Weekly Russian Hockey News Notes: May 24th, 2016
Time to get caught up on some of the non-World Championship news of the past seven days or so! The KHL’s draft was held on Monday, as we have already mentioned here, and on Tuesday the league turned its attention to the pleasant business of handed out the season-ending awards. There was business of a more serious nature too, however; read on for developments that may change the look of a couple of different Russian leagues, as well as for our usual peek at the off-season player movement scene.
On Tuesday the KHL officially closed its 2015-16 season with the annual Awards Ceremony, also known as “Sergei Mozyakin Night” — or at least it could well be so called! The Metallurg Magnitogorsk superstar had already clinched the league’s goal- and point-scoring titles, along with the playoff MVP award. To that haul he added the Golden Stick award as the regular season’s Most Valuable Player, beating out fellow-nominees Alexander Radulov of CSKA Moscow and Linus Omark of Salavat Yulaev Ufa. And Mozyakin also took home the “Gentleman on Ice” award for forwards, as befits a guy who has exactly one minor penalty in KHL action since January of 2015 (Staffan Kronwall of Lokomotiv Yaroslavl won the defenceman’s version of that prize). Some of the other trophies handed out included:
The Alexei Cherepanov Award for best KHL rookie went to 21-year-old defenceman Artyom Alyayev of Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod, who scored 11-16-27 in 59 games (regular season plus playoffs) in 2015-16.
- Ilya Sorokin of CSKA Moscow received the league’s Top Goalie trophy. Sorokin, still only 20 years old, posted a .953 sv% in 28 regular season games and a .945 in 20 playoff encounters.
- CKSA’s Dmitry Kvartalnov was named Coach of the Year, after guiding his team to a second straight regular season championship and to within a game of the Gagarin Cup.
- The “Golden Helmet” Awards — the KHL’s season-ending all-star team — went to Sorokin (goalie) and CSKA’s Nikita Zaitsev and Metallurg Magnitogorsk’s Chris Lee (defencemen). The three forwards selected were Mozyakin, Radulov, and Magnitogorsk’s Jan Kovář.
That’s just a selection of the prizes handed out at today’s ceremony; you can read a full write-up on it here.
Away from the awards podium, the issue of KHL expansion was thrown into some chaos this week. For the past few months, it has appeared virtually certain that the 2016-17 KHL would include a team from China, namely Red Star Kunlun Beijing. There had been no significant hitches apparent in the application process, and the letter of intent was signed in March. However, in the past few days there have emerged rumours that all is not well with Red Star Kunlun, and that the team’s arena may lie at the heart of the trouble. The team was intending to play at the 18,000-seat LeSports Center in Beijing, but that is now in some doubt (whether the concerns are related to availability or suitability is unclear). At any rate, the KHL has deferred the final decision on Red Star Kunlun to July, which will bring us perilously to the beginning of the regular season.
However, even if Red Star Kunlun cannot get going for next season (and that remains an “if”), there may well still be Chinese representation in the league. This past week also brought us news that three Chinese teams may be in the process of applying. One is obviously Red Star Kunlun, and it appears that the other two are based in Shanghai and Qiqihar respectively. The latter is an intriguing possibility; Qiqihar, population 1.5 million, lies in China’s north-east, about 850 kilometres from Khabarovsk and less than that from Vladivostok (not far by the standards of KHL travel, in other words). The city does have a hockey arena, although I was not able to find out much information about its capacity, etc.
Update: KHL Chairman Gennady Timchenko now says that a decision on a Chinese team will be made in the next couple of weeks, with one team likely to be accepted to the KHL and another to the MHL. Timchenko also hinted broadly that the KHL team will probably be, after all, Red Star Kunlun.
In conjunction with the end-of-season awards was a meeting of the KHL’s 28 teams, and a number of interesting items came out of it. Some highlights:
- The KHL announced a profit, for the second consecutive year. Increased television and sponsorship revenues drove this bit of good news.
- League President Dmitry Chernyshenko says that the KHL will not expand beyond 30 teams, a radical departure from the policy of his predecessor, Alexander Medvedev, who sometimes talked of up to 60 clubs.
- Chernyshenko also noted that the league has received inquiries about application from interested groups in China, Sweden, Germany, Estonia, and the United Kingdom. With 28 teams already, and a number of prospective new ones, the above-mentioned limit of 30 is already under some pressure, which brings us to the next item…
- Per Chernyshenko, teams that have wage arrears to players will not be allowed to enroll for next season. Furthermore, said the KHL President, there are eight teams currently under threat from that.
Chernyshenko did not name the clubs in trouble, although a couple are fairly easy to guess. There have been rumblings, once again, about Slovan Bratislava’s participation next season, although that situation may have been rectified. More serious are the problems at Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod, which may be on the verge of losing Head Coach Pēteris Skudra due to the financial dire straits. As for the others, there are a number of “usual suspects” when talk of money troubles comes up — HK Sochi, Metallurg Novokuznetsk, and others — but we have no specific information at the moment. Definitely something to keep an eye on, though.
There were big developments involving the VHL, Russia’s second-highest pro league, as well. As has been noted here a few times, the KHL has been looking to create a farm-team league for next season, which would presumably draw a large number of teams away from the VHL’s ranks. Plans have changed, however, and it now appears that the two leagues will merge into a new competition to be run by the Russian Hockey Federation. Details, including exactly which teams will participate and how it will all work, are still somewhat scarce, but this does seem to be the best possible scenario. KHL teams will get their dedicated farm clubs, and the independent teams of the VHL will not see their competition reduced drastically in number. In fact, for the casual observer, there may not be a great deal of difference between the new set-up and the old VHL. We shall see.
One team that will not be taking part in the new league, sadly, is Ariada Volzhsk. The club from the Mari-El Republic, just upstream on the Volga from Kazan, nearly folded in mid-season due to the financial issues which have now forced it to miss the 2016-17 season. We can but hope that we will see Ariada again in future competition.
And, staying with the theme of restructuring leagues, there is something going on involving the Night Hockey League (Russia’s largest amateur circuit, including about 700 teams). The Night Hockey League was bought up a couple of months ago by the owners of the Novorossiysk Commercial Sea Port, on the Black Sea coast, and this has now led to the departures of a number of people in the league’s leadership (including Vyacheslav Fetisov and Sergei Makarov). Those who left are reportedly planning a new Russian Amateur Hockey League — as the linked article points out, there is ample room for another national organization, as the Night Hockey League only includes about ten percent of the nation’s amateur clubs. We will see what happens with this one.
A couple of players who showed well for Russia at the just-concluded World Championship may have new playing addresses when the 2016-17 season begins. We have already discussed the situation of Pavel Datsyuk here on a number of occasions; to recap, the Detroit Red Wings star has suggested that he may retire from the NHL, and sign in the KHL as Ilya Kovalchuk did a few seasons ago. Datsyuk also said that he would make a decision after the World Championship, which of course is where we are now. Reports suggest that SKA St. Petersburg are the front-runner for his signature, but nothing official has appeared yet, and all possibilities, including a return to the NHL, remain open.
The other big name possibly on the move is a current SKA player, namely Vadim Shipachyov, who absolutely dominated the scoring race at the Worlds to the tune of six goals and 12 assists in ten games. NHL clubs are understandably intrigued, especially given the recent success in that league of Artemy Panarin, Shipachyov’s former line-mate with Yevgeny Dadonov at SKA (the trio was re-united on Team Russia at the Worlds). The Montreal Canadiens have been widely rumoured to be in fierce pursuit of Shipachyov, along with any number of other teams. However, there may be a fly in the ointment: SKA do not, quite understandably, want to lose arguably their top forward, and Shipachyov’s contract may mean that he spends 2016-17 in St. Petersburg after all.
Some sad news this past week: former Severstal Cherepovets and CSKA Moscow goalie Rastislav Staňa has been forced to retire due to a heart condition. The 36-year-old Slovak spent almost six full seasons in the KHL, and with CSKA between 2011 and 2013 he could make a real claim to be one of the very best goalies in the league. He also represented Slovakia internationally on many occasions, including as part of the 2002 World Championship gold medal team. Staňa did not play in 2015-16 due to his health problems — his last action came the previous season with Sparta Prague.
A small selection of some of the other player moves from this week:
One member of Finland’s silver medal World Championship team is on his way to the KHL; forward Tomi Sallinen has signed with Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk. Sallinen scored 8-24-32 in 46 games last season with Djurgårdens IF of the Swedish league. It was a busy week for Neftekhimik, as they also signed Admiral Vladivostok’s Alshevsky brothers, forwards Stanislav and Yaroslav, to two-year deals.
Czech forward Martin Erat, a veteran of nearly 1000 NHL games mostly with the Nashville Predators, is leaving Avangard Omsk for Kometa Brno of Czech Extraliga. Erat, 34, had a line of 50 gp, 6-26-32 in his lone season in Omsk. Also departing Avangard is Erat’s fellow-countryman, defenceman Michal Kempný, who has signed with the Chicago Blackhawks.
The big player-transfer news of the week, however, involved a re-signing, as Dynamo Moscow have retained the services of blueliner Ilya Nikulin for the next two years. Nikulin, now 34 years old, was in his day one of the best defencemen in Russia. He turned pro with Dynamo in the late 1990s, then spent ten seasons between 2005 and 2015 as a mainstay of both Ak Bars Kazan and the Russian national team. There was even some talk last summer that he might at last try the NHL, but the opening of the 2015-16 season found him without a team at all. In due course, he agreed to terms in his old stomping grounds at Dynamo, where he scored 6-11-17 in 41 games (regular season plus playoffs). As mentioned, Nikulin was an extremely fine player not so very long ago, and he still no doubt has plenty to contribute.
Another well-known name will also be staying with his current team in 2016-17: Belarusan forward Andrei Kostitsyn has signed a one-year extension with HK Sochi. Kostitsyn had an excellent run on the Black Sea Coast in 2015-16, scoring 20 goals and adding 19 assists in 45 games after an early-season transfer from Torpedo. Sochi have also re-signed another key part of their attack last season, as forward Ben Maxwell (55 gp, 14-18-32) will be back for another go.
And that will do for this week’s news notes, I think! We’ll be back next week with another edition, and there will be things here in the meantime, so please do check back. Thank you for reading!