Slovan Bratislava in 2017-18
Slovan’s goal difference took a 28-goal swing for the worse last season over the previous campaign (from +6 to -22), but somehow managed to drop just four points in the standings. Unfortunately for the team from the Slovak capital, that was enough for them to go from making the playoffs by six points to missing out by eight. It was an odd season. So, what have they done to rectify matters? Read on…
Slovan Bratislava in 2016-17: 22 W — 7 OT/SO W — 5 OT/SO L — 26 L
4th in Bobrov Div., 10th in West Conf., 17th in KHL. Missed Playoffs.
Head Coach: Miloš Říha
In: F Jan Buchtele (Sparta Prague [CZE]); D Nick Ebert (Texas Stars [AHL]); F Tomáš Hrnka (HC Plzeň [CZE]); G Jaroslav Janus (HC Litvinov [CZE]); F Lukáš Kašpar (Dynamo Moscow); D Lukáš Kozák (MHC Martin [SVK]); F Juraj Mikuš (HC Olomouc [CZE]; F Michal Řepík (Sparta Prague [CZE]); F Teemu Ramstedt (Amur Khabarovsk); G Jakub Štěpánek (Lukko [FIN]); D Tommi Taimi (Kunlun Red Star Beijing); D Tomáš Voráček (Mladá Boleslav [CZE])
Out: G Barry Brust (HC Fribourg-Gottéron [SUI]); F Kyle Chipchura (Kunlun Red Star Beijing); D Marek Ďaloga (Kunlun Red Star Beijing); F Žiga Jeglič (Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod); D Tomáš Kundrátek (Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod); F Václav Nedorost (HK České Budějovice [CZE]); F Denis Pätoprstý (Unknown); D Nick Plastino (HC Ambrì Piotta [SUI]); G Justin Pogge (Unknown); D Matej Pokorný (Unknown); D Tomáš Starosta (HK Dukla Trenčín [SVK]); F Tomáš Zigo (HK Hradec Králové [CZE])
There is still some uncertainty to be found in looking at Slovan’s roster, as the team awaits word on whether its two leading scorers from last season will return. At last reports, coach Říha was hinting that Jeff Taffe (58 gp, 18-25-43) was a possible late-camp reinforcement, while Slovan were waiting to hear whether Jonathon Cheechoo (60 gp, 20-20-40) will retire. Both men are closer to 40 years old than to 30, so we might reasonably ask how much they have left in the tank, but either or both would surely be welcome back in Bratislava.
That is because the number three and four scorers on the 2016-17 roster — Chipchura (59 gp, 13-16-29) and Jeglič (58 gp, 11-16-27) — are definitely gone, so Slovan are facing a possible need to replace their four best forwards from last season. There is some good news to be had, though, as the Slovak side has re-acquired its 2015-16 top scorer in Kašpar. He went 58 gp, 16-31-47 that season in helping Slovan to the playoffs, although his 2016-17 sojourn with Dynamo was less successful (27 gp, 7-9-16, and even a brief stint on the farm team). Joining him will be a pretty good playmaker in Ramstedt (49 gp, 7-18-25 for Amur least season after a very impressive time in Finland). The likes of Řepík, Mikuš, and Buchtele should be able to contribute, although none of those are really top-rate scorers.
As final note on the forwards, Slovan could truly benefit from a full season of health for Radek Smoleňák. Injury kept him to 13 games last season, and none after early December, but in that limited time he scored an excellent 5-6-11. Early reports have him lining up with Kašpar and Řepík, and we will see if that continues.
The Slovan defence, too, enters a season without some of 2016-17’s big guns. Plastino is the big loss; he scored 7-19-26 in 60 games to double the points of anyone else in the blueline group (the also-gone Kundrátek was tied for second in blueline points, although he gave up a lot on defensive side for that). Fortunately, Plastino’s replacement is easy to see in the newly-arrived Taimi, another excellent puck-moving defenceman who scored 1-8-9 in 18 games last season after joining Kunlun Red Star midway through. Slovan will miss the defensive reliability of Starosta, although newcomer Voráček should be able to fill that role at least somewhat. And staying with the theme of neat and tidy one-for-one substitutions, AHLer Ebert will likely be asked to take over the role of “good all-round defenceman” held by the departed Ďaloga.
Among the returning d-men, the key figure is still likely longtime NHLer Andrej Meszároš, who captained Slovan last season and will again in 2017-18. The 31-year-old went 4-9-13 in 35 games last season, but rather ominously posted the second-worst plus-minus among the defencemen at -9 — a rebound from that dismal number would be a welcome thing! Veteran KHLers Ivan Švarný and Michal Sersen, both of whom actually left late last season but have now returned, will help provide some depth behind their captain and the newcomers.
Finally, the goaltending. This was not a strength for Slovan last season; Brust posted a .918 sv% in 42 games, not disastrous but below average, while Pogge went a not-good-at-all .903 in 23 games. This year’s tandem will feature Štěpánek and Janus. Janus was Slovan’s goalie for their first three KHL seasons, and was very strong in the first of those (.928 sv% in 47 games in 2012-13). But his played tailed off thereafter, and he badly needed 2016-17’s solid performance in Czechia (.931 sv% in 39 games for Litvinov). Stepanek is a long-time KHL journeyman, with previous stops at SKA St. Petersburg, Lev Prague, and Severstal Cherepovets; his best campaign was for the last of those teams in 2013-14, when he went .931 in 47 games. It is up in the air which of the two will take the starting job for Slovan in 2017-18.
The goaltending is probably about it where it was last year, and the defence likewise or perhaps a bit better. The forward group, with Kašpar’s return and the arrival of Ramstedt, may be able to overcome the loss of those two top-scorers in Taffe in Cheechoo, but that remains to be seen. With the ever-wily Říha back for his third season behind the Slovan bench, this team certainly can rebound and make the playoffs (and if those two afore-mentioned scorers return, it really should), but a second straight year on the outside also remains a possibility.
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 Slovan be one of them? The possibility does exist — Slovan had a brush with financial disaster (a lack of sponsorship) in the summer of 2015, and went so far as to apply to re-join the Slovak Extraliga before sorting things out. However, they are a big hockey name from a near-abroad country, which is exactly the type of team the KHL is looking to get and keep in the fold under the new strategic plan. Furthermore, Slovan are among the better-supported teams in the league, playing in decently large and quite new arena. If Slovan do find themselves out of the league, it will likely be due to a recurrence of the 2015 sponsorship issue, rather than because the KHL found them unsuitable. They SHOULD be ok for the time being.
Next up: Admiral Vladivostok.