A Walk Through the KHL: Oct 31st, 2016
Time for another look at what each of the KHL’s 29 teams have been up to lately, as the KHL’s week-long break for international games is upon us (the league has no games scheduled between November 3rd and November 7th)! First of all, however, we turn our attention to Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk, where quite a lot of rather unusual things happened in a short time this past weekend. Read on!
All is chaos and tumult at Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk, who are now on their third coach of the season, and indeed their third coach of the month of October. The little team from Tatarstan, who made the playoffs against all expectations last season but have not looked like repeating that feat this year, fired Yevgeny Popikhin in early October and replaced him with Nikolai Solovyov. It was Solovyov’s second job of the 2016-17 season, as he had previously been let go by Metallurg Novokuznetsk in the campaign’s opening days. What followed was serious housecleaning of the Neftekhimik roster; nine players left the team in October, and four — including former NHLer Gilbert Brulé — were brought in.
And here is where things get strange. The 65-year-old Solovyov quit Neftekhimik this past weekend, and then gave a very frank interview about what lay behind his decision (it’s google-translated, but worth a read anyway). He basically accused the players he inherited of being spoiled and uncooperative, which would explain the high turnover this past month. More seriously, however, he also accused the team’s General Manager (Viktor Levitsky) of interfering with the coaches’ decisions. With regards to that latter complaint, Solovyov was supported by former Neftekhimik bench boss Vladimir Krikunov, who deserves much of the credit for Neftekhimik’s sterling performance last season. He said that what the team needs is a new GM, not another new coach, and that he wouldn’t work for Neftekhimik again even if they offered him a job (Krikunov was mysteriously “promoted” to Vice President midway through 2015-16, and later left that post and the club). So, obviously an unhappy situation.
The weirdness kept coming, as Neftekhimik have now hired the notorious Andrei Nazarov as Solovyov’s replacement (in fact, in the interview linked above, the outgoing coach hinted that the hire had been made even before he left). We last saw Nazarov being fired from Barys Astana in early September, after a winless start to the season and after he had failed to guide the Kazakh national team to the 2018 Olympics. Nazarov attracts controversy and unpleasant incidents wherever he goes, it seems; you may recall that during the 2016-17 pre-season, one of his players ended up suspended for life for on-ice violence. In all fairness, Nazarov has also done some good coaching in the past, particularly at Severstal Cherepovets and Donbass Donetsk, but his hiring-on at Neftekhimik will raise eyebrows nonetheless. We will see what happens.
The period right before the November break can be a tense one for coaches, as it is a convenient time for teams to make changes. And Neftekhimik were not the only club looking for a new bench boss this past week, as Avtomobilist Yekaterinburg have said “farewell” to Andrei Razin after a very disappointing start to the season. In his place, the Ural team has hired… the afore-mentioned Vladimir Krikunov. This is clearly a move with experience in mind; The Avtomobilist job was Razin’s first in the KHL (and he will doubtless find another in time), while Krikunov’s coaching career extends back into the Soviet era.
To the rest of the league!
1 (-). SKA St. Petersburg (22-5, 67 pts.): How many of the KHL’s top ten players in plus/minus play for SKA? All ten, led by defenceman Anton Belov at +29. SKA’s overall goal-difference is +75, which is higher than the number of goals scored by 24 of the league’s teams.
2 (-). CSKA Moscow (20-8, 63 pts.): Forward Stéphane da Costa (17 gp, 5-6-11) has flown to Germany for treatment of an injury, and is expected to be out long-term.
3 (-). Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod (17-9, 51 pts.): Perhaps the most impressive thing about Torpedo’s high place in the standings is that it has been accomplished mostly without the services of forward Vladimir Galuzin. He had 13 points in ten games before going down injured in September (return date still unknown).
4 (-). Lokomotiv Yaroslavl (16-10, 49 pts.): Yaroslavl native Nikita Cherepanov is returning home, as Lokomotiv have acquired their former youth system defenceman from Ak Bars. Cherepantov scored 1-1-2 in 16 games for the Tatar side this season.
5 (-). HK Sochi (16-11, 45 pts.): An intriguing new arrival on the Black Sea coast this week, as forward Svyatoslav Grebenshchikov has been acquired from SKA. Buried on the depth chart in St. Petersburg, Grebenshchikov was leading the second-tier VHL in goals and points, with a line of 17 gp, 15-5-20 for SKA-Neva.
6 (+1). Dynamo Moscow (15-11, 44 pts.): Looking for a bit more experience at the back, Dynamo traded 27-year-old defenceman Alexander Osipov (13 gp, 0-2-2) to Avangard for 32-year-old rearguard Andrei Kuteikin (20 gp, 1-5-6). It’s a good deal; Kuteikin was a massively under-rated figure at SKA in recent seasons.
7 (-1). Dinamo Minsk (14-10, 40 pts.): No particular surprise here, but Dinamo will be well-represented on the Belarusan national team at the upcoming four-nations tournament in Slovenia. Fourteen players from the club will join the national side.
8 (+1). Vityaz Moscow Oblast (14-12, 40 pts.): Strange score of the week goes to Vityaz, who beat Dinamo Minsk 9-6 on Sunday. Even stranger: the big scoring hero was defenceman Jakub Jeřábek, who came in with seven points in 24 games but registered two goals and three assists in the victory.
9. (-1). Jokerit Helsinki (11-15, 37 pts.): One problem in this season of disappointment for Jokerit: they are taking too many penalties (404 PiM, sixth-most in the KHL) and not killing them off particularly well (77.8%, seventh-worst). Ok, maybe that’s two problems.
10 (-). Severstal Cherepovets (11-15, 36 pts.): Remember Seva, the adorable little lynx kitten adopted as mascot by Severstal this summer? Not so little anymore, but doing fine, as video this week reveals.
11 (-). Spartak Moscow (11-14, 32 pts.): Spartak have signed veteran forward Igor Mirnov, recently released after going 1-4-5 in 17 games for Traktor.
12 (+1). Slovan Bratislava (11-14, 32 pts.): A welcome October development for Slovan has been the re-emergence of Jonathan Cheechoo. The veteran forward had only six points in his first 15 games, but since then has scored 4-7-11 in 10 matches.
13 (-1). Medveščak Zagreb (11-15, 32 pts.): KHL veteran Mike Garnett has arrived to provide some experienced back-up for Drew MacIntyre. And none too soon, as Medveščak were outscored 16-4 over three games this week, and while the road losses to CSKA and SKA were forgivable, today’s 7-3 mauling in Cherepovets is less so (the final shots favoured Severstal 40-19).
14 (-). Dinamo Riga (4-21, 15 pts.): While Dinamo’s hunt for a full-time head coach goes on, they do have a new assistant, and he’s a famous and familiar face: Sandis Ozoliņš will help GM Normunds Sējējs with the coaching duties.
1 (+2). Ak Bars Kazan (20-9, 58 pts.): Young defenceman Ziyat Paigin, just back after missing two months with a knee injury, has been despatched to the VHL to get playing time during the upcoming KHL break (Paigin is 2 gp, 0-1-1 so far in the lower league).
2 (-). Avangard Omsk Oblast (16-11, 46 pts.): It’s been a good season for Avangard, but the Omsk side may wish to spend some of the break working on the powerplay. Striking at only 13.9%, Avangard are the third-worst team in the league with the man advantage, ahead of only Metallurg Novokuznetsk (12.0%) and Ugra (10.7%).
3 (-2). Metallurg Magnitogorsk (18-8, 56 pts.): Milestones! Sergei Mozyakin recorded his 950th point in top-flight Russian hockey on Friday against Sibir, and the achievement came only two days after team-mate Danis Zaripov had scored his 800th.
4 (-). Salavat Yulaev Ufa (14-13, 44 pts.): The KHL Disciplinary Committee changed Maxim Goncharov’s “five and a game” for kneeing against Sibir to a two-minute minor. Great! Except that the Committee also looked at a kneeing minor Goncharov had taken earlier in the very same game. They changed it to a major plus a game misconduct, and suspended him for three matches.
5 (+2). Traktor Chelyabinsk (14-12, 42 pts.): After opening October with five losses in a row, all in regulation, the Chelyabinsk side finished the month by winning six of seven, incuding their last five, and taking 18 of a possible 21 points.
6 (-1). Admiral Vladivostok (12-14, 40 pts.): Early rumours had him signing for Barys, but veteran NHL defenceman James Wisniewski opted for Admiral instead, and made his debut for the far-easterners this week (2 gp, 0-0-0 so far).
7 (+1). Kunlun Red Star Beijing (12-13, 36 pts.): Yach Yuen got his name in the history books this week, becoming the first Chinese player to score a KHL goal. It was important one, too: the only tally in a 1-0 victory over Amur.
8 (+3). Lada Tolyatti (12-14, 36 pts.): Of possible concern to the coaching staff: While the team’s shooting percentage of 11.2 ranks third in the KHL, Lada have taken only 607 shots — fewest in the league.
9 (-3). Sibir Novosibirsk Oblast (11-16, 34 pts.): It is likely that no team will be as happy to see the break as Sibir, losers of seven of eight and beset with injury concerns.
10 (+4). Barys Astana (10-14, 31 pts.): The Kazakh club added goalie depth this week when it signed former New York Islanders netminder Kevin Poulin from the Prédateurs de Laval of the Ligue Nord-Américaine de Hockey. Poulin appeared in 52 games for the Isles between 2010 and 2015.
11 (+1). Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk (12-14, 31 pts.): Whatever one might think of Nazarov, he’s perfect so far at his new job. Sergei Konkov scored with only 40 seconds left on Saturday to give his new boss a 2-1 debut victory over Ugra.
12 (+1). Avtomobilist Yekaterinburg (11-16, 31 pts.): In discussing Razin’s firing, club Director Maxim Ryabkov noted team fitness as a problem, and cited the fact that Avtomobilist have outscored the opposition in the third period only once in 27 games this season.
13 (-4). Ugra Khanty-Mansiysk (11-18, 30 pts.): How competitive is the East Conference this season? Two weeks ago, Ugra were in sixth, but a six-game regulation losing streak has cost them seven spots in the standings.
14 (-4). Amur Khabarovsk (10-17, 30 pts.): Amur have the goal-preventing aspect of hockey figured out, but the scoring still eludes them. They have now played SIX 1-0 games this season, with a record of 2-4 in those.
15 (–). Metallurg Novokuznetsk (5-22, 15 pts.): Whatever their financial issues, Kuznya are still signing players; among four new arrivals this week are established KHLers Stanislav Kalashnikov (D) and Andrei Taratukhin (F), both of whom played for Ugra last season.