Sibir Novosibirsk Oblast in 2017-18
Sibir missed the playoffs in 2016-17 — heartbreakingly, via the tie-breaker — bringing an end to four straight post-season appearances, the last three of which saw team reach at least the second round. More ominously, however, were the persistent reports of serious financial problems at the Siberian team, a phenomenon that had become all too common over the last couple of seasons. We may never know how close we came to losing Sibir this past year, but the hockey cost of fixing the problem was very, very high. So is there any hope for 2017-18? Well, yes — read on…
Sibir Novosibirsk Oblast in 2016-17: 20 W — 8 OT/SO W — 7 OT/SO L — 25 L
6th in Chernyshev Div., 9th in East Conf., 19th in KHL. Missed Playoffs.
Head Coach: Pavel Zubov.
In: F Sergei Barbashev (Admiral Vladivostok); F Alexander Bergström (Karlskrona HK [SWE]); F Stanislav Butuzov (Metallurg Novokuznetsk); F Sergei Konkov (Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk); F Igor Levitsky (HK Sochi); G Eduard Reizvikh (Neftyanik Almetyevsk [VHL]); F Alexander Sharov (Zvezda Chekhov [VHL]); F Ilya Shipov (Dynamo Moscow); F Andrei Sigaryov (Admiral Vladivostok); F Alexei Sopin (Dynamo Moscow); F Patrik Zackrisson (Lugano [SUI]); F Ignat Zemchenko (Metallurg Novokuznetsk)
Out: F Yevgeny Artyukhin (Unknown); F Zach Boychuk (Uknown); F Vladimir Butuzov (Admiral Vladivostok); F Alexei Glukhov (Spartak Moscow); F Joonas Kemppainen (Salavat Yulaev Ufa); F Vadim Khlopotov (CSKA Moscow); F Yegor Milovzorov (Avtomobilist Yekaterinburg); D Georgy Misharin (Avtomobilist Yekaterinburg); F Konstantin Okulov (CSKA Moscow); F Maxim Shalunov (CSKA Moscow); F Sergei Shumakov (CSKA Moscow); F Alexei Skabelka (Unknown); G Danny Taylor (Ottawa Senators [NHL]); D Kirill Vorobyov (CSKA Moscow)
It was a miserable eight weeks that undid Sibir on the ice in 2016-17; from September 21st to November 15th the team went 5-15, and picked up just 17 of a possible 60 points. The last half of that stretch — and its nadir — corresponded to the injury absence of Sibir’s leading goalscorer and joint-leading point-getter, Maxim Shalunov (49 gp, 19-18-37). Well, now Sibir get to face an entire season without Shalunov; in a blockbuster deal, he was sent to CSKA in early May along with the team’s other top two scoring forwards, Sergei Shumakov (54 gp, 16-21-37) and Konstantin Okulov (59 gp, 17-11-28). It had to be done — the 410 million Rubles (about ten million Canadian dollars) received in return probably saved Sibir (Sharov, a member of Russia’s 2014-15 World Juniors team who went 43 gp, 7-17-24 in the VHL last year, also arrived in the deal). But losing the men who scored nearly 40% of the team’s 2016-17 goals was a heck of a gut-punch nonetheless.
And that was just the beginning of the team’s complete re-working of the forward group. Of the top NINE scoring forwards from the 2016-17 Sibir roster, only Stepan Sannikov (fourth in points at 59 gp, 13-14-27) remains on the books, which will make him one of the few men to have played for the same team in all of the KHL’s first ten seasons. Apart from the men sent to CSKA, Milovzorov is probably the biggest loss; a late December acquisition from Neftekhimik, he scored 3-8-11 in 18 games for Sibir, and shared the team lead at +8. Kemppainen too made a contribution, scoring 11-12-23 in 60 games, although he did also finish at -8, fourth-worst on the team.
No wonder, then, that of the 12 new players brought in this summer, 11 are forwards. Bergström seems to me the most significant newcomer; he scored 15-25-40 in 52 Swedish Hockey League games last year, and at the age of 30 made his Swedish senior national team debut. Zackrisson’s 2016-17 was a disappointment (35 gp, 5-14-19 in Switzerland), but it followed on the heels of 48 points in 52 games in Sweden in 2015-16. There is some promising youth on the way as well, including the afore-mentioned Sharov and 23-year-old Shipov (17 gp, 5-10-15 in the VHL last year, and a good scoring resume in general). And the 25-year-old Zemchenko bears some watching, as he was Metallurg Novokuznetsk’s second-highest scorer in 2016-17 (54 gp, 10-13-23, not bad on an awful team). Sibir are far from fully replacing their “big three,” but there are some interesting acquistions here.
One final name to note among potential new scoring help is that of Alexander Loktev. The 20-year-old, playing for Sibir’s junior team, was top-six in the MHL this past season in both goals and points (55 gp, 30-32-62). He will be either in the KHL or the VHL this coming season (time in both is a distinct possibility), and while it is probably a bit early to expect miracles from him, he is a very promising young player.
There was not much change at all on defence for Sibir, and that may be a good thing. The team will welcome back excellent playmaker Adam Polášek (60 gp, 6-22-28, +1 last season), who should help some of those new forwards boost their numbers a bit. Sibir’s best all-round defenceman last season was probably Vladislav Naumov (58 gp, 3-9-12, +6), and he too is back in the fold for 2017-18. A full season of health from Maxim Ignatovich, who played just 18 games last season for Sibir but still scored 3-4-7, will help quite a lot as well. Of the departed defencemen, Misharin was the biggest contributer, at 2-4-6 in 36 games. All quiet on this front, and that will do just fine.
When he is healthy and “on,” Sibir starting goalie Alexander Salák is one of the best in the KHL. He was certainly “on” last season (15 gp, .939 sv%), but the health abandoned him in mid-October via a season-ending injury. He is apparently hale and hearty again, and ready to go, which is good news. Normally, his early departure from the season would have been an additional disaster for Sibir, but after Salák’s injury the team quickly brought in Taylor from Medveščak Zagreb, and he proved an able replacement (29 gp, .940 sv%). That move was commendable for another reason: it allowed Sibir to avoid throwing promising 21-year-old goalie Alexei Krasikov completely to the wolves. Krasikov got into 28 games, and posted a decent .924 sv%. Salák should be the starter once again, with Krasikov and Reizvikh vying for the back-up’s role.
Sibir are reportedly now debt-free, and beside that good news all else pales — assuming, of course, that the club does not fall back into arrears. On the ice, the defence and goaltending seem just fine, but the gutted forward group is going to be something of a work in progress, and KHL rookie head coach Zubov may have something of a steep learning curve before him. Sibir were a very good team for several seasons before last year’s stumble, and have proven themselves deft uncoverers of useful but under-rated players, so the task is not impossible. For this coming season, however, the playoffs and financial stability will likely be reckoned as enough.
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 Sibir be one of them? It is very unlikely, unless the financial abyss opens up again. Sibir had the best attendance by percentage of capacity in the KHL last season (99.7%, despite the on-ice struggles), and play in Russia’s third-largest city (1.57 million people). The arena is a bit of a problem; Sibir Sport Palace is now (I think) the KHL’s oldest building, having opened in 1964, and its 7400 seats are fewer than the league would like to see. However, a new 12,500-seat building is in the advanced planning stage, as Novosibirsk hopes to attract the 2023 World Juniors. Again, the team’s recent struggles with debt are a concern and must not be repeated, but if all stays quiet on that front, Sibir should be just fine.
Next up: Kunlun Red Star Beijing.