HK Sochi in 2017-18
No team fell harder in 2016-17 than HK Sochi. Coming off a fourth-place finish in the league, the boys from the Black Sea coast saw their team shooting percentage drop from 9.12% (ninth in the KHL in 2015-16) to 7.16% (fifth-worst). They actually conceded fewer goals last season than in the previous, but that decline in sh% knocked their goals scored from 175 to 139, and sent HK Sochi to their first missed playoffs in the team’s three-year history. And so there is a new coach behind the bench — can Sergei Zubov fix things? Read on…
HK Sochi in 2016-17: 24 W — 7 OT/SO W — 2 OT/SO L — 27 L
6th in Tarasov Div., 9th in West Conf., 14th in KHL. Missed Playoffs.
Head Coach: Sergei Zubov.
In: G Arseny Akhmetov (Irbis Kazan [MHL]); F Dmitry Boichuk (THK Tver [VHL]); F Sean Collins (Kunlun Red Star Beijing); F Ryan Garbutt (Anaheim Ducks [NHL]); F Andrei Ivanov (Lada Tolyatti); D Ilya Khokhlov (Severstal Cherepovets); G Pyotr Kochetkov (Dizel Penza [VHL]); F Yevgeny Lapenkov (Ugra Khanty-Mansiysk); F Dmitry Maltsev (Salavat Yulaev Ufa); F Simon Önerud (HV71 [SWE]); D Nikita Shchitov (Avtomobilist Yekaterinburg); D Andrei Shefer (Severstal Cherepovets); D Alexander Titov (Metallurg Novokuznetsk); F Alexei Tsvetkov (Dynamo Moscow); F Casey Wellman (Frölunda HC [SWE])
Out: D Oscar Fantenberg (Los Angeles Kings [NHL]); F Igor Ignatushkin (Dynamo Moscow); F Andrei Kostitsyn (Kunlun Red Star Beijing); F Ilya Krikunov (Avtomobilist Yekaterinburg); F Igor Levitsky (Sibir Novosibirsk Oblast); F Ben Maxwell (Spartak Moscow); D Renat Mamashev (Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod); F Pavel Medvedev (Unknown); F Alexander Mereskin (Unknown); D Dmitry Osipov (Ak Bars Kazan); D Alexei Peplyayev (Spartak Moscow); F André Petersson (Avangard Omsk Oblast); F Yevgeny Skachkov (Ugra Khanty-Mansiysk)
Not only did Sochi see their goal production drop off sharply in 2016-17, but they also now face the task of replacing the three forwards who did score decently. Krikunov led the team in points and assists (54 gp, 12-23-35), while Kostitsyn topped the goal-scoring chart (51 gp, 16-18-34). However, the biggest loss to the forward group is unquestionably Petersson. While missing a third of the season through injury, to HK Sochi’s great detriment, he still managed a line of 14-15-29 in 39 games, and led the team in shots (159). That trio’s departure leaves Erik O’Dell (50 gp, 11-13-24, which is ok but won’t scare any opponents) as the top point-scoring forward to remain. Ivan Zakharchuk (57 gp, 13-5-18) is top remaining goal man.
Collins, who went 13-26-39 in 60 games for Kunlun Red Star, appears a decent bet to replace the play-making that left with Krikunov, while former Sochi player Lapenkov scored 15 goals for Ugra last season (56 gp, 15-21-36). Petersson, however, will likely have to be replaced by committee. Wellman has previous KHL experience, albeit not of the stellar variety (40 gp, 8-8-16 for Spartak in 2015-16), and is coming off a nice season in Sweden (45 gp, 14-19-33, plus nine goals in 14 playoff games). He was also a good scorer in the AHL in previous years. Önerud’s 2016-17 season, in the same league as Wellman, was quite similar (37 gp, 14-15-29, plus ten goals in 16 playoff matches), so he too could contribute to bumping Sochi’s goals total back up. Tsvetkov (49 gp, 7-29-28) has had a very good career as a two-way forward with excellent playmaking ability, although he is now 35. And coach Zubov will be hoping that this is the season that young Pavel Padakin breaks out; the 23-year-old scored 6-6-12 in 52 games for Sochi during his rookie KHL campaign last year, after a very decent run in Canadian junior hockey. As for the other new forwards, “useful depth” is likely the upper limit.
It is a similar tale on defence for HK Sochi, with the team’s top two 2016-17 performers headed out. Fantenberg provided good offensive support to the front lines, with a line of 3-30-23 in 44 games (I had a chance to chat with Sheng Peng of Hockey Buzz about him back in April); he was particularly useful on the powerplay, and that is something that will need to be addressed. KHL fans may remember Mamashev, a veteran journeyman who got a chance alongside Nail Yakupov with Neftekhimik in 2012-13, and ended up leading the league in points from defence (52 gp, 10-32-42). His line of 47 gp, 4-13-17 for Sochi last year was much more in line with his career normal: good, but not irreplaceable.
Notable returning defencemen include Mikhail Mamkin (60 gp, 3-12-15) and Yuri Alexandrov (37 gp, 3-4-7), neither of whom lit up the scoreboard but who did lead the blueline group in plus-minus at +4. If you want a dark horse for a break-out season by a young rearguard, 22-year-old Ruslan Pedan (brother of the Vancouver Canucks Andrey Pedan) might — MIGHT! — be something of a candidate.
There is a familiar face for Sochi fans among the incoming rearguards: Shchitov was the team’s first-ever captain, back in 2014-15, and was excellent for the Black Sea team that year (60 gp, 8-23-31). That point total, however, was almost double his second-best season output before or since, and he is now 34. That’s the same age as the afore-mentioned Mamashev, and in fact the two men have had remarkably similar careers: reliable depth defencemen with some playmaking ability, who happened to break out for one incredible season (Mamashev is probably the superior of the two, if not by a lot). In any case, Shchitov scored 3-6-9 in 43 games last season, and that is much more like what we’re used to from him. Of the other new arrivals on the blueline, Khokhlov is likely the most intriguing; he’s still only 22, and finding his way, but there could be a real player there.
At least in goal there has been some stability. Konstantin Barulin is not what he was a few years ago (i.e. arguably the best goalie in the KHL), but he remains a solid, reliable, first-stringer. Last season he stopped shots at a .925 rate over 53 games, above-average if only by a little bit. The starting job should be his yet again. Dmitry Shikin, Barulin’s 2016-17 backup, did not have a great year (17 gp, .912 sv%), so that job is somewhat up for grabs. Oleg Nazarov and Sergei Bolshakov, both whom were in Sochi’s system last year but saw no KHL time, are the other contenders. The two new ‘keepers in the fold, Akhmetov and Kochetkov, are only 18 years old, and I will be very surprised if we see either one of them in the big league this season.
Much will depend on how Zubov, hired just this spring, goes about things. This will be his second KHL head coaching job, but the first time he has been able to take his team through pre-season preparation. Zubov’s predecessor in Sochi, Vyacheslav Butsayev, was known for giving his players pretty much free rein when it came to improvising on the ice, and that worked pretty well up until 2016-17. Zubov is likely to be something more of a systems coach, but we shall see.
Based solely on the off-season changes, it is hard to see HK Sochi taking much of a step forward this coming season. If that shooting percentage corrects, and that is a genuine possibility, they may improve a bit, but without an obvious replacement for Petersson (or Fantenberg) they could just as easily slip backwards. In any case, another season of scrapping for a West Conference playoff spot seems in the cards, and at this point I would have to say that HK Sochi are more likely out than in.
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 HK Sochi be one of them? Well, the team’s General Director, Sergei Voropayev, spoke frankly about the situation this week, calling the impending league contraction a “sword of Damocles” hanging over them. And indeed, HK Sochi have been in the news due to financial problems throughout almost all of their brief history. They do have an excellent arena, built for the 2014 Olympics and seating 12,000, but Sochi is not a big place in the KHL context (pop: 365,000), and they struggle to fill the building (40% capacity last year). The on-ice product has been quite decent, especially for a recent expansion team, and there are certainly KHL clubs in more dire straits as regards the planned contraction. But HK Sochi need to be careful, and in particular they need to solve their longstanding money problems.
Next up: Barys Astana