Lada Tolyatti in 2017-18
Lada Tolyatti’s 2016-17 campaign looked much like the previous one. The former automobile company team from the banks of the Volga achieved four fewer points, dropped one spot in the standings, and was once again a spectator when the post-season hove in sight. Any chance of improvement in 2017-18? Well, there have been very interesting moves this summer, so read on…
Lada Tolyatti in 2016-17: 16 W — 5 OT/SO W — 7 OT/SO L — 32 L
7th in Kharlamov Div., 14th in East Conf., 27th in KHL. Missed Playoffs.
Head Coach: Artis Ābols.
In: F Carter Ashton (Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod); F Yegor Babenko (Lethbridge Hurricanes [WHL]); D Ilya Davydov* (HK Poprad [SVK]); D Kirill Dyakov* (Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk); D Chay Genoway (Jokerit Helsinki); G Yevgeny Ivannikov (SKA-Neva St. Petersburg [VHL]); F Yuri Koksharov* (Vityaz Moscow Oblast); G Alexander Lazushin (Dynamo Moscow); F Jiří Novotný (Traktor Chelyabinsk); F Andrei Rukin* (HK Ryazan [VH]); F Igor Skorokhodov (Metallurg Novokuznetsk); D Dmitry Vorobyov (Salavat Yulaev Ufa); D Denis Yezhov (Severstal Cherepovets); F Daniil Zharkov* (Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod); D Nikita Zhloba* (Yuzhny Ural Orsk [VHL])
*=Player on try-out.
Out: D Taylor Aronson (Unknown); D Alexander Bolshakov (Neftyanik Almetyevsk [VHL]); D Yevgeny Belokhvostikov (HK Sarov [VHL]); F Alexander Bumagin (Severstal Cherepovets); F Andrei Ivanov (HK Sochi); F Viktor Komarov (SKA St. Petersburg); D Gleb Koryagin (Dynamo Moscow); G Edgars Masaļskis (Unknown); F Alexander Mokshantsev (Lokomotiv Yaroslavl); F Maxim Rybin (Severstal Cherepovets); F Anton Shenfeld (Metallurg Magnitogorsk); D Dmitry Sinitsyn (Dynamo Moscow); D Alexei Volgin (Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk); G Ilya Yezhov (Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk)
Lada Tolyatti (often transliterated “Togliatti”) have spent this off-season making a number of interesting bets in the category of “players with a great season somewhere in their past, but nothing too recently.” Incoming defenseman Vorobyov scored 10-10-20 in 60 games in 2015-16 — and that was for Lada, too, before he headed off to an unsuccessful season with Salavat Yulaev Ufa. New forward Skorokhodov potted 27 goals for Ugra in 51 games in 2012-13, but just five in 37 games for two KHL teams last season. Novotný is another example; he was a good playmaker with Lokomotiv in 2014-15 (59 gp, 7-25-32), since which his numbers have dropped off considerably. The chances of all of those players returning to past form is negligible, but if even just one of them does, that’s a nice off-season pick-up.
Both of the team’s new goalies also fall into that “once-upon-a-time” category. Ivannikov posted a .936 sv% in 32 games for Admiral back in 2012-13, while Lazushin was a remarkable .946 in 21 games for Dynamo Moscow in 2014-15 (he went .937 in 10 playoff contests that year, too). Lazushin is more likely of the two to find that form again, but it is important that at least one of them do it, as only Medveščak Zagreb and Metallurg Novokuznetsk conceded more goals last season than Lada’s 180 (and neither of those two teams, note, will be in the KHL next season).
Not all of Lada’s failure in their own zone last season can be placed upon the outgoing goalies, however. Ilya Yezhov got most of the minutes, and his .919 sv% in 50 games was only a little bit below average. So it is no wonder that there has been much turnover among the blueliners. Koryagin and Bolshakov, the only two Lada defencemen in the “plus” column for plus-minus last season (both were +1), will likely be missed, but they combined for a grand total of eight points, and newcomers Denis Yezhov and Vorobyov should be able to take over their roles.
Lada’s big summer acquisition on defence is Genoway, and it’s a good one too. Genoway led Jokerit in blueline scoring last season (52 gp, 7-18-25), which is right in line with his career KHL numbers over three seasons. He should be an improvement on the departing Aronson, who scored 15 points for Lada last season to finish second among the rearguards. Lada’s top 2016-17 scorer from defence was Yefim Gurkin (57 gp, 3-17-20), who will return along with the also-useful Kristaps Sotnieks (56 gp, 6-18-14). In short, this looks a better defence than last season’s, and the only question is whether it is better by enough.
Lada’s goal-scoring in 2016-17 was actually decent, as their 146 markers were more than any other non-playoff team in the KHL (and better than two that did make the post-season). Former NHL sixth-overall draft pick Nikita Filatov led the way in goals and points (57 gp, 19-21-40, and probably his best season since 2008-09), and has been re-signed for another year. However, five of Lada’s top nine scoring forwards from last season (Shenfeld, Ivanov, Komarov, Rybin, and Bumagin) will not return for the coming campaign. None of those five posted particularly gaudy numbers (Shenfeld led the departing group in points at 11-22-33 in 53 games), but there was definitely a gap there in need of filling.
And Lada have taken a good swing at doing just that. Skorokhodov and Novotný I have already mentioned above, but the big acquisition up front is Ashton, Torpedo’s leading goal-scorer in 2016-17 (59 gp, 18-20-28). Both he and Filatov can play either wing, and a line featuring those two with, say, Novotný as centreman could do some real damage. Young Babenko, too, bears some watching as he returns to Russia from the Canadian junior leagues; the little forward (5’9″, 157 lbs.) scored 53-71-124 in 133 games over two seasons for Lethbridge, and was very good in the 2016-17 playoffs as well (20 gp, 10-13-23). He’s 20 years old now, and should be ready for regular KHL action.
So what are we to make of it all, given the high turnover of significant players from last year’s Lada roster? I rate the goaltending and defence, at least, as improved over 2016-17, although perhaps only somewhat. As for the forward group, the top end of it may well be better than last year’s edition, but a lot of useful players have departed from the middle six, and I will need convincing that they have been adequately replaced. Ābols is a decent enough coach, and he has some tools to work with here, so it is not inconceivable that Lada bridge the 18-point gap separating them from last year’s playoffs. In the end, however, that is far, far, from a sure thing.
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 Lada be one of them? It is quite possible, to be honest. Lada have missed the playoffs for three straight seasons since returning to the KHL in 2014, and their name has cropped up with regards to wage arrears a couple of times. Furthermore, while Lada’s arena is new, having opened in 2013, it seats only 6,000 people, and the team’s lack of on-ice success means that even so it is seldom sold out. One point in Lada’s favour is market size; Tolyatti (pop. 700,000) is right next to Russia’s sixth-largest city, Samara (pop. 1.2 million), so the potential fanbase is there. However, Lada needs improvement in some other areas as well before KHL safety is assured.
Next up: Spartak Moscow