CSKA Moscow in 2016-17
Their Game 7 loss to Metallurg Magnitogorsk in the Gagarin Finals notwithstanding, CSKA were the best team in the KHL last season — their goal differential of +76 in 60 regular season contests demonstrates that quite clearly. However, CSKA enter 2016-17 without some superstar parts of that success; read on, for some discussion about the old Red Army team’s prospects for remaining among the elite.
CSKA Moscow in 2015-16: 38 W — 5 OT/SO W — 3 OT/SO L — 14 L
1st in Tarasov Div., 1st in West Conf., 1st in KHL. Lost in Gagarin Cup Finals.
Head Coach: Dmitry Kvartalnov.
In: D Konstantin Alexeyev (Sibir Novosibirsk Oblast); F Jonas Enlund (SKA St. Petersburg); F Bud Holloway (St. John’s IceCaps [AHL]); F Pavel Karnaukhov (Calgary Hitmen [WHL]); F Vyacheslav Osnovin (Traktor Chelyabinsk); F Alexander Popov (Avangard Omsk Oblast); F Greg Scott (Brynäs IF [SWE])
Out: D Nikita Zaitsev (Toronto Maple Leafs [NHL]); F Simon Hjalmarsson (Frölunda HC [SWE]); F Roman Lyubimov (Philadelphia Flyers [NHL]); F Igor Makarov (Salavat Yulaev Ufa); F Vadim Pereskokov (RoKi [FIN3]); F Geoff Platt (Växjö Lakers [SWE]); F Alexander Radulov (Montreal Canadiens [NHL]); F Mikhail Yunkov (Avangard Omsk Oblast)
To be blunt: CSKA Moscow suffered the most damaging off-season departures of any KHL team. Away went Radulov, whose 58 gp, 23-42-65 put him second in the league in assists and points (fifth in goals), and whose combination of strength and skill few can equal. Away went Zaitsev (46 gp, 8-18-26), who was selected as one of the two defenceman on the season-ending “Golden Helmet” all-star team (Metallurg Magnitogorsk’s Chris Lee was the other). Ironically, Radulov and Zaitsev go from being team-mates to being on opposite sides of one of hockey’s storied rivalries.
Those two were the most famous departures, but by no means the only ones. Also leaving the Russian capital are the team’s second-place goalscorer (Platt, at 55 gp, 21-14-35) and one of 2015-16’s breakout stars in Lyubimov. The latter’s regular season line of 7-7-14 in 52 games set off no fireworks, but the then-23-year-old figured things out in the playoffs, going 4-4-8 in 15 contests. That earned him a call to Team Russia for the World Championship, where he went 4-4-8 again, this time in only ten games.
So that’s the bad news. Moving on to the brighter side, while there is unlikely to be any replacing of Radulov and Zaitsev, at least in the short term, some of the new arrivals are very useful players. Enlund suffered a disastrous 2015-16 (28 gp, 4-2-6, and it was almost a mercy when injury ended his season early), but it came on the heels of four straight decent scoring campaigns for Sibir, in which he totalled 159 points in 209 games. Holloway has scored well in both Sweden and the AHL, and is off to a good start for CSKA with three points in as many games. And Popov, an Avangard mainstay for nearly two decades, should be good for veteran, two-way, hockeying, even if his offense has faded with time.
And some very good options also remain from last season’s first-overall team. Up front, CSKA can still call upon Jan Muršak (51 gp, 14-22-36 last season) and Dmitry Kugryshev (57 gp, 16-18-34), and if they could get a full season of health from Stéphane Da Costa, that would help too. Another to note is young Ivan Telegin; he had a 2015-16 much like Lyubimov’s, with an unremarkable regular season (41 gp, 6-3-9), a decent playoff stretch (18 gp, 3-4-7), and subsequently a very nice time at the World Championship (10 gp, 4-2-6). SKA reportedly made inquiries about Telegin this summer, but CSKA have held on to him, and will hope that he can continue his progress.
CSKA were very strong on defence (the gave up a ridiculous 87 goals in 60 regular-season games) and I could mention any number of contributors to that. However, I would pay particular attention to Igor Ozhiganov, who returned to CSKA last season after two years with Sibir and scored 5-11-16 in 50 games — not stellar, but not bad at all for a young guy. The 23-year-old has had a remarkable start to 2016-17, with four points in four games, and while we cannot expect him to maintain that over a full season, he could be on his way to replacing much of what Zaitsev took with him when he left. Veteran Denis Denisov and the overlooked Bogdan Kiselevich are two other returning stalwarts, and there some very promising youngsters waiting their turn as well (Artyom Blazhiyevsky and Mikhail Naumenkov, e.g.).
And that brings us at last to CSKA’s netminding, which should once again be superb. Last season saw Ilya Sorokin, at 20 years old, steal a starting job and go on to post the KHL’s second-best save percentage, at .953 over 28 games. He went .945 in 20 playoff games, too, and probably would have been post-season MVP had CSKA won the Gagarin Cup. Despite his heroics, the team has been content so far in the the new season to bring him along slowly, platooning Sorokin with Sweden’s Viktor Fasth, and it seems to be working. The youngster has stopped 32 of 33 shots in 95 minutes of work so far, while Fasth has a .931 sv% over parts of three games.
To sum it up, CSKA remain a very good hockey team, although the exits of Radulov and Zaitsev (and the massive talent influx in St. Petersburg), make it unlikely that they will top the KHL standings once again. They should not fall too far, however, and another deep playoff run is well within their powers.