SKA St. Petersburg in 2016-17
SKA’s defence of their 2014-15 Gagarin Cup title was, bluntly, disastrous. The hiring of Andrei Nazarov as head coach backfired spectacularly, and though matters improved somewhat after his dismissal, the team never threatened the top spots in the Conference. And while SKA did make the final four in the end, the playoffs also brought an ugly mess involving Ilya Kovalchuk. We can hope that non-SKA fans enjoyed the giants’ discomfiture while they had the chance, because… well, read on.
SKA St. Petersburg in 2015-16: 27 W — 6 OT/SO W — 7 OT/SO L — 20 L
5th in Tarasov Div., 6th in West Conf., 10th in KHL. Lost in Conf. Finals.
Head Coach: Oleg Znarok
In: G Yevgeny Ivannikov (Spartak Moscow); F Pavel Datsyuk (Detroit Red Wings [NHL]); F Alexander Khokhlachev (Providence Bruins [AHL]); F Sergei Plotnikov (Arizona Coyotes [NHL]); F Nikolai Prokhorkin (Salavat Yulaev Ufa); F Viktor Tikhonov (Arizona Coyotes [NHL])
Out: G Ilya Yezhov (Lada Tolyatti); D Dmitry Kalinin (Spartak Moscow); D Andrei Kuteikin (Avangard Omsk Oblast); F Pavel Buchnevich (New York Rangers [NHL]); F Jonas Enlund (CSKA Moscow); F Alexander Kadeykin (Lokomotiv Yaroslavl); F Joakim Lindström (Skellefteå AIK [SWE]); F Alexei Ponikarovsky (Unknown); F Vladimir Tkachyov (Avangard Omsk Oblast)
My goodness, that forward group; SKA have depth forwards who would be first-liners on many KHL teams. Datsyuk, of course, is the most noteworthy arrival, as even at 38 and with recent injuries, he remains one of the most skilled passers of the puck anywhere. Plotnikov had a poor time in North America (45 gp, 0-3-3 for the Penguins and Coyotes), but was not employed to his strengths; he’s an excellent two-way forward. Khokhlachev is an exciting up-and-comer (60 gp, 23-45-68 for Providence in 2015-16), while Prokhorkin and even the much-maligned Tikhonov have shown they can score in the KHL. As for the departures, the big one is 21-year-old Buchnevich, about whom Rangers fans are with good reason quite excited. However, his SKA scoring numbers last season (18 gp, 4-4-8 after being acquired from Severstal) are certainly replaceable.
And the new arrivals will join a group that managed the third-most goals in the KHL last season (174) despite the problems and despite losing Artemy Panarin et al. last summer. Vadim Shipachyov (54 gp, 17-43-60) and young Nikita Gusev (33 gp, 13-22-35 after arriving from Ugra) were point-per-game players, and Kovalchuk (50 gp, 16-33-49) was as close as makes no difference. Oh yes — SKA still has Kovalchuk, despite whatever happened in the playoffs. When his body and psyche allow it, he is still a wonderful hockey player. Then there’s Yevgeny Dadonov (59 gp, 23-23-46), who led the team in goals, and KHL-record-breaking sniper Steve Moses, who scored 10-6-16 in 21 games after returning to the league from the AHL last season — as a further reminder, some of these players will have Pavel Datsyuk passing them the puck. The only fly in the ointment is the real possibility that Shipachyov will depart mid-season for the NHL, but then again depth is not a problem here.
We might raise an eyebrow at SKA’s defense, which was not reinforced this summer despite the departure of arguably the team’s best rearguard in Kuteikin (29 gp, 6-6-12 with injuries a factor). Maxim Chudinov led the defencemen in points at 56 gp, 8-10-18, which is on the light side when we consider the firepower that was available to receive passes up front. However, we should not get carried away; there is plenty to like on the SKA defence, including the grossly under-rated Anton Belov, promising youngster Dmitry Yudin (see Cirno Avery’s article, linked just above, for more on him), and several others who should fill in just fine. This is not a mighty defensive corps, but it’s far from poor, besides which new coach Znarok has reputation for defensive astuteness dating from his time at Dynamo Moscow.
As for the goaltending, there is little to worry about unless injuries get involved. Mikko Koskinen is a fine goalie who had a bumpy regular season (.915 sv% in 41 games), but he recovered to post a .949 and five shutouts in 24 playoff games. The backup job, in which Yezhov posted a .926 sv% in 16 games last season, will be fought over by Ivannikov and young Igor Shestyorkin. The former had a poor season at Spartak (28 gp, .895 sv%), but has had excellent KHL campaigns in the past and is only 26. Shestyorkin, meanwhile, is a budding star who led the VHL with a .954 sv% in 25 games for SKA’s farm team. The 20-year-old New York Rangers draftee has had a couple of KHL cups of coffee, and should get more this season.
There will be much attentionon newly-hired coach Znarok, who is far from universally beloved among fans, journalists, and even his own players on occasion. The big question: can he balance coaching both SKA and the Russian national team, the latter of which will take him (and Dadonov and Shipachyov) away for awhile in September for the World Cup of Hockey? However, whatever the doubts, his resume alone (two Gagarin Cups with Dynamo and a World Championship with Russia are the highlights) tells us that this is not going to end as did the Nazarov era.
In short, this team will score a whole lot of goals, and while defensively SKA are not as strong, they are easily good enough to be the Gagarin Cup favourites as the season opens. Much can happen, of course, particularly in the playoffs, but a repeat of last season’s debacle is almost prohibitively unlikely.
Next up: Salavat Yulaev Ufa.