Traktor Chelyabinsk in 2016-17
Since losing to Dynamo Moscow in the 2013 Gagarin Cup Finals, Traktor have only a single first round playoff exit, in 2015, to show for three seasons of work. They were close in 2015-16, missing out on the playoffs by only three points, so read on to see what the club that gave the world Sergei Makarov has done to bridge that narrow gap.
Traktor Chelyabinsk in 2015-16: 17 W — 12 OT/SO W — 8 OT/SO L — 23 L
5th in Kharlamov Div., 10th in East Conf., 19th in KHL. Missed Playoffs.
Head Coach: Anvar Gatiyatulin.
In: D Nikolai Glukhov (Avangard Omsk Oblast); D Kirill Koltsov (Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod); D Andrei Pervyshin (Avangard Omsk Oblast); F Alexander Chernikov (Avangard Omsk Oblast); F Denis Khlystov (Salavat Yulaev Ufa); F Igor Mirnov (Ak Bars Kazan); F Jiří Novotný (Lokomotiv Yaroslavl); F Yuri Petrov (Avangard Omsk Oblast); F Michal Řepík (Bílí Tygři Liberec [CZE]); F Paul Szczechura (Dinamo Minsk)
Out: D Nikita Khlystov (Ugra Khanty-Mansiysk); D Yegor Martynov (Avangard Omsk Oblast); D Yevgeny Nazarkin (Avangard Omsk Oblast); D Filip Novák (Unknown); D Deron Quint (Red Bull München [GER]); F Anton Glinkin (Ak Bars Kazan); F Semyon Kokuyov (Dynamo Moscow); F Mikhail Mokin (Sputnik Nizhny Tagil [VHL]); F Vyacheslav Osnovin (CSKA Moscow); F Andrei Popov (Ak Bars Kazan); F Martin Růžička (Oceláři Trinec [CZE]); F Alexander Rybakov (Dynamo Moscow);
Normally, when a team loses its top three scorers of the previous season, it is cause for worry, but that is less so in Traktor’s case. None of Rybakov (55 gp, 9-18-27), Popov (55 gp, 13-12-25), and Kokuyov (60 gp 10-13-23) particularly lit up the scoreboard; in fact, Traktor in 2015-16 lacked anybody over half a point per game, and Popov’s 13 goals led the team. The new arrivals should be able to cover for those exits, but the question is how much they can improve matters. The acquisitions are a veteran crew, with Szczechura (45 gp, 13-15-28 last season) probably the most dangerous. Mirnov, too, has done some scoring in his past, but is coming off a down year at Ak Bars (37 gp, 7-7-14). Finally, Řepík was a top-20 point-scorer and top-12 goal-man in the Czech league (40 gp, 18-17-35), although how much of that will accompany him to the KHL remains to be seen. Of the returning forwards, steady veteran Maxim Yakutsenya (54 gp, 8-15-23) and under-rated Alexei Kruchinin (50 gp, 9-10-19 and a team-leading +7) are the main figures to keep in mind.
One new scoring option is to be found, ironically, on defense, in the person of Koltsov. He was the KHL’s top-scoring rearguard in 2013-14 and 2014-15, during which he posted a combined 30-63-93 in 128 games — a decent scoring rate for a forward, let alone a defenceman. Even in 2015-16, a poor year by his standards (39 gp, 2-20-22 for two teams), Koltsov had more assists per game than any Traktor player had points/gm. He is now 33, so a return to his previous form is not guaranteed, but even so his playmaking should help the forwards boost their numbers. And look out if he does fully find the range again, as he returns to the club where he played his youth hockey.
As for the rest of the blueliners, Novák and Martynov provided good service and will be missed (Quint, too, although at 40 years old his KHL time is up). The newly-arrived Pervyshin will provide some depth and experience, while Glukhov had nice numbers in junior hockey but has yet to figure out life in the big league. Alexei Petrov (56 gp, 5-7-12) is the best of the returnees, but keep an eye on hulking 19-year-old prospect Nikita Zhuldikov, who scored five points and went +2 in 38 games of limited ice-time last season.
In goal, Traktor will bring back the duo that provided league-average netminding last season: Pavel Francouz (.924 sv% in 18 games) and Vasily Demchenko (.922 in 48). However, improvement is likely; Francouz came in last summer as the best goalie in the Czech League, only to have injury ruin his first KHL campaign. A full season from him would help immensely. Demchenko, meanwhile, is only 22, with much development yet to come.
Things figure to be tight in the East Conference in 2016-17, so it might be hasty to hand over a playoff spot to Traktor just yet. However, this should be a better team, if only somewhat, than last year’s edition that missed out so narrowly. A post-season berth is there, if the team from Siberia’s western edge can but seize it.
Next up: a Dinamo, either Minsk or Riga.