest goals in the league, and are tied for the fourth-most scored.
The real revelation for CSKA this season has been the play of 20-year-old goalie Ilya Sorokin. Despite his tender years, the young man from the Siberian city of Mezhdurechensk is already in his fourth season of KHL action, having joined CSKA from Metallurg Novokuznetsk partway through last season. In 2015-16, he has seen action in 26 games, and currently leads the KHL in both save percentage (.956) and goals against average (o.99). CSKA even felt secure enough about their young netminder to let the reliable Stanislav Galimov depart at the transfer deadline. Among those watching Sorokin’s progress with great interest: the New York Islanders, who hold his NHL rights.
This week saw a pair of games in the Women’s Hockey League; as expected, Tornado Moscow Oblast took all six points from their encounters with Arktik-Universitet up in Ukhta. However, the defending champions were given a tougher time of it than they might have expected, particularly in the first game. In that one, Arktik-Universitet were in the running right up until Tornado’s Alevtina Shtaryova sealed a 6-4 victory with only a couple of minutes left. The second game, which Tornado won 9-2, was slightly more according to script. The victories restore the Moscow Region team’s two-point advantage over Agidel Ufa atop the league standings.
Agidel’s Olga Sosina, meanwhile, continues to the lead the WHL in both points (by six over Tornado’s Anna Shokhina) and goals (by one, over Shtaryova).
The KHL transfer deadline is past, but all that means is that teams can no longer make new acquisitions; they are still free to send players away. And this week did indeed see a couple of interesting departures from Medveščak Zagreb — the Croatian team has said goodbye to leading scorer Tomáš Mertl (55 gp, 11-21-32) and starting goalie Danny Taylor (38 gp, .924 sv%). Both are on their way to the Czech league, Taylor to Sparta Prague and Mertl to Mountfield HK in Hradec Králové. We mentioned above that Medveščak are in very tough to make the playoffs; these departures, obviously, will not help. However, they will save the cash-strapped club a bit of money, and allow Mertl and Taylor the chance at some playoff action.
Amur Khabarovsk has never been one of the KHL’s more fashionable destinations for players, with geography playing a large role in that sad fact (until Admiral Vladivostok joined the league in 2013, Amur’s nearest road game was more than 3000 kilometres away in Novokuznetsk). And so it was pleasant news for Amur fans this week when the team announced that a two-year contract extension had been signed with goalie Juha Metsola. Metsola himself was enthusiastic about the deal as well, noting that his family had enjoyed their time in the city, and were looking forward to returning.
Pleasant news, as mentioned, and for a couple of reasons. First of all, it’s good to see Amur hanging on to key players, rather than seeing them scamper off to the richer, more central, clubs. And secondly, Metsola has indeed been very key for Amur this season. While the easterners will miss the playoffs for the seventh time in eight KHL seasons, this has been a much-improved campaign; they are already 20 points past where they finished 2014-15, and a lot of that has to do with the play of their goalie. The 26-year-old Metsola, from Tampere, Finland, has a .928 sv% in 43 games, and has stolen his share of points for his team this year.
Could this be the start of a renaissance, or even just a naissance, for Amur? We will have to wait and see. However, Metsola’s re-signing suggests that it is no longer business as usual way out in the KHL’s easternmost bastion. Now, they just need to figure out where to find some scorers (Amur’s 103 goals this season have them comfortably last in the league in that category)…
The news this week concerning another Finnish KHLer was less happy – Jokerit Helsinki defenseman Oskari Korpikari has been forced to retire at only 31 due to a heart ailment. Korpikari, a draft pick of the Montreal Canadiens in 2003, spent his entire career in the Finnish leagues before coming to the KHL with Jokerit in 2014. In all, he played 48 KHL games (regular season and playoffs), and scored 5-6-11.
Finally, a couple of rumours concerning possible upcoming off-season moves. Or lack of moves — there are reports that forward Alexander Radulov is working on a new two-year contract to remain in Moscow in CSKA. The player’s agent denied this week that a deal was done, as did CSKA General Manager Sergei Fedorov.
Also issuing denials was SKA St. Petersburg forward Yevgeny Dadonov, whom reports had buying out his KHL contract and trying his luck in North America. Not so, says Dadonov, although he did concede that negotiations on a new contract with SKA have not yet begun.
On both those stories, we wait for further signals.
And while we’re waiting, let’s check in with the little group of players whom we’ve been following here at the blog this season:
G Juha Metsola (Amur Khabarovsk): 43 gp, 2.11 GAA, .928 sv%. We discussed Metsola at length above — nothing really to add here!
D Ziyat Paigin (HK Sochi): 41 gp, 8-18-26, +6, 8 PiM, 15:36 TOI/gm. Another stellar week — four points in three games — for Paigin, who has played 19:00 or more in each of his last ten games. And his team clinched a playoff berth with room to spare. This is a real story here, people.
D Nikita Zaitsev (CSKA Moscow): 43 gp, 7-18-25, +23, 20 PiM, 20:56 TOI/gm. Rumours that he will soon be a Maple Leaf continue to swirl, and in the meantime he scored a goal this week as CSKA continued their long winning streak.
F Nikolai Prokhorkin (Salavat Yulaev Ufa): 51 gp, 17-16-33, +7, 89 PiM, 16:47 TOI/gm. Prokhorkin recorded an assist this week, but was also suspended two games after picking his second five-minute major and second game misconduct of the season (both for fighting, during a game against Avtomobilist).
F Olli Palola (Vityaz Moscow Oblast): 27 gp, 1-4-5, -8, 10 PiM, 13:42 TOI/gm. Running out of ways to say that it’s been a very tough year for poor Palola…
F Sergei Mozyakin (Metallurg Magnitogorsk): 53 gp, 31-35-66, +14, 0 PiM: 21:09 TOI/gm. Mozyakin finally broke his long goal slump with a pair against Ugra this week, but has seen his KHL points lead shrink to four, and his goal lead to one.
And that should about do it for this week’s notes — thank you, as always, for reading!