The Short, Spectacular, KHL Career of Mr. Linden Vey
It is not unusual to see a note in the KHL news about a player’s contract being cancelled by mutual consent of the parties, nor is it often a surprise when we see who the player is. Sometimes guys do not meet expectations (on or off the ice), and sometimes a foreign player is let to free up an import slot for a more promising replacement. It’s part of the business, in other words. However, today’s contract termination was indeed a shock: Barys Astana have cut ties with forward Linden Vey, despite the fact that Vey sits third in the KHL scoring race with a stat line of 50 gp, 17-35-52 (he is also third in the league in assists). And there was no hideous off-ice scandal, either, that might have contributed to to the move. So what happened? Read on, for that, and for a look at the East Conference playoff race.
Back in August when we previewed Barys Astana’s 2017-18 campaign, the big question was whether the Kazakh side could replace its big line of Nigel Dawes, Brandon Bochenski, and Dustin Boyd (Bochenski had retired, while Boyd moved on to Dynamo Moscow). At first, the answer seemed to be an enthusiastic “yes.” Vey was recruited from the Calgary Flames’ system after a very solid AHL year (61 gp, 15-40-55 for the Stockton Heat), and immediately formed a potent partnership with the returning Dawes. Dawes scored an incredible 26 goals in the season’s first 25 games, and looked certain to overtake Sergei Mozyakin’s record for markers in a season. And Vey was the big reason, leading the KHL with 26 assists in the same span. The 26-year-old from Wakaw, Saskatchewan, also occupied, for a time, top spot in the league’s points race, bidding seriously to become the first player other than Mozyakin and Alexander Radulov to win the KHL scoring title. Vey would go on to make not only the Chernyshyov Division All-Star team, but the Canadian Olympic squad as well (Dawes, also of Canadian origin, switched his “sporting nationality” to Kazakhstan some time ago). In early November, Barys topped the East Conference standings, and all seemed well.
It is no longer so. Dawes ran into niggling injury troubles, and though he still tops the KHL’s goal-scoring charts with 31, he is now only a single goal ahead of Ilya Kovalchuk. Dawes’ last marker for Barys arrived on December 5th, although as noted he has missed some time between then and now. As for Vey, he has a line of just 5-3-8 in his last 16 games. Worse, Barys went 2-14 in those 16 games, collecting a measly five of a possible 48 points. Forget any thoughts of finishing first in the East; in fact, Barys’ chances of making the playoffs are now merely mathematical (more on that in a bit). On January 1st, the team switched coaches, firing Yevgeny Koreshkov in favour of interim bench boss Galym Mambetaliyev, but even that and the recent summoning of both an Imam and and a Priest for some traditional propitiatory rituals have failed to stop the slide.
Vey’s last appearance as a home-team player in Barys’ rink came at the recent KHL All-Star competition, where he and Dawes represented the Chernyshyov Division (Vey and Dawes, pleasantly enough, combined to set up their Barys team-mate Kevin Dallman for a goal). It was a somewhat poignant reminder of the season that had begun with such promise. But for Vey the writing was on the wall by that point, and it was firmly underlined when Barys declined even to take him along on the team’s post-All-Star road trip.
Today, his exit was formalized, but fortunately he was not out of work long, signing on just a few hours later for Zurich SC of the Swiss league, where he will finish up this season. However, reports today suggested that he may well be back for 2018-19, if not with Barys then at least in the KHL. The same article mentions the likelihood of financial reasons behind his departure; with Barys almost certain to miss the playoffs, there was no reason to keep an expensive player on the books for another couple of months. That is reasonable enough, in the final analysis; perhaps, despite the title of this piece, we have not after all seen the last of Mr. Vey.
Despite the fact that the regular season will not end until late February, KHL teams have only a handful of games left, as the month-long Olympic break will occupy most of the time between now and then. And in the East Conference, the playoff race is a wide-open one. Ak Bars Kazan top the Conference, with five games remaining and 94 points, but remarkably they are so far the only East team to have clinched a post-season berth. Not far behind them, with 90 points and four games left, are Avtomobilist Yekaterinburg, and though they have stumbled a bit in recent days, it is surely just a matter of time before they clinch as well.
Following up behind the top two are a trio of teams who are likely to be safe as well. Metallurg Magnitogorsk (4 games remaining, 86 points), Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk (5 GR, 85 pts), and Traktor Chelyabinsk (4 GR, 84 pts) are tightly grouped just ahead of the real playoff struggle. Two of these teams will make the post-season whatever happens, simply because there need to be eight teams in the Conference playoff. But all three should be there in the end, unless something goes seriously haywire.
The real playoff struggle involves four teams, all from the Chernyshyov Division and separated by just three points, fighting over three spots. The squads involved are: Avangard Omsk (4 GR, 81 pts), Salavat Yulaev Ufa (5 GR, 80 pts), Sibir Novosibirsk (4 GR, 79 pts), and Amur Khabarovsk (6 GR, 78 pts). For added excitement, whoever comes out on top of this little group will actually get the Conference’s second seed heading into the playoffs, on account of having won the Division. Were I the betting sort, I would tend towards Salavat Yulaev for that honour, as they have recently been reinforced with players caught up in the Admiral Vladivostok diaspora. And though Amur are currently bringing up the rear in this little group, note that they have a game in hand on Salavat Yulaev, and two on Avangard and Sibir. The Far-Easterner’s quest for a first post-season since 2011-12 is by no means a long-shot.
Still with a faint mathematical chance, but only that, are the above-discussed Barys Astana (4 GR, 67 pts). Their margin for error or misfortune is very slim, however; should Sibir pick up even one more point, or Amur get two, that will be it even if Barys win all their remaining games in regulation. And if Barys themselves drop a single point in those last four games, then it’s all over for them for 2017-18.
Just to complete the story: for Kunlun Red Star Beijing, Admiral Vladivostok, Lada Tolyatti, and Ugra Khanty-Mansiysk, the post-season an impossibility. That means that at least two teams will make the playoffs that did not do so in 2016-17. Right now, those teams would seem to be Avtomobilist and Neftekhimik. If Barys do indeed miss out, that will mean a third “newcomer” in either Sibir or Amur.
With much of this post dealing with ice hockey in Kazakhstan, it would be remiss not to take note of the horrendous tragedy that struck that country today when a bus caught fire near the northwestern town of Yrgyz, killing 52 people. The victims are believed to be migrant workers from Uzbekistan traveling to Russia for employment. Warm thoughts and deepest condolences to all affected by the tragedy.
Thank you for reading, and tomorrow or on Saturday we will take a look at the playoff picture in the KHL’s West Conference!