Weekly Russian Hockey News Notes: May 4th, 2016
A couple of days late, but here we are with another set of news notes! This one has all kinds of things, as the World Championship starts on Friday, and KHL teams began shuffling players around last weekend. There was also some interesting expansion news, and not just from the KHL, either. So read on!
We are all set to go for the opening of the IIHF World Championship on Friday; The Russian Hockey Federation revealed its extended roster for the tournament today, and you can see it here. The ceremony took place in the brand-new Hockey Museum in Moscow, which has opened as part of the World Championship celebrations.
We will have a closer preview at the Russian roster here tomorrow, but as a bit of an appetizer, there are some very interesting names included, and not included, among the final 28. Injury played a role in the selections; NHLers Semyon Varlamov and Nail Yakupov will miss the tournament due to injury (Artyom Anisimov and Dmitry Kulikov had previously been ruled out of the same reason). Anyway, more to come on that tomorrow!
Alexander Radulov did make the final 28-man roster, despite skipping the first part of the selection camp, but he too is injured (groin, reportedly), and his actual participation in the tournament is in some question. There have been persistent rumours that the 30-year-old Radulov is on the outs with Team Russia Head Coach Oleg Znarok — unsurprising, given the somewhat forceful personalities possessed by both men. However, it is also worth mentioning that he is the only player not named Sergei Mozyakin to have won a KHL scoring title, and he will certainly be missed if he ends up sitting out the entire tournament.
One complicating factor is that Radulov has said that he will play next season in the NHL, and he is currently in negotiations with a number of teams in that league. So there is some incentive for him not to risk worsening an injury, and possibly missing the start of training camp or more, by playing at the Worlds. Definitely a situation to keep an eye on.
There may be a touch of nervousness around the Russian coaches’ offices as the World Championship, as the national team dropped both of its last two per-tournament exhibition games, losing 3-2 and 3-1 to a powerful Finnish team last week. Team Russia did not look particularly strong in either game, although it must be said that this is something of a golden moment for Finnish hockey, and nobody should be too surprised if they manage to win gold at this year’s Worlds.
Away from the World Championship excitement, meanwhile, the business of the domestic off-season is trundling along, and this week that means expansion announcements in a number of different leagues. The KHL, which had an April 30th deadline for applications for next season, has received a formal bid from Red Star Kunlun Beijing, the league’s much-discussed, much-anticipated, new Chinese team. This move was fully expected, and represents simply the next step in the process; Red Star Kunlun are all but guaranteed to be on the ice when the 2016-2017 season commences.
Also to be filed under “unsurprising” was the fact that proposed Swedish club “Crowns” did NOT submit an application. We discussed that situation at length in last week’s news notes, but to recap briefly: The Swedish Ice Hockey Association is opposed at the moment to any club from the country joining the KHL, and the organizers of the Crowns project made it painfully clear at a recent press conference that their ducks were far from in a row. Swedish KHL membership for 2016-17 was always unlikely, and this news simply makes it much more so. However, we shall see what transpires with regards to subsequent seasons — there is clearly some interest out there in a Swedish KHL team.
As already mentioned, the KHL was not the only Russian league with expansion tidings this past week, as it looks like the Women’s Hockey League may an eight-team affair next season. Reports suggest that a brand-new squad to be named “Dynamo” is being formed in the city of Kursk, about 500 km. south of Moscow (you can read more about it here and here). There has been no official confirmation of the new team from the WHL’s official site, but players are on the ice in Kursk, and the team’s organizers say that the financial backing for the team has been worked out. Things are very preliminary at the moment, but we will bring you more details as they apppear (many thanks to Denis Osipchuk for the heads-up on this story)
Russia’s main junior hockey league, the MHL, will also be welcoming at least one new club next season, and the confirmed addition is a famous name indeed. Krylya Sovetov Moscow, generally known to English speakers as “Soviet Wings,” have announced their intention to ice a team in the league next season, with a view to KHL membership in about 2019. Alexei Morozov, an alumnus of the Krylya Sovetov hockey school, will be in charge of the club.
Krylya Sovetov, the team representing the Soviet Union’s aeronautics industry in years gone by, were one of the giants of the game in the USSR, winning two championships and contributing a large number of players to the national team. However, the post-Soviet period has not been kind, as the team has spent most of it alternating between the top two tiers of Russian hockey before declining to join the KHL in 2008. In recent seasons, Krylya Sovetov had stopped playing professional and major junior hockey altogether, and existed only as a hockey school. However, there has always been interest in bringing them back, and this week’s news would seem to represent a first step on that road.
Still more expansion news! Things are up in the air for the second-tier professional men’s VHL league at the moment, with the impending creation of a the KHL’s designated farm league, the Hockey Premier League. The HPL will certainly draw off some of the VHL’s current KHL-affiliated teams, although much is still up in the air about all this. Indeed, there is now some talk that the VHL and HPL will be merged in some way, and that might indeed be the best solution.
In any case, two clubs have reportedly applied to join the VHL as independent teams for next season. One is Dynamo St. Petersburg, which has operated teams in the MHL and the Women’s Hockey League in recent seasons. The other is HK Chelny, from the Tatar city of Naberezhnye Chelny; Chelny have also had a junior team in recent seasons, splitting the last four campaigns between the MHL and MHL-B. Prior to that, they were a professional club in the Russian third tier. Neither application has been officially approved yet, obviously, so we wait to see what will happen with them.
Before we get to all the tidings of players switching teams, there was a bit of KHL coaching news this week. Longtime VHL coach Miskhat Fakhrutdinov will finally get his shot at the big league next season, when he will be in charge of Amur Khabarovsk. Fakhrutdinov, who coached Torpedo Ust-Kamenogorsk in 2015-16, takes over in Khabarovsk from Andrei Nikolishin, and will have the task of moving the Far Easterners at least closer to a second-ever KHL playoff berth, if not all the way there.
On to the KHL news regarding player movement, and, as the KHL’s free agent signing period opened on May 1st, this has been a big week for that sort of thing (we mentioned a couple of significant moves the other day). A number of significant names have changed teams, and in particular there has been a lot of movement of goalies. Here are some of the bigger transactions in the game of musical chairs involving the KHL’s masked men:
- Alexander Sudnitsin, who was so important to Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk last season (44 gp, .933 sv%) will be joining Lokomotiv Yaroslavl. To replace him, Neftekhimik traded for Salavat Yulaev’s third-string goalie, Rafael Khakimov, who went .935 in 22 games for Toros Neftekamsk of the VHL.
- The open goalie job in Yaroslavl existed because of the departure of long-time Lokomotiv backup Vitaly Kolesnik (26 gp, .919 sv% in 2015-16) to Barys Astana, where he will be joined by the incoming Henrik Karlsson, formerly of Jokerit Helsinki (45 gp, .924 sv% this past season).
- Journeyman netminder Mikhail Biryukov, backup for Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod this season (23 gp, .926 sv%) is moving over to Metallurg Novokuznetsk.
- To replace Biryukov, Torpedo are bringing in Ivan Kasutin from Lada Tolyatti (25 gp, .917 sv% in 2015-16).
- Lada, meanwhile, are replacing Kasutin with Ilya Yezhov, who posted a .926 sv% in 16 games for SKA St. Petersburg this past season. SKA clearly feel that youngster Igor Shestyorkin is ready for full-time backup duties behind Mikko Koskinen, and they may be right; Shestyorkin is one of the three goalies on Russia’s World Championship roster.
- Nikita Bespalov (20 gp, .918 sv% in 2015-16) is leaving Sibir Novosibirsk for Spartak Moscow, who have also acquired Swedish netminder Markus Svensson. Svensson won the Swedish Hockey League’s Goaltender of the Yard this past season with Skellefteå.
- Justin Pogge, a former hero of the Canadian junior program who never got established in North American pro hockey, has signed with Slovan Bratislava after playing last season for Färjestad of the Swedish league.
- Jeff Glass will not be returning to Dinamo Minsk, after posting a .910 sv% in 31 games for the Belarusan club in 2015-16.
- And the biggest goaltending name on the move is Jakub Kovář of Avtomobilist Yekaterinburg, who was cut loose by the Ural club this week. Kovář has been a huge part of the mini-renaissance at Avto these past couple of seasons, and he should find other work in the KHL quite easily if he wants it. A .914 sv% in 42 games in 2015-16 was not up to his usual standard, but he’s a very good goalie.
- Not every goaltender in the league is seeking out a new team. Ak Bars Kazan have re-signed Stanislav Galimov, who posted a splendid .948 sv% in 14 games after coming over mid-season from CSKA Moscow. Galimov will now stay in Kazan for the next two years.
- And Latvian ‘keeper Edgars Masaļskis, who stopped shots at a .925 rate over 38 games for Lada last season, has re-upped in Tolyatti for the 2016-17 campaign.
There were a few other goaltending moves this past week, but those will do for now.
On to some non-goaltender player movement from the past few days. Cam Barker, who led all KHL defencemen with 40 points in 55 games for Slovan this past season, is on his way back to Barys Astana for 2016-17. Barker, a former third-overall NHL draft pick, played for Barys in 2013-14 before moving to Slovan the next season.
Another former high NHL draft pick is on his way to the KHL. Forward Joey Hishon, picked 17th overall by Colorado in 2010, had his career derailed by concussions and never got established in the NHL. He has now signed a two-year deal with Jokerit after a good 2015-16 with San Antonio of the AHL. (62 gp, 14-29-43).
Veteran sniper Maxim Pestushko has left Dynamo Moscow in favour of Avangard Omsk. The 30-year-old Pestushko was a Dynamo player when the KHL was founded in 2008, although he subsequently spent a couple of seasons with Neftekhimik before returning. In 2015-16, Pestushko led Dynamo in goals with 15 in 59 games, and was third on the team in points with 30.
There was major shuffling this week at Sibir Novosibirsk. In addition to the departure of Bespalov, mentioned above, the club has cleaned out its foreign contingent by saying farewell to Sweden’s David Ullström and Calle Ridderwall along with Slovakia’s Andrej Meszároš and Tomáš Vincour of the Czech Republic. Big changes — Ullström, Vincour, and Ridderwall were 4th, 5th, and 6th on the team respectively in points last season.
However, Sibir have a well-earned reputation for finding extremely useful players (Mikko Koskinen and Patrik Hersley are but two recent examples), and they have already re-stocked the cupboard by bringing in Finnish forward Eero Elo from Avtomobilist and recruiting a former Vancouver Canucks prospect, Czech defenceman Adam Polášek, from Sparta Prague. History would suggest keeping a close eye on both those players in the coming season.
Dinamo Minsk also cleaned house this past week; in addition to the afore-mentioned goaltender Glass, forwards Jonathan Cheechoo and Ryan Vesce are on their way out. The two forwards were second and third on Dinamo in points in 2015-16, respectively, so it will be key for Dinamo to find suitable replacements.
Early days yet, of course, but Salavat Yulaev Ufa may have picked up one of the real prizes of this summer’s free agent pool. Forward Kirill Kaprizov tied for the club lead at Metallurg Novokuznetsk this season with 27 points in 53 games, and he only just turned 19 years old (he was also drafted in the fifth round of the 2015 NHL draft by the Minnesota Wild). However, it is the eternal fate of Metallurg Novokuznetsk to do an excellent job of producing young players, only to have financial exigency take them off to richer clubs, and so Kaprizov will be in Ufa for the next couple of seasons (Metallurg gets some much-needed cash out of the deal).
Fans of the Novokuznetsk team can at least take comfort in seeing their team make an interesting bargain acquisition to try to replace their departed starlet. Ukrainian forward Roman Blagoy is on his way from Saryarka Karaganda of the VHL, after leading that league with 25 goals — along with four (!) assists — in 2015-16. Blagoy does have previous KHL experience on his resume; he played for Donbass Donetsk in the 2013-14 season.
And one more interesting move from this week’s selection: Torpedo Nizhny Novogorod have brought in American defenceman Sam Lofqvist from SaiPa of the Finnish Liiga. Lofqvist scored 10-17-27 in 58 games for SaiPa last season, and those are impressive enough numbers for a blueliner, so it will be very interesting to see how he gets along in his first season of KHL action (thanks to Patricia Teter for the heads-up on Lofqvist).
And that should do for this week! There were, of course, any number of other player moves made, and there will be more in the coming days, but for the sake of everyone’s sanity we’ll cover only the more interesting ones here. Once the free agent season has gone along for awhile, we’ll start to look at the full list of moves on a team-by-team basis. However, for the next little while there will be quite a lot of World Championship talk around here, starting with a look at the Russian roster on Thursday. Thank you for reading!