Persons of Interest, 2016-17 Edition.
“Omark ruins the moment? No, Omark creates a supergoal!” Linus Omark, by the way, is #67 in green, in case you were in any doubt.
Last August, on a bit of whim, I picked six players to follow particularly closely through the 2015-16 KHL season. And what a group they turned out to be! We had Triumph (Ziyat Paigin, Sergei Mozyakin), Tragedy (Olli Palola), and just about everything in between. And so the exercise will be repeated; read on, for the 2016-17 list!
Before we start, a quick word on the philosophy of this little project, and I will quote directly from what I wrote a year ago:
“A couple of notes about what this is not: it’s not a list of newcomers to the league or to their respective teams, although there are indeed some of those present. Nor is it a list of those whom I consider the best players at each position. It is merely six guys whom I think will have interesting stories to tell… And just for fun, I selected one “unit’s” worth of players: a goalie, two defensemen, and three forwards, although I didn’t sweat the exact forward positions.
I would add that I decided NOT to pick any of the guys I followed last year, interesting though they are. A completely fresh list, then, and here it is!
G Igor Shestyorkin (SKA St. Petersburg): Young Mr. Shestyorkin (he’ll turn 21 in December) first came to attention during Spartak’s dismal 2013-14 season, when, with the club completely bankrupt, he was hauled up from the junior ranks at far too young an age and dropped in at the KHL deep end. Given the circumstances, he did brilliantly — posting a .903 sv% in nine games. Then he went back to junior and netminded MHK Spartak to the Kharlamov Cup, giving the team’s beleaguered fans something to cheer about.
Shestyorkin moved to SKA that summer, and since then has been working his through the system towards eventual big league employment. And at the lower levels, he has been superb: a .934 sv% in 84 games in junior, and an even better .951 in 33 matches in the 2nd-tier pro VHL (led that league in save percentage in 2015-16: 25 gp, .954). His KHL numbers over the last three seasons currently amount to .910 in 22 games, which is not white hot, but this is undoubtedly a young man on the rise.
The New York Rangers selected Shestyorkin in the 4th round of the 2014 draft, after his heroics for Spartak, and will be eagerly watching his progress. As for his 2016-17 possibilities: Mikko Koskinen is not going to give up the SKA starting job cheaply, so for now the youngster is likely to see some more VHL time, with the odd cameo in the KHL. However, CSKA’s Ilya Sorokin was in a similar situation to start last season, and ended up nearly winning the playoff MVP award, so one never knows… So far this season, there’s been no action yet for Shestyorkin, although he’s been Koskinen’s backup in both of SKA’s games so far.
D Kirill Koltsov (Traktor Chelyabinsk): The big question with Koltsov — can he get lucky again? In 2013-14, his shooting percentage, which usually ranged between 3.5% and about 8%, suddenly shot up to 10.4%, and the next season he buried pucks at the rate of 14.3% Salavat Yulaev were the beneficiaries, as Koltsov led KHL rearguards in points both seasons and put up a combined regular-season line of 108 gp, 29-54-83; there is many a forward who would take those numbers into his next contract negotiation with great satisfaction!
Then it all went away. Koltsov’s shooting percentage dropped to a career-low 2.9%, and he found himself on his way out of Ufa (he finished the season with Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod). His total line of 39 gp, 2-20-22 was far from bad for a scoring defenceman, but low by the standards he had set. And so Koltsov, now 33 years old, finds himself back in his hometown of Chelyabinsk, where much like the defenceman himself, the local team is trying to recapture the glories of past seasons. Traktor were regular-season champions in 2011-12 and made the Gagarin Cup Finals in 2012-13, but since then, they have missed the playoffs twice (including in 2015-16) and been eliminated in the first round once. The road back is a long one, with Koltsov’s contributions a vital factor.
And we do the man something of dis-service by focusing on his shooting percentage. Koltsov has been a splendid assist man his entire career, with 212 in 465 KHL games. He’s an old-school (or is that new-school?) playmaking rearguard, who operates almost as a fourth forward fairly often. And the (very) early returns are good; two games into his Traktor career, Koltsov already has a goal, and it came in overtime to earn his team an opening-day win over mighty SKA:
D Adam Polášek (Sibir Novosibirsk Oblast): Sibir’s acquisition of Swedish defenceman Patrik Hersley in the summer of 2014 must go down as one of the best buys in KHL history. Hersley, who came in having broken the Swedish league’s record for single season goals by a defenceman (he had 24), scored 16-17-33 in 56 games for Sibir, then added nine points in 12 games as the team made the Conference Finals and eliminated defending champs Metallurg Magnitogorsk along the way. Hersley then left for Lokomotiv Yaroslavl, where he didn’t do nearly as well, and now Polášek arrives as — just maybe — his heir apparent in Novosibirsk.
The 25-year-old Czech does not have Hersley’s pre-KHL resume — no record-breaking seasons here. However, his career has generally featured some nice scoring seasons, starting with the 128 gp, 20-60-80 he put up over two campaigns with the Prince Edward Island Rocket of the QMJHL. Three unremarkable seasons in North America’s minor leagues followed and Polášek then departed back to the Czech Republic, where in his best season, 2014-15, he scored 10-26-36 in 52 games for Sparta Prague. Good numbers, though not the sort that one writes home about.
But during their recent ascent to the top echelons of the KHL’s East Conference, Sibir have shown a knack for picking up good players whom other teams have overlooked — a handy ability for a team that has found itself short of money on more than one occasion. Early returns — and they are of course very early — suggest that the Novosibirsk team has done it again, which accounts for his presence on this list. Polášek is just two games into his KHL career, but already has four assists, and has shown himself a dab hand with a stretch pass.
F Anatoly Golyshev (Avtomobilist Yekaterinburg): Is Anatoly Golyshev the next Big Thing? Well, we don’t know of course, but it should be fun finding out. In 2015-16, the season in which he turned 21 years old, the young man from Perm fired home 25 goals, ranking him fourth in the KHL in that category and putting him ahead of such luminaries as Alexander Radulov (Rads had 23). That output, as one might expect, attracted some attention from overseas, and Golyshev was picked by the New York Islanders in the 2016 NHL draft despite standing only 5’9″ and weighing 172 lbs. The future appears very bright.
However, there is a cautionary tale in all of this, and its protagonist is Fyodor Malykhin. Just a couple of seasons ago in 2013-14, when he was not much older than Golyshev is now, Malykhin appeared to be the next Big Thing, scoring 22-22-44 for Avtomobilist. Mighty Ak Bars Kazan came in for him… and in the two seasons since, Malykhin has scored just 15-16-31 in 78 games. While there is no suggestion that Golyshev will necessarily go down the same path (Malykhin’s drop-off may say more about Ak Bars’ use of young players than about Malykhin himself), it is something to bear in mind.
Avtomobilist, meanwhile, are a team looking to take the next step forward. After a brush with bankruptcy and a dismal 2012-13 season in which they won only eight games, the boys from Yekaterinburg have made the playoffs three straight years, although without advancing past the first round in any of them. Golyshev’s goals will be key to any hopes of a final-eight appearance, and the longer Avtomobilist can keep him from leaving the team — either for elsewhere in the KHL or for North America — the happier they will be. In the meantime, the young man himself has had a modest start to the season, with one assist through two games.
F Linus Omark (Salavat Yulaev Ufa): I apologize in advance to my fellow Oilers fans for re-opening old wounds. When Linus Omark arrived in the Alberta capital in 2010, the young Swede was coming off a season in which he had scored 20-16-36 in 56 games for Dynamo Moscow and earned a reputation for having buckets of the flashier sort of skill. In Edmonton, the slogan was H.O.P.E.; Hall, Omark, Pääjärvi, and Eberle would lead the struggling Oilers back to the promised land. When Omark recorded a reasonable 51 gp, 5-22-27 for the Oilers and a very good 28 gp, 14-17-31 for the AHL’s Oklahoma City Barons, it appeared that he would play a big part in the NHL, and soon.
Of course, it all ended in tears. While Omark remained a potent AHL scorer (he scored 75 points in 75 games for Oklahoma City), his relationship with the Oilers deteriorated, and after 2010-11 he would play only 28 more NHL games (3-2-5 was his combined line in those). By the end of the 2013-14 season Omark had returned to Europe.
2014-15 found him back in the KHL with Jokerit, and here the Linus Omark rennaisance began. An excellent season for the Finnish team (60 gp, 16-31-47) was followed by a move to Salavat Yulaev, where he was even better. Re-united with Teemu Hartikainen, his erstwhile linemate in Oklahoma City, Omark scored 18-39-57 in 60 games in 2015-16, placing fifth in the KHL in points and fourth in assists. He also, quite famously, set his stick on fire during the KHL All-Star game’s shootout competition, and made plays like the one in the video at the top of this post.
So he is a splendid KHL player, and a genuine joy to watch as he hurls his 5’10”, 180 lb. frame about the opposing zone (in terms of weight, he’s the behemoth of our three forwards). There’s another reason to pull for him too: in 2015 he spoke candidly to a Swedish newspaper about the mental health difficulties that have plagued him during his career, and the steps taken to put them behind him. And he’s off to a good start in 2016-17; Salavat Yulaev have scored four goals in two games, and Omark has two assists.
F Sakari Salminen (Jokerit Helsinki): In this golden age of Finnish hockey, it would be a shame not to include one of that country’s sons on this list. After some thought, I’ve settled on Salminen, the 28-year-old from Pori who has been a player of interest to me since he arrived at Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod in 2013 following several good seasons in Finland’s SM-Liiga. Over the next two campaigns, Salminen rewarded the Nizhny Novgorod faithful to the tune of 128 gp, 39-63-102, and I felt sure he had cemented his place as a long-term KHL star.
Then something odd happened: Salminen failed somehow to find KHL employment in 2015-16 and went to the Swiss league, where his scoring numbers (43 gp, 10-15-25) actually dropped off (he finished the season with a similarly “meh” 12 gp, 4-2-6 in Sweden). For the first time since 2010-11, he received no summons from the selectors of the Finnish national team.
But now it is 2016-17, and Salminen is once again a KHL player, this time with a Jokerit team that has a decent chance of a playoff run. Salminen is 5’11’, 160 lbs., which is very slight for a professional hockey player, although he is the tallest of the three forwards on our list this season — skill and a certain tenacity are the watchwords for him. So far in this new season, he has an assist through two games, while serving on Jokerit’s top line alongside Jesse Joensuu and Peter Regin. It will be most interesting to see if he can return to the form he showed for Torpedo a couple of seasons ago (and if, should he manage that, he once again features for “the mighty leijonat” — the Finnish national team)!
Salminen shows nice touch around the net during his time Torpedo.
So, while there were a great many candidates for the list at all positions (seriously, my “shortlist” was about 30 players long), there are my six for this season; their progress will be updated here every week, no matter where they end up during the course of 2016-17. But I am also interested in hearing what six players you might choose for this sort of exercise, so please do leave your lists in the comments section if you would like. Thank you for reading!