Ugra Khanty-Mansiysk in 2017-18
To Khanty-Maniysk we go, where the Irtysh River meets the Ob in western Siberia, the home of KHL side Ugra Khanty-Mansiysk. It’s the KHL’s smallest city (pop: 80,000), and although the region is oil-rich, the hockey club has struggled for funds in recent years and hence has struggled also on the ice. Ugra did improve this past season in some areas (one in particular), but still slipped back a couple of spots in the standings. Can they turn that around in 2017-18? Read on…
Ugra Khanty-Mansiysk in 2016-17: 18 W — 4 OT/SO W — 4 OT/SO L — 34 L
6th in Kharlamov Div., 13th in East Conf., 25th in KHL. Missed Playoffs.
Head Coach: Igor Zakharkin.
In: G Vladislav Fokin (HK Poprad [SVK]); D Pavel Gavrilovich (Severskie Volki Severskaya [NMHL]); D Igor Gladun (Rubin Tyumen [VHL]); F Daniil Ilyin (Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod); D Ivan Lekomtsev (Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk); F Dmitry Makarov (Salavat Yulaev Ufa); D Kirill Melyakov (Chaika Nizhny Novgorod [MHL]); G Ilya Proskuryakov (Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod); F Veli-Matti Savinainen (Tappara [FIN]); F Yevgeny Skachkov (HK Sochi); D Dmitry Yushkevich (Almaz Cherepovets [MHL])
Out: G Georgy Boyarshinov (Kunlun Red Star Beijing); F Nikita Dvurechensky (Unknown); F Igor Fefelov (Unknown); D Sergei Gusev (Unknown); D Nikita Khlystov (Kunlun Red Star Beijing); D Yevgeny Kulik (Spartak Moscow); F Yevgeny Lapenkov (HK Sochi); F Roman Lyuduchin (Kunlun Red Star Beijing); D Yegor Orlov (Dynamo Moscow); G Alexander Sharychenkov (Dynamo Moscow)
Compared to the previous season, Ugra shaved 30 off their “goals against” total in 2016-17, and a fair chunk of that was down to improved goaltending. Sharychenkov (.920 sv% in 41 games) and Fokin (.921 in 19 games before he departed mid-season for Poprad) gave the team almost exactly league-average performance, which did indeed represent a step up. Fokin is back after his Slovakian sabbatical, and Ugra have turned to Proskuryakov to replace the departing Sharychenkov. That’s not a bad bet at all — Proskuryakov finished up with a very nice .927 sv% last season in 50 games for Torpedo — but it does come with a bit of an asterisk. The 30-year-old from Surgut (just up the Ob River from Khanty-Mansiysk) was named KHL Goalie of the Month for last September, but his form fell off over the season, and he lost the starting job at Torpedo when the playoffs began (and indeed, that final sv% seems to represent about the high-water mark for him, career-wise). All that said, a season of .927 goaltending will suit Ugra just fine, however it happens.
As far as the defence is concerned, there are some nice things although it is not a fearsome group. Vitaly Shulakov (37 gp, 3-6-9, and +5 on a team that was outscored by 36) had a nice season despite missing some time in 2016-17, while Alexander Ugolnikov also kept his head more-or-less above water (50 gp, 3-8-11, -1); both will be back for 2017-18 Kulik, Khlystov and Gusev all contributed as well, although not nearly at an irreplaceable level.
One problem with Ugra’s 2016-17 defence was that it contributed not a lick to the scoring. The entire blueline group scored only 13 goals last season, with Shulakov’s and Ugolnikov’s three apiece leading the way (the latter’s 11 points was also tops among team rearguards). None of the incoming defencemen look particularly likely to fix the issue on their own, although the 23-year-old Gladun showed some scoring ability in junior hockey, playing for Ugra’s own youth program. None of that potential really showed itself in two seasons in the VHL, but there is certainly still time.
It is up front for Ugra where things really get interesting. This group was hideously weak in 2016-17; Ugra scored just 112 goals overall (only two teams scored fewer), and their top goals and points man has now departed. That was Lapenkov, who put up a line of 56 gp, 15-21-36 — not bad at all, but not what you want to see leading your team, and very especially not what you want to see leading it by 13 points. A full season from Andrei Alexeyev, who came over from Avtomobilist in December and scored 6-4-10 in 19 games for Ugra, may help matters, but even that is far from a jaw-dropping line.
Credit to Ugra, however, as they aimed high to fix their offensive woes with the signing of Savinainen, who returns to the team where he played the 2013-14 season. The 31-year-old scored 30-26-56 in 55 games for Finnish champions Tappara in this past campaign; those numbers put him top of the Liiga in goals, and second in points. He followed that up with a highly respectable seven points in ten games for Finland at the World Championship. It would not have been too surprising to see one of the KHL giants take a long look at Savinainen; it is a shock, and a pleasant one, that it is Ugra who have procured his services. There is considerable promise in a forward line that combines him with, say, fellow-newcomer Makarov, who struggled badly in 2016-17 (50 gp, 4-10-14) but has some decent scoring seasons in his not-too-distant past.
Nonetheless, we do have reasons for caution in our optimism about Savinainen. High scoring in the Liiga is no guarantee of KHL success; Miro Aaltonen worked out very well for Vityaz in 2016-17, but Olli Palola’s brief KHL experience the previous season with the same team was a disaster. And Savinainen’s first tour of duty in Khanty-Mansiysk was not wildly successful (49 gp, 13-6-19); that is really nothing really to write home about (he also played briefly for Torpedo in 2014-15, and scored an unimpressive 2-3-5 in 25 games). Finally, when we consider that his stunning 2016-17 performance for Tappara far out-stripped anything he had done in his ten years as a pro to that point, we must start to wonder how much of Savinainen’s success this past year was the player, and how much was the team.
And even if Savinainen does work out as desired, there is likely not enough depth here to haul Ugra to the post-season. This roster is full, front to back, of entirely decent players of the journeyman sort, the kind that most teams are quite happy to employ in stocking the bottom halves of their lineups. But at Ugra, too many of them will likely be asked to take on roles that are beyond their abilities (we will see if the newly-hired, and quite interesting, coach Zakharkin can be of aid with that). At a guess, the Khanty-Mansiysk team will give up about the same number of goals as last year, possibly score a few more, and still miss the playoffs. And then there is the other matter to consider, which brings us to…
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 Ugra be one of them? The answer, to be brutally frank, is almost sure to be “yes.” A small arena (although a beautiful one), seldom filled, in the KHL’s smallest city, with a team that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2012 and that has experienced its share of financial hardship — those are the starting ingredients of a recipe for disaster (that Ugra ever made the KHL playoffs at all, and in fact did it twice, is a real badge of honour for the little club). I have a soft spot for clubs like Ugra, but barring something truly extraordinary it looks very much to me like they will be a VHL team in 2018-19. That, to end on a bright note, may not be a bad thing; Ugra previously spent two seasons in Russian’s second-tier league (2008-2010), and ended up as champions in both of them.
Next up: Severstal Cherepovets.