Kunlun Red Star Beijing in 2016-17
The KHL’s first-ever Chinese team gets set to begin play this season, and will have the tasks of popularizing the sport in China, improving the country’s national hockey program in advance of Beijing hosting the 2022 Winter Olympics, and expanding the KHL footprint into new territory. Read on, as we take a wander through Kunlun Red Star’s first-ever roster, and see what can be seen.
As the team is newly-founded, we’ll deviate somewhat from the usual format for these previews. I’ve divided the roster, via Elite Prospects, into the various positions, and we will look at each of those individually.
*=Player on try-out.
Coach: Vladimir Yurzinov, Jr. (Salavat Yulaev Ufa)
A perfectly acceptable choice, who has held head-coaching jobs in both Finland and Russia (this will be helpful, as players from those countries make up a large proportion of the roster). Given all the things that need to be looked after on a new team, an experienced coach was a must, and Kunlun Red Star have found one.
Goalies: Tomi Karhunen (Tappara [FIN]); Andrei Makarov (Rochester Americans [AHL]); Xia Shengrong* (Harbin [CHN])
This is… quite decent, actually. Karhunen was fifth overall in save percentage last season in the Finland, at .924 in 44 games, then turned it up a notch in the playoffs and posted a league-best .936 in 16 games as Tappara won the title. Makarov did fine in the AHL, with a .916 sv% in 22 games; that would have had him about 15th in the league had he played enough minutes to qualify. Karhunen starting and Makarov backing him up may not be the best combo in the KHL, but they should do just fine.
As for Xia, he’s only 21, but has already been playing for the Chinese national team for some years at various levels and age-groups. His numbers internationally are not good, but given small tournament sample sizes (and lack of context), we shouldn’t be too alarmed about them either. Xia is likely to be the Chinese team’s goalie when 2022 rolls around, so for now his job is to learn the ropes of high-level hockey.
Defencemen: Brett Bellemore (Providence Bruins [AHL]); Guan Tianyi* (Harbin [CHN]); Han Yuhang* (Harbin [CHN]); Janne Jalasvaara (HK Sochi); Dmitry Kostromitin* (Vityaz Moscow Oblast); Tuukka Mäntylä (Tappara [FIN]); Alexander Mikulovich (Niagara IceDogs [OHL]); Anssi Salmela (Brynäs IF [SWE]); Tobias Viklund (Lada Tolyatti); Wen Chao* (Harbin [CHN]); Zach Yuen (Idaho Steelheads [ECHL]); Zhang Tianyi* (Harbin [CHN]); Vitaly Zotov (Buran Voronezh [VHL])
There are things to like about Kunlun Red Star’s defence, too. The experienced Finns — Jalasvaara, Mäntylä, and Salmela, added to Viklund, provide a veteran core all of whom have KHL experience. A worry may be the effects of age and a long season, but still, this is ok). Bellemore has 121 NHL games under his belt, and seems to be of the large (6’4″, 225 lbs), stay-at-home, tribe of defencemen. Yuen, at 23, represents the young group, and has shown playmaking ability in both junior and minor pro (he was also a fourth-round pick of the Jets in the 2011 NHL draft). Mikulovich, meanwhile, made the Russian team for the World Juniors last season, which is a good sign.
We will talk more about the Chinese skaters in a moment, but like the goaltending, this appears to be an entirely acceptable, good-but-not-great, blueline corps.
Forwards: Martin Bakoš (Bílí Tygři Liberec [CZE]); Bao Jiachang* (Harbin [CHN]); Sean Collins (Hershey Bears [AHL]); Damien Fleury (Schwenninger Wild Wings [GER]); Guan Wang* (??); He Yin* (No Team); Ji Peng* (Harbin [CHN]); Miika Lahti (JYP [FIN]); Tomáš Marcinko (Dynamo Pardubice [CZE]); Alexandre Picard (HC Davos [SUI]); Eetu Pöysti (Jokerit Helsinki); Chad Rau (SaiPa [FIN]); Igor Velichkin (Avtomobilist Yekaterinburg); Xia Tianxiang* (Harbin [CHN]); Xiang Xudong* (Harbin [CHN]); Oleg Yashin (Ugra Khanty-Mansiysk); Rudi Ying* (Toronto Patriots [OJHL]); Zhang Hao* (Harbin [CHN]); Zhu Ziyang* (Harbin [CHN])
We do have to wonder who will score the goals for Kunlun Red Star. This is a group of forwards full of guys (Bakoš, Collins, Fleury, and others) who have provided solid complementary scoring or even a bit better in their various leagues, and who would not look out of place on the third and fourth lines of many KHL teams. However, some of them at least are going to be asked to take on first- and second-line duties, and that may be a bridge too far. The best bet here may be Rau; the American forward led the Finnish league in goals during the 2015-16 regular season, with 28 in 60 games, and early exhibition games have seen him alongside Lahti and Pöysti on Kunlun Red Star’s first line. We shall see, but there does seem to be a lack of firepower here unless further acquisitions are planned.
Given the club’s mandate for developing hockey in China, there will be a lot of attention paid to the progress of players from that country. Kunlun Red Star have brought in a very young group of Chinese players on try-outs –only forward Zhang Hao is older than 25, and he’s 27 — so there is definitely an eye here on players who will be at or near the peak of their careers in 2022 (Rudi Ying is the youngest of the group, at only 17). All of them are coming from leagues far below the calibre of the KHL, so the learning curve will be very steep, but that is unavoidable at this stage of the project (the club is working on both a farm-team and a junior squad for the near future).
General Manager Vladimir Krechin recently announced plans to enter the season with “five or six” Chinese players on the squad, and mentioned that goalie Xia, defenceman Yuen, and forwards Ying and Guan Wang would be staying for sure. I confess to some uncertainty about the last of those; I think that Guan Wang is this player, who graduated from the world-famous Shattuck St. Mary’s hockey program in Minnesota but seems to have dropped out of sight recently. Anyone with different info, please do let me know in the comments.
So that is four spots taken of the five or six mentioned by Krechin. As for the others, I am somewhat lacking in information on the players from Harbin, but Xia Tianxiang, to name but one, has scored well for China in the lower divisions of international hockey, and could be a candidate. Hard to say at the moment, and one of the things I look forward to this season is learning more about these players.
Looking at the roster as a whole, I don’t think we can pencil in Kunlun Red Star as a playoff team, especially since the KHL’s East Conference figures to be highly competitive this season. The Beijing club, while decently-equipped in goal and on defence, will likely struggle to score. They will win games here and there, but there also will be some long nights for fans in the Chinese capital. However, all of that matters little at least for this season; the important thing, for both the KHL and Chinese ice hockey, is that Kunlun Red Star Beijing are here.
Next up: Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk.