The Women’s Hockey League: A 2016-17 Recap
Time for a look back at 2016-17 in Russia’s Women’s Hockey League! If you have been following along here, you know by now who the champions were, but read on for a team-by-team look at how the season went. And there will also be some general comments on the campaign as well.
The 2016-17 Women’s Hockey League season, its second under the aegis of the KHL, did not get off to the best of starts, it must be admitted. Eight teams were signed up for this season, but on the very eve of the opening games, expansion club Dynamo Kursk were forced to withdraw due to problems with facilities and the like. It was a sad moment, as the new club’s formation had made for a very engaging story. And so the league was once again a seven-team circuit, although on the bright side the schedule was increased from 24 games per team to 36 (42 had been planned before the withdrawal of the Kursk project).
The Women’s Hockey League’s relationship with the KHL led to one very interesting “first” this season. In January, the best players in the WHL took part in the league’s first ever All-Star game, as part of the KHL’s Week of Stars in Ufa (see picture at top). And it was a roaring success, as over 7000 people in the stands watched the West team overcome the East 4-0 in a highly competitive game. The All-Star Game, along with several regular season contests, was broadcast live in HD by KHL TV (and also streamed live on YouTube), a development that we hope will continue in seasons to come!
In the end, as you are probably aware by now, it was Tornado Moscow Oblast who emerged atop the table, clinching their third consecutive championship. They, along with second-place Agidel Ufa, dominated the scoring charts as well, so it was no fluke at all. Here is the final league table, and we’ll follow that with a look at each team’s season.
Tornado Moscow Oblast‘s big off-season addition was Lyudmila Belyakova, who joined the team after a season with the New York Riveters of the NWHL. She did excellently (35 gp, 33-20-53, fourth in the league in points and third in goals), but even that performance was overshadowed by Tornado’s traditional “big five.” Forward Anna Shokhina (36 gp, 39-42-81) led the league in goals and points, while line-mate Yelena Dergachyova (33 gp, 17-47-64) was second in points. Defender Nina Pirogova not only captained Russia’s U18 team, but led the WHL in points by a rearguard with a line of 34 gp, 11-28-39; her partner, Angelina Goncharenko was up there too with 4-21-25 in 32 games. The fifth member of that unit, forward Alevtina Shtaryova, missed a chunk of the season due to injury, but still potted 17 goals in 24 games.
And there are other deserving players on the Tornado roster whom I will forbear from mentioning to keep this post to a reasonable length. Simply put, this was a dominant team in most facets of the game, and it is no surprise that the only team that could really give them a fight was second-place Agidel. Tornado were beaten only three times in regulation, all by Agidel, and their only other blemish was an overtime defeat to Biryusa. And so it is three titles in a row, and it would probably be rash to bet big money against Tornado making it four in 2017-18.
Agidel Ufa strengthened their squad in the off-season with a number of new players, including goalie Anna Prugova and defender Anna Shchukina (both from Dynamo St. Petersburg) along with returning NWHLer Yekaterina Smolentseva. All three did very well: Shchukina’s 13 goals led all defenders in the league in that category, Prugova posted a .920 sv% in 19 games, and Smolentseva was top-six in both points and goals (33 gp, 22-27-49). But — no surprise — it was the indefatigable Olga Sosina, in her second season as an Agidel player, who led the way in points for Agidel with a line of 23-40-63 in 35 games. What was a surprise was that Sosina was third on the club in goals, behind Hungary’s Fanny Gasparich (36 gp, 28-20-48) and Slovakia’s Nicol Čupková (36 gp, 27-23-50). Anna Shibanova’s 30 points were second-most in the league by a defender.
The season’s best performance by Agidel.
While Agidel dealt well with Tornado (they went 3-3, and were the only team to beat the champions in regulation time — a 6-0 mauling in November was particularly impressive), they did show a habit of dropping points against weaker teams, and that probably separated them from the title this time out. Agidel were beaten twice in Ufa by Dynamo, and were taken to extra time, also at home, twice by SKIF. Those dropped points added up. However, Agidel remain a superb team, and should be right back up challenging for the title in 2017-18.
While there was doubtless disappointment at failing to take second from Agidel, Dynamo St. Petersburg‘s bronze-medal finish represents the club’s first-ever appearance on the Women’s Hockey League podium. Dynamo did it with resolute defense and great goaltending: Mariya Sorokina’s .926 save percentage was best among regular starting goalies, and the team conceded the fewest goals in the league with 65. At one point, Sorokina ran up a record shutout streak of 367 minutes (not counting shootouts), and she tied for the league lead with seven clean sheets overall. Dynamo also possessed a balanced attack, with six players getting into double digits in goals. Among those was defender Yekaterina Nikolayeva (36 gp, 10-8-18), one of only four blueliners to reach the 10-goal mark.
Dynamo did well against Agidel, splitting the season series against the silver medalists (each team won twice in regulation, and once in extras). The St. Petersburg side also took four out of six from Biryusa this season, an important achievement since it was the Krasnoyarsk side that beat Dynamo out for third place in 2015-16.
Biryusa Krasnoyarsk stepped back from 2015-16’s third-place finish this season, and this was at least partially due to the absence of top scorer Valeriya Pavlova, who spent the season on maternity leave. However, Lidiya Malyavko did an excellent job stepping into Pavlova’s skates; in her second WHL season, the 22-year-old from Belarus scored 18-19-37 in 36 games to lead the team in goals and points. Malyavko also drew the attention of the Russian national team, and won a gold medal at the 2017 Universiade. Biryusa may have another interesting up-and-comer on the books as well: Yelena Mezentseva, who turned 16 less than a week ago, scored 15 goals in her rookie Women’s Hockey League campaign.
Despite the good work of Malyavko and Mezentseva (and some good goaltending on the part of Nadezhda Morozova, who tied for the league lead with seven shutouts), Biryusa did have their struggles this year. They were beaten three straight by Arktik-Universitet up in Ukhta, which might not have happened had Pavlova been available. On the bright side however, Biryusa were the only team apart from Agidel to defeat champions Tornado, which they did by a 3-2 score in overtime in mid-February. They also recorded a 2-1 overtime victory over the second-place Ufa side, and that in itself must count as an accomplishment.
SKIF Nizhny Novgorod, a former perennial powerhouse, have now finished fifth in two straight years as they work their way through something of a youth-based rebuild. Now, it is true that the Nizhny Novgorod side was led in scoring this year by Finnish veteran Karoliina Rantamäki (36 gp, 21-18-39), the oldest player in the league this season at 39, but just behind her was 18-year-old rookie Polina Bolgareva (36 gp, 14-13-27). And SKIF’s regular goaltending tandem of Valeriya Tarakanova and Diana Farkhutdinova has a combined age of 34.
SKIF’s return to glory still lies in the future, but they proved a difficult handful on several occasions in 2016-17. They were responsible for one of Agidel’s six regulation losses, and beat Dynamo twice in St. Petersburg. But for a last-day loss to Biryusa, fourth place would have been theirs.
For a couple of seasons now, Arktik-Universitet Ukhta have relied heavily on the scoring prowess of Fanuza Kadirova, and while her production fell off a little bit in 2016-17, her line of 36 gp, 20-27-47 still put her eighth in the league in both points and goals; furthermore, she was the top point-scorer among players not employed by Tornado or Agidel. Other solid contributors in 2016-17 included Hungarian forward Alexandra Husak (ninth in the WHL in goals with a line of 31 gp, 19-20-39, and a team-leading +12), while defender Liana Ganeyeva (36 gp, 5-14-19) was a top-ten point-scorer among blueliners as well.
But Arktik-Universitet are somewhat lacking in depth (beyond Ganeyeva’s 19, the entire defense group contributed only seven more points to the cause this season, for example), and so were relegated to a spoiler’s role. They did manage a three-game home sweep of Biryusa in October, which did real damage to the Krasnoyarsk team’s medal hopes, and ended Dynamo’s faint silver medal aspirations with a 6-5 overtime victory just a couple of weeks ago. For now, that will have to do.
For professional women’s hockey in Yekaterinburg, now represented by SK Sverdlovsk Oblast, the last three seasons and more have been a long walk through the desert. The last win for the city, and indeed the last points, arrived in 2013-14, more than 100 games ago, when the team was Spartak-Merkury Yekaterinburg. Among the dismal statistics from 2016-17: only five players scored even a single goal for SKSO, and no one managed more than nine.
But ’tis an ill wind that blows no good, as the saying goes, and there was one very bright and shining star indeed for SKSO in this latest lost season. Seventeen-year-old rookie goalie Valeriya Merkusheva played 31 games, and while her .879 sv% was only mid-tablish, she managed it despite facing a barrage of 51 shots against per 60 minutes of action, more than twice the rate of most her peers. In one game, in late October, she nearly beat mighty Tornado all by herself; SKSO were outshot 52-12, but the final score was only 2-0 for the champions (it was one of seven occasions on which Merkusheva made at least 50 saves). And on the international scene, she was key to Russia’s Under-18 Women’s Worlds bronze medal, and was duly named the tournament’s best goalie. So there is hope for SKSO, should they manage to hang on to Merkusheva, and should some of their other players take a developmental step forward.
So that is it for 2016-17 in the Women’s Hockey League, and the question is now: what next? 2017-18 will see a resumption of Russian government subsidies for women’s professional hockey, which certainly will not hurt at all. Given the event’s success in 2016-17, the All-Star Game is sure to be repeated, and there was even some talk of having the best players in that game go on to play in the KHL’s own All-Star contest (this was done this year with the MVP’s of the junior men’s league All-Star Game).
As far as what the league will look like in 2017-18, we can hope for a resurrection of the Dynamo Kursk project, although there seems to have been little talk of that recently. One other intriguing expansion possibility involves KHL club Kunlun Red Star Beijing, who just wrapped up their inaugural season. The next step for them is to expand the operation to include minor pro and junior teams, but there has also been much talk of adding a women’s squad, possibly in the Russian league. We are of course miles from anything assured on that, but remains a story to follow this summer.
In the short term, however, attention now turns to the 2017 Women’s World Championship, which begins on March 31st in Michigan. The big story in the run-up to that tournament is the situation involving the U.S. team, whose players have threatened to boycott the tournament in anger over unfair treatment by USA Hockey. Negotiations are underway to solve that problem, and we will see how it all turns out. In the meantime, Team Russia’s selection camp is underway in Novogorsk (you can see the camp roster here). We should know the final roster in a few days, and it will certainly be mentioned here.
And as a final note, there is one other interesting event still to come on the women’s hockey calendar for 2016-17. At the end of April, Budapest, Hungary, will play host to the first Under-16 Girls’ European Championship. Russia is one of the participating countries, along with Finland, Switzerland, Germany, Czechia, Austria, Slovakia, and the hosts, and we will pass along more news of that tournament as it becomes available.
Thank you for reading!