The Women’s Hockey League: 2016-17
Saturday saw the first faceoffs of the the new season of the Women’s Hockey League in Russia, the circuit’s second under the aegis of the KHL. Among the opening day entertainments: a match-up between last season’s top two teams, as defending champs Tornado Moscow Oblast hosted silver medalists Agidel Ufa in Dmitrov (more on that encounter in a little bit). Read on, for a look at the season to come!
The 2016-17 season in the Women’s Hockey League will feature more teams and many more games than did last season. The league has grown from seven to eight squads, and each will play 42 games as opposed as opposed to last season’s 24. And for the first time, there will be All-Star festivities, held in conjunction with the similar get-togethers of the KHL and MHL in Ufa in January.
The newcomers to the league are Dynamo Kursk, about whom we have spoken here before. An interesting story: team founder Liliya Delova, when she was 14 years old and playing hockey on boys’ teams in Kursk, told a reporter that she would like to create a women’s team in the city. Now, at the ripe old age of 20, she has done so, after her own playing career was ended by injury. Dynamo did have some administrative problems in the run-up to their debut, which ended up delaying their first official game for a day (h/t to Denis Osipchuk for this news), but it now looks like their opening face-off will go ahead in Krasnoyarsk against Biryusa on Sunday. We still await word on the complete Dynamo roster, but confirmed players include former Tornado goalie Tatyana Shchukina and Belarusan forward Karina Sheptutskaya.
UPDATE: Bad news on the Dynamo story.
Tornado Moscow Oblast are, as mentioned, the defending champions, and they will be hard to beat once again. Tornado will return probably the best five-woman unit in the league, featuring forwards Anna Shokhina, Yelena Dergachyova, and Alevtina Shtaryova (second, third, and fourth in points last season, respectively, and Dergachyova’s 29 goals led the league), in front of defenders Angelina Goncharenko and Nina Pirogova. To that formidable quintet they have added Lyudmila Belyakova, who spent last season with the New York Riveters of the U.S.-based NWHL and generally impressed.
However, last year’s runners-up Agidel Ufa were in the hunt for the championship until very late on, and have significantly strengthened the side this season. Agidel signed long-time national team goalie Anna Prugova and defender Anna Shchukina from Dynamo St. Petersburg; the latter, who has captained Team Russia on a number of occasions, led all blueliners in the league last season in scoring (24 gp, 14-15-29). Second and third in scoring from defence were Alexandra Kapustina and Anna Shibanova, who already play for Agidel, so that’s a lot of points from the back. Agidel also signed veteran Yekaterina Smolentseva, an excellent all-round player, from Connecticut of the NWHL. And this team of course still includes the remarkable Olga Sosina, 2015-16 league scoring champion with a line of 22 gp, 27-31-58. She combines skill, power, and speed, sometimes all on the same play:
Last year’s bronze medalists, Biryusa Krasnoyarsk, relied heavily on the scoring of Valeriya Pavlova (24 gp, 26-17-43, third in the league in goals and fifth in points), and will likely do so again. However, this team is not a one-trick pony, and it also features young goalie Nadezhda Morozova, who got most of the work for the Russian team at this year’s World Championship, and — of particular note — made 32 saves in shutting out Finland as her team took home the bronze medal. Biryusa are the sort of team that opponents need to beware; while perhaps not quite strong enough to challenge for the title, they can and do take points off anyone.
Fourth place last season went to Dynamo St. Petersburg, but this off-season has not been particularly kind to them, with the losses of Prugova and Shchukina. Veteran defender Yuliya Karpova also retired to join Dynamo’s coaching staff. However, some weapons remain, in particular forward Alena Polenska, who broke the 20-goal barrier last season (24 gp, 16-36-24). And while Prugova will certainly be missed, goalie Mariya Sorokina is another national team veteran, and is certainly up to the task. Finally, after Saturday’s action, we should probably keep an eye on forward Anyeta Teiralova, who took the (very) early league scoring lead with a four-point performance in a 4-0 victory over SK Sverdlovsk Oblast.
It was a bit odd to find SKIF Nizhny Novgorod down in fifth place last season, as they were champions of Russia just three years ago. However, the summer of 2015 saw them lose Sosina to Agidel, and a youth movement at SKIF has been the result. There are some intriguing up-and-comers at this team, including goalies Valeriya Tarakanova, Diana Farkhutdinova, and Yuliya Artyomova, the first of whom was the MVP of this year’s Under-18 Worlds and the last of whom was named best goalie of the recent Agidel Cup tournament. SKIF also recently signed 17-year-old Polina Bolgareva, a three-year veteran of the national U18 team who had been playing for boys’ teams at the Olimpiets hockey school near Moscow. Veteran stability will be provided by veteran Finnish defender Karoliina Rantamäki, among others.
For northern club Arktik-Universitet Ukhta, sixth place and only five regulation wins on the 2015-16 season was something of a disappointment, especially given the excellent performance of their first line of Fanuza Kadirova, Karina Verkhovtseva, and Hungary’s Alexandra Husak. Eighteen-year-old Kadirova, in particular, is a bright and rising star of Russian women’s hockey; last season she scored 16-21-37 in 24 games, and she was top scorer at the Agidel Cup pre-season tournament this summer. A new coach, Andrei Anisimov, arrived this summer, as did playing reinforcements such as goalie Anna Vinogradova and forward Oksana Afonina, both former national-teamers who came over from SK Sverdlovsk Oblast. For Arktik-Universitet, improvement on last season is the main goal, and they got 2016-17 off to a decent start on Saturday with a 3-1 home victory over SKIF.
SK Sverdlovsk Oblast, based in Yekaterinburg, struggled last season, and that is putting it very mildly: they lost every game in regulation, and were outscored 185-36. Worse, they said “good-bye” this off-season to two of their better players in the aforementioned Vinogradova and Afonina. I will honestly say that I do not know much about the players on SKSO’s current roster, but I look forward to finding out as the season goes on. In the meantime, it was unfortunately business as usual in their opener today; we have already mentioned that Dynamo St. Petersburg beat them 4-0.
The 2016-17 season will likely come down, as last year, to a battle for supremacy between Tornado and Agidel, and today’s action saw Tornado draw first blood in that battle. An entertaining back-and-forth affair in Dmitrov was finally settled by Dergachyova’s third-period shorthanded goal, making the final 3-2 for the home side. Those two teams will be back at it on Sunday, as will the rest of the league.
Here at the blog, Tuesday is going to be “women’s hockey day,” when we will recap what ever has happened recently in the women’s game in Russia — international, professional, or amateur. You can also follow along with the Women’s Hockey League’s doings at its website (whl.khl.ru) and on twitter (@WHL_ru). Thank you for reading!