2016-17 KHL Playoffs Round 1 Preview: East
The West Conference playoffs (previewed here yesterday) got rolling today, and the opening games produced no real surprises — four wins by top seeds was the result. On Wednesday, it will be the turn of the East Conference, so read on for a quick look at each of those series, and some tentative predicting!
(1) Metallurg Magnitogorsk vs. (8) Kunlun Red Star Beijing
It was a near-run thing in the end, as expansion team Kunlun Red Star lost five of their last six games to very nearly back out of a playoff spot that had seemed secure, but here they are — a post-season team at the first attempt. As might be expected from a brand-new outfit, Kunlun Red Star were a little short on elite-level scoring; their 139 goals on the season were the second-fewest among all KHL playoff teams. The biggest threat during the regular season was Chad Rau (57, 20-20-40), although Sean Collins (60 gp, 13-26-39, and scorer of the franchise’s first ever goal) also did decently well. Outside of Rau and Collins, only two forwards managed double-digits in goals, and none scored more than 11.
No, Kunlun Red Star’s playoff berth was built at the back, and with heavy assistance from the Republic of Finland. The team conceded 144 goals, good for 11th-fewest in the KHL. Of the ten blueliners who suited up this season, five are Finnish, including KHL veterans Janne Jalasvaara, who wore the captain’s letter, and Tuukka Mäntylä, who not only defended well but chipped with some scoring too (57 gp, 10-14-24). And as one of Kunlun Red Star’s mandates is development of Chinese hockey, we should note the play of Zach Yuen; the 23-year-old played all 60 games and scored 3-8-11 despite seeing less than 12 minutes of ice-time per contest — a promising sign.
As regards the goaltending, the Beijing team saw Andrei Makarov start well before fading to a .912 sv% (KHL average was about .922) and losing the starting job. Another Finn, Tomi Karhunen, took over in early December and was above-average if only just (.927 sv% in 27 games). The team’s goaltending is in competent hands, but the real strength is that blueline corps.
And strong it will have to be, because if you’ve been following the KHL (or this blog) for any length of time, you know who plays for Metallurg Magnitogorsk. Sergei Mozyakin (picture at top) spent 2016-17 going through the record book with fire and sword; among the marks he set were those for most goals and points in a season, and he finished with a line of 60 gp, 48-37-85 — simply ridiculous numbers. Mozyakin has help, too: his traditional linemates, Jan Kovář (59 gp, 23-40-63) and Danis Zaripov (56 gp, 16-29-45), are good-to-great scorers in their own right, even if playing alongside Mozyakin does help swell the numbers. Finally, blueliner Chris Lee had a spectacular season of his own, breaking the KHL record for points from defense with a line of 60 gp, 14-51-65. Metallurg’s 197 goals trailed only SKA St. Petersburg (249) in the KHL this year, and one can see why.
Behind that mighty offense lies a goal-prevention machine that is… pretty decent actually (the team’s 135 goals against was tenth-fewest in the KHL). Metallurg’s blueline corps includes some very good “defensive defensemen,” such as Yevgeny Biryukov, and they have an excellent goaltending tandem. In fact, we may soon see a changing of the guard there; veteran Vasily Koshechkin posted a respectable .927 sv% in 45 games, but that was a bit overshadowed by the play of World Juniors hero Ilya Samsonov (.936 in 27 games when not on international duty).
All credit is due to Kunlun Red Star coach Vladimir Yurzinov, Jr., for bringing the KHL playoffs to China for the first time, and at the first attempt. But Metallurg are just too good, and I see the Magnitogorskians taking this series in four or five.
(2) Avangard Omsk Oblast vs. (7) Admiral Vladivostok
Avangard’s key move of the season came early on, when they succeeded in bringing Vladimír Sobotka back to the KHL for another season; there had been persistant rumours that he would resume his NHL career with the St. Louis Blues. Sobotka returned to Omsk after the World Cup of Hockey and scored 9-21-30 in 41 games. That was important, because despite playing only two thirds of the season, he finished second on the team in scoring and by only a single point (Nikolai Lemtyugov, 19-12-31 in 52 games, led the way). Avangard’s attack is balanced rather than weak (156 goals scored was third-most in the East Conference), but Sobotka is a very important part of it nonetheless. We also should not lose track of Anton Burdasov, who scored a career high 17 goals in only 35 games as he missed a good chunk of the season with injury. He is healthy now, at just the right time.
And Avangard are quite good indeed at not getting scored upon. The Omsk boys gave up only 127 goals, tied for second-fewest in the East Conference. Dominik Furch did most of the work in goal, and was above-average in doing so (.927 was his final save percentage in 53 games). Avangard also possess a pair of top-notch two-way defensemen in Yevgeny Medvedev (56 gp, 2-20-22, +20) and Yegor Martynov (51 gp, 4-17-21, +24). All-in-all, this an solid, balanced team, as one would expect from the number two seed, despite lacking a clear-cut superstar-type.
As for Admiral, they left things very late, qualifying for the playoffs along with Red Star Kunlun only on the last day of the regular season. Nonetheless, there are some things to like about the far-easterners, starting with the play of young Vladimir Tkachyov, whom Edmonton Oilers fans will recall from training camp a couple of seasons ago. After a miserable 2015-16, in which injury kept im to only 19 games (17 of them for SKA St. Petersburg’s VHL farm team), he moved to Admiral and flourished. Tkachyov scored 14-25-39 in 49 games, second on the team in goals and points behind Slovenian Robert Sabolič (58 gp, 19-25-44, and himself a very astute summer acquisition).
On defense, Jonathan Blum had a good season, despite missing all of November and most of December; he scored 2-19-21 in 36 games. And Admiral have an entirely decent netminder in Igor Bobkov, who stopped shots at a .932 pace over 38 games.
So what happened, and how did this team end up just sneaking into the playoffs with an utterly mediocre GF-GA of 147-153? Lack of depth was what happened. Outside of Sabolič, Tkachyov, and Blum, only two other players broke 20 points (Avangard, by contrast, have nine players who bettered that mark). And the team struggled to find suitable backup for Bobkov. Three other goalies saw time in the Admiral net, accounting for more than a third of the season, and none managed a league-average save percentage (the best of the lot was Vladislav Tretyak’s grandson Maxim, who went .915, albeit in only four games).
If everything breaks exactly right for Admiral, they could make things very interesting for Avangard in this series. But the Omsk side is too deep, and too well-balanced, and just too… well, good. Avangard in six games it is.
(3) Ak Bars Kazan vs. (6) Salavat Yulaev Ufa
This one should be a treat for neutral fans; the “Green Derby” between the giants of Tatarstan and Bashkortostan is one of the KHL’s fiercest rivalries. The Kazan side resembles the above-discussed Avangard quite a lot in terms of their scoring, as they potted 155 goals on the season, and Justin Azevedo led the way with a relatively modest line of 54 gp, 13-21-54. Ak Bars, like Admiral Vladivostok, possess an exciting young forward named Vladimir Tkachyov; the Kazan version scored 15-17-32 in 58 games and attracted some interest from the NHL. Fyodor Malykhin’s 16 goals led the team in that category, which once again suggests a balanced attack without a true scoring superstar.
But defense and goaltending have always been the calling cards of Ak Bars under coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov, and so it was this season. Ak Bars conceded 127 goals, the same number as Avangard and with much the same calibre of net-minding (Emil Garipov was the main starter, with a .929 sv% in 40 games). On the blueline, the likes of Atte Ohtamaa and Damir Musin did the heavy lifting, while Vasily Tokranov contributed a helpful 22 points in 46 games. There were high hopes for Ziyat Paigin, returning to Ak Bars after a spectacular breakout season in 2015-16 with HK Sochi, but things went awry. Injury and (I suspect) some difficulties fitting in to Bilyaletdinov’s system held the young Edmonton Oilers draft pick to 17 KHL games (he scored 1-3-4), and he finished the regular season in the second-tier VHL. We shall see how much ice-time Ak Bars give him in the playoffs.
As for Salavat Yulaev, the hockey gods have been cruel. The Ufans scored 169 goals, second in the conference, and fifth in the league, but enter the playoffs minus two of their key offensive weapons. Former Oklahoma City Barons Linus Omark (55 gp, 14-42-56) and Teemu Hartikainen (46 gp, 19-17-36) are both injured, although both could return by the end of the first round. Those injuries are a terrible blow to Salavat Yulaev’s hopes, and played a big role in their going 4-15 down the stretch and nearly missing the playoffs altogether.
There is hope to be had nonetheless, and its name is Kirill Kaprizov. He dominated the World Juniors this season (7 gp, 9-3-12), and in the KHL scored 20-22-42 in 49 games — a spectacular line for a kid whose 20th birthday is still discussed in the future tense. It’s early, but he may be the most exciting Russian prospect to come along since Yevgeny Malkin. And Salavat Yulaev got a tremendous scoring performance from their defensemen, four of whom cracked 20 points (Sami Lepistö’s 53 gp, 6-25-31 led the way) with three of those scoring ten or more goals. Zakhar Arzamastsev’s season was perhaps the most impressive; he not only scored 10-10-20 in 50 games, but also led the team in plus-minus at +11.
It will be important for Salavat Yulaev’s scoring to overcome the absences of Omark and Hartikainen, because they were frankly awful at preventing goals against. Only three teams gave up more than the 174 goals conceded by Salavat Yulaev, and all of those missed the playoffs by a mile. Part of the reason was an odd stubborn-ness regarding the goaltending. Niklas Svedberg got into 48 games despite posting a dismal save percentage of .897, while his backup, Andrei Gavrilov, played very well (.936 sv%) in parts of 25 games. One would think that Gavrilov would be the choice for Salavat Yulaev in the playoffs, but we shall see.
A fierce rivalry can be a big leveller in a series like this, and were Omark and Hartikainen at full health I would be quite tempted to pick the upset here. But they are not, and Kaprizov cannot do it all himself. The omens suggest Ak Bars in six games.
Update: Omark is back in the lineup for game 1! That does change things significantly — this series is a lot closer now.
(4) Traktor Chelyabinsk vs. (5) Barys Astana
This is an interesting series in that it involves two teams that both missed out on the post-season in 2015-16, and also because there are two quite different styles at work here. Traktor reached fourth place in the conference despite scoring only 130 goals on the season, fewest of any KHL playoff team. They did get nice output from Paul Szczechura (60 gp, 14-27-41) and Maxim Yakutsenya (60 gp, 15-23-38), and native Chelyabinskian defenseman Kirill Koltsov scored 12 goals to tie for second in the league in that category among defensemen. But things dry up for Traktor, scoring-wise, pretty quickly outside of those three.
No matter, because despite the paltry number of goals, Traktor ended up with a positive goal differential by conceding only 120 times. That was the fewest goals given up by any East playoff team, and the fourth-fewest in the league overall. They have a marvellous goaltending tandem, led by Pavel Francouz; the 26-year-old Czech took over the starting job mid-season and went on to post the KHL’s best save percentage at .953 in 30 games. Vasily Demchenko, from whom Francouz wrested the number one goalie slot, finished up at .933 in 35 games, and that’s a nice number too. In front of the goalies are some stalwart blueliners, with Vladimir Denisov and Artyom Borodkin particularly good at the defensive side of things (the former missed the regular season’s end due to illness, but should be back soon).
As for Barys, they have some worries. For several seasons the Kazakh team has lived and died on the strength of their top scoring line of Nigel Dawes, Brandon Bochenski, and Dustin Boyd, and a fearsome trio they are when all three are on their game. Dawes had a fine 2016-17 season, scoring 36-26-62 in 59 games, and but for Mozyakin’s exploits would have tied the KHL record for goals in a season. Bochenski, too, did well (57 gp, 17-36-53). But Boyd broke his arm in August, missed half the season, and was a shadow of his normal self when he returned (30 gp, 8-6-14). And now Bochenski is injured, having suffered a concussion in the second-last game of the season. Until his return, date unknown, it’s basically Dawes and nobody else.
Well, not quite nobody. Roman Starchenko chipped in 15 goals for Barys, and evergreen defenseman Kevin Dallman scored an excellent 9-24-33 in 60 games. And despite Boyd’s ruined season, Barys did manage 151 goals, fifth in the East Conference.
But Bochenski’s injury will cast a real pall over proceedings, because Barys are not the sort of team that can lock things down in the absence of a top scorer. 167 goals found the back of their net in 2016-17, fifth-worst in the KHL. Henrik Karlsson did the majority of the goaltending, and his .920 sv% in 46 games puts him at just a hair under league-average. And he does not have a lot of help; backups Kevin Poulin and Vitaly Kolesnik came in at .909 and .855 respectively.
I don’t want to be too hard on Barys here; head coach Eduard Zankovets, who took over from Andrei Nazarov early in the season, did an excellent job of righting the ship and getting them back to the post-season. But unless Bochenski can make a swift return (or Traktor’s goaltending regresses quite sharply), this one should go Traktor’s way in six or seven games.
Thank you for reading! Next post here will be our regular check-in with what’s been happening in women’s hockey, and that will be up tomorrow or Thursday.