Kunlun Red Star Beijing in 2017-18
The KHL’s Chinese expansion project got off to a tremendous start last season, as Kunlun Red Star Beijing made the playoffs on their first try (they nearly slumped out at the end of the regular season, and need a tie-breaker to secure that last playoff spot, but no matter). The off-season has featured scads of new players, the arrival of a famous coach in Mike Keenan (last year’s bench boss Vladimir Yurzinov resigned at season’s end), and the foundation of a minor-pro farm team and a junior squad (not to mention one or perhaps two teams in the Canadian Women’s Hockey League). So what next for Kunlun Red Star Beijing, and can last year’s accomplishment be repeated? Read on…
Kunlun Red Star Beijing in 2017-18: 24 W — 4 OT/SO W — 3 OT/SO L — 29 L
5th in Chernyshev Div., 8th in East Conf., 18th in KHL. Eliminated in Conf. QFs.
Head Coach: Mike Keenan.
In: D Jesse Blacker (Nürnberg Ice Tigers [GER]); G Georgy Boyarshinov (Ugra Khanty-Mansiysk); F Cody Bradley (Füchse Duisburg [GER-3]); F Kyle Chipchura (Slovan Bratislava); D Marek Ďaloga (Slovan Bratislava); F Brandon DeFazio (Texas Stars [AHL]); G Derek Dun (Univ. of British Columbia [CIS]); F Matt Frattin (Stockton Heat [AHL]); F Richard Gynge (Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk); G Magnus Hellberg (Hartford Wolf Pack [AHL]); F Sam Hu (Markham Royals [OJHL]); D Rinat Ibragimov (Ugra Khanty-Mansiysk); F Cory Kane (Oceláři Třinec [CZE]); D Nikita Khlystov (Ugra Khanty-Mansiysk); D Geoff Kinrade (Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk); F Andrei Kostitsyn (HK Sochi); D Artūrs Kulda (Jokerit Helsinki); D Nick Lee (No Team); F Luke Lockhart (Univ. of British Columbia [CIS]); F Roman Lyuduchin (Ugra Khanty-Mansiysk); F Mattias Myttynen (KalPa [FIN]); D Yevgeny Rybnitsky (Rubin Tyumen [VHL]); F Chris Seto (Southern Oregon Spartans [WSHL]); G Alexander Skrynnik (SKA-Neva St. Petersburg [VHL]); F Greg Squires (Örebro HK [SWE]); F Andreas Thuresson (Malmö Redhawks [SWE]); D Pavel Vorobey (Dinamo-Molodechno [BLR]); F Ethan Werek (Texas Stars [AHL]); F Wojtek Wolski (Metallurg Magnitogorsk); F Brandon Wong (EV Regensburg [GER-3]); D Jason Yee (Univ. of British Columbia [CIS]); F Brandon Yip (Düsseldorfer EG [GER])
Out: F Stanislav Alshevsky (Saryarka Karaganda [VHL]); F Martin Bakoš (Bílí Tygři Liberec [CZE]); F Sean Collins (HK Sochi); F Damien Fleury (Unknown); D Janne Jalasvaara (Unknown); F Miika Lahti (JYP [FIN]); G Andrei Makarov (Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk); D Tuukka Mäntylä (Malmö Redhawks [SWE]); F Tomáš Marcinko (Oceláři Třinec [CZE]); F Vadim Pereskokov (CSKA Moscow); F Eetu Pöysti (KooKoo Kouvola [FIN]); F Chad Rau (Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk); D Tommi Taimi (Slovan Bratislava); F Igor Velichkin (Amur Khabarovsk); F Linus Videll (Traktor Chelyabinsk); D Tobias Viklund (Unknown); F Max Wärn (HP71 [FIN]); F Oleg Yashin (Unknown)
A quick note to begin: Kunlun Red Star remain officially based in Beijing, but will play all of their 2017-18 regular season games in Shanghai, while their arena situation in the Chinese capital is upgraded. The team will reportedly return to Beijing for the playoffs, should they qualify. And now back to business:
First of all, don’t be too intimidated by that vast list of incoming players — a lot of those names will be used to stock Kunlun Red Star’s new VHL farm club (Kunlun Red Star Heilongjiang) and MHL junior team (Kunlun Red Star Juniors Beijing). I have weeded out those who are quite clearly not destined for the KHL roster, but there are still a number of players on that list whom we will not see in the big league.
Goaltending is the easy place to start; Kunlun Red Star’s tandem this season should feature Hellberg (.903 sv% in 36 AHL games last season, plus a two-game cup of NHL coffee with the New York Rangers) backing up incumbent Tomi Karhunen. Karhunen captured the KRS starting job from the faltering Makarov in late November of last season, and went on to post a respectable .927 sv% in 29 games. The 27-year-old Finn plus Hellberg is a decent pairing with which to start the season, and the latter is quite capable of taking over the starting job if necessary. Skrynnik, the long-time SKA St. Petersburg farmhand, is likely the number three goalie should such be required.
The defence has suffered some blows in terms of departing players: Mäntylä (57 gp, 10-14-24), Viklund (56 gp, 5-14-19), and 2016-17 team captain Jalasvaara (49 gp, 5-11-16) will all be missed, as they represented the blueline group’s top three point-scorers last season. Taimi, as well, was an excellent mid-season acquisition in the “offensive defenseman” category, scoring nine points in 18 games for KRS and leading the team’s rearguards at +5. Still remaining are former Carolina Hurricane Brett Bellemore (useful on the defensive side of the puck) and another defence-first player in Finland’s Joonas Järvinen. And we should definitely note the returning Zach Yuen, the Vancouver-born former Winnipeg Jets prospect who last season became the first Chinese player to score a goal in the KHL. A 2016-17 line of 60 gp, 3-8-11 represented an admirable rookie KHL campaign for Yuen, especially as he played under 12 minutes per night, and he should be able to contribute even more in 2017-18.
While the Nordic defence quartet mentioned above will be hard to replace, there are some useful characters coming in. Kinrade is a good veteran two-way defenceman who did well for Neftekhimik last season (35 gp, 6-10-16), while long-ago Peterborough Pete Kulda led all Jokerit blueliners in plus-minus at +11. Ibragimov and Khlystov should provide useful depth — or perhaps a bit more in the latter’s case, as he is only 24 and coming off a very decent season at Ugra. But the real catch of the incoming group may be Ďaloga, a large, skilled, two-way defender who can provide a real boost to Kunlun Red Star’s powerplay. In short, despite the departures, coach Keenan has ample material from which to assemble a very decent defensive group.
It was “all change” up front for Kunlun Red Star this off-season. The team’s top seven scoring forwards have all moved on, with Rau’s 20-20-40 in 60 games leading that group in goals and points. That leaves former NHLer Alexei Ponikarovsky as the top-scoring returning forward; he posted 7-7-14 in 52 games last season. But once again, among the new arrivals are some very promising players. Gynge tied for sixth in the KHL in goals last season (57 gp, 24-16-40 for Neftekhimik), while Wolski was a significant supporting contributor to the offensive juggernaut at Metallurg Magnitogorsk the last few seasons. It is, by the way, wonderful to see Wolski back in action; he broke his neck during a game last October, and injury that ended his season and was a hair’s breadth from being much, much, worse even than that. Kostitsyn, too, is a known scorer, and early signs suggest that Keenan will line the veteran Belarusan up alongside Gynge and Wolski on a first line with some real potential.
There are other interesting forwards among the newcomers: solid AHL players in DeFazio and Frattin have been playing alongside the much-traveled Chipchura during Kunlun Red Star’s pre-season preparations, and that too is a trio that can make a positive difference. And then we have players such as Myttynen and Lyuduchin, who should provide very useful depth to the roster. Much as in the case of the defence group, significant and potentially difficult departures from the forward group appear to have been suitably addressed with new players.
A big part of Kunlun Red Star’s mission, of course, is the promotion and development of Chinese hockey, and the club’s off-season work has reflected that. Former NHLer Yip should be able to break into the KHL side, and Wong, a very decent scorer in the ECHL not too long ago, may do so as well. Their fellow “Canadians of Chinese extraction,” Hu and Yee, are more likely destined for one of the KRS subsidiary teams, at least to start with.
There were four Chinese players who suited up for Kunlun Red Star last season: the above-discussed Yuen, plus forwards Rudi Ying (25 games), Tianxiang Xia (15 games), and Guanhua Wang (1 game). Of those latter three, Ying, who is still just 18 (he turns 19 later this month), could garner some more KHL time, but the other two will begin their seasons in the VHL. There are also a number of other Chinese players in camp with the VHL their overwhelmingly likely destination. Two to keep an eye on are defencemen Mingxi Yang and Tianyu Hu, both of whom have shown potential as offensive rearguards with both the Chinese national team and the China Dragons of the Asia League.
Finally, of course, we have the legendary “Iron” Mike Keenan presiding over the Kunlun Red Star bench, and thus providing another very interesting storyline for the season. This is of course his second KHL job, as he was in charge of Metallurg Magnitogorsk for two-and-a-bit seasons and won the Gagarin Cup with them in 2014. Given the number of new players at Kunlun Red Star, much will depend this coming season on how quickly Keenan can get them to gel, but there are certainly the makings of another playoff appearance here, and KRS could even cause some problems for an insufficiently wary first-round opponent.
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 Kunlun Red Star be one of them? No. KRS are the flagship of the KHL’s Far-Eastern expansion efforts, and they’re absolutely not going anywhere. The club did have some serious attendance difficulties in its inaugural season (just 29.1% of capacity was filled), particularly during the games they played in Shanghai, and that city their home for the coming regular season, it will be interesting to see if matters improve. But even if they don’t, KRS are in no danger whatsoever of being punted from the league.
Next up: Slovan Bratislava.