Dinamo Riga in 2017-18
Let’s be frank: 2016-17 was a misery on the ice for Dinamo Riga, which is why they are the first entry in 2017-18’s series of previews (I start at the bottom of the previous campaign’s standings and work up, and incumbent last-place team Metallurg Novokuznetsk are no longer in the KHL, so here we are). Money woes meant a late start to the 2016 signing season for Dinamo, and forced now-former GM Normunds Sējējs into being an unwilling head coach through simple inability to find anybody else for the job. The late start was repeated this summer (it was mid-June before Dinamo started signing players), but this time around they have a coach in place, and can look forward to the contributions of some interesting newcomers as well. Will it be enough? Read on…
Dinamo Riga in 2016-17: 11 W — 10 OT/SO W — 5 OT/SO L — 34 L
7th in Bobrov Div., 14th in West Conf., 28th in KHL. Missed Playoffs.
Head Coach: Sandis Ozoliņš.
Off-season Moves (via Elite Prospects):
In: D Nerijus Alisauskas* (Saryarka Karaganda [VHL]); F Oskars Batņa* (EC Kitzbühel [AlpsHL]; D Rolands Gritāns* (Buran Voronezh [VHL]); F Ņikita Jevpalovs* (San Jose Barracuda [AHL]); F Danny Kristo (Charlotte Checkers [AHL]); F Martins Lavrovs* (HC Nové Zámky [SVK]; F Lucas Lessio (Örebro HK [SWE]); F Brandon McMillan (Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod); F Juliāns Misjus* (SK Riga U18 [LAT U18]); G Justin Peters (Texas Stars [AHL]]; D Ēriks Ševčenko* (Yunost Minsk [BLR]); D Karl Stollery (Albany Devils [AHL]
*=Player on try-out.
Out: D Oskars Cibuļskis (Mountfield HK [CZE]); D Jēkabs Rēdlihs (Retired); G Jakub Sedlacek (Unknown); F Filipp Toluzakov (Amur Khabarovsk)
Dinamo’s rocky off-season of 2016 manifested itself mostly in the area of scoring goals when the 2016-17 campaign began; the team managed just 116, fewest in the West Conference and fourth-fewest in the league. Tim Sestito, who had an impressive 2015-16 with 19 goals, slumped to seven last year, and is unlikely to be back in any case (that’s not official yet, hence his absence from the list above). Lauris Dārziņš and Miks Indrašis led the team in 2016-17 with a measly 11 goals apiece, and the former is now out injured until at least late October (Indrašis was recently re-signed, which is a good thing). So fixing the scoring was job one for incoming GM Ģirts Ankipāns.
And… I think we must give him some credit, as he has made some interesting moves up front. Lessio scored 12-10-22 in 40 games for Medveščak Zagreb last season before moving to Sweden, while Kristo was a 25-goal scorer in the AHL as recently as 2015-16. And then there’s Jevpalovs, in Riga on a try-out basis, who scored 49 goals in the QMJHL in 2014-15 and seemed to be progressing nicely year-over-year in the AHL. McMillan won’t contribute much in the way of scoring, but should help out in the “defensive forwarding” department. Dinamo cannot afford to bring in the slam-dunk sure things, and there are certainly are no stars among the newly-acquired forwards, but there have been some very reasonable bets made here, and the forward group is a stronger one at the moment.
The Riga side gave up 158 goals last seasons, 18th-fewest in the league; that’s not good but it’s not dire either. And one of the few bright spots in 2016-17 was the play of goalie Jānis Kalniņš, who posted a resolute .925 sv% in 30 games after signing on from the obscurity of the Hungarian league. The departing Sedlacek, on the other hand, had a tough time (.903 sv% in 34 games), and so the team has turned to Peters to replace him. Peters had a decent season in 2013-14 (.919 sv% in 21 NHL games for Carolina), but has struggled badly since then; he posted an .888 in 31 AHL games for the Stars in 2016-17. So one imagines that we will see more of Kalniņš this year than last, in hopes that he can match or improve upon his strong 2016-17 showing.
As for the defencemen, the returning Guntis Galviņš may be as crucial a player as any to Dinamo’s hopes. The 31-year-old scored 7-16-23 in 51 games last season, tying him for second on the team in points, and he led the squad in +/- with a +5 as well. The defensive acumen of Cibuļskis will be missed, but Stollery — a useful two-way rearguard with some playmaking chops — should be an adequate or better replacement. And among the intriguing names on the “Incoming” list is that of try-out blueliner Alisauskas. The 26-year-old Lithuanian was top-six last season in the VHL (Russia’s second-tier men’s pro league) in points and assists by defencemen (47 gp, 4-15-19 was his line), and led a very good Saryarka team in plus-minus (+20, tied for fifth overall in the VHL). If he passes his try-out test, Dinamo could find themselves with a real gem on their hands.
Finally, we would be remiss not to consider the coach. A famous player taking his first-ever head coaching job at the club where he was a legend on the ice… well, those situations can easily end in tears. On the other hand, when they do work out, they are glorious, and the hiring of Ozoliņš means that Dinamo enter 2017-18 with a much more stable coaching situation than they had at this time last year. I would add (you may take this for what it’s worth, which may not be much) that the former standout defenceman has always seemed to me the sort of player who could go on to a successful coaching career.
To sum it up, Dinamo should score a few more goals this season, and perhaps even concede several fewer as well. Will it be enough? Perhaps not for the playoffs — 35 points is a heck of a chasm to bridge — but when all is said and done we should find Dinamo Riga a bit further up the standings than at the end of 2016-17.
Of note: Dinamo will take part, for the second time ever (the first was 2011), in the Spengler Cup tournament in Switzerland this coming Christmas.
The Big Question: Based on the criteria laid out in the league’s new strategic plan, three teams will be leaving the KHL after 2017-18 — will Dinamo be one of them? I think the Riga club should be ok, actually. They have one of the KHL’s biggest arenas (the 10,300-seat Arena Riga), and besides that, the KHL is looking to increase its foreign profile, not decrease it. There is some danger; Dinamo have been in a tenuous situation with regards to sponsorship a couple of times in recent years, and if that money dries up again, they’re in real trouble. However, for now, things seem stable, and if the on-ice results can improve a bit, Dinamo should easily be able to avoid the KHL exit door.
Next Preview: Lada Tolyatti.