Kunlun Red Star Beijing in 2018-19
A quick note for starters: I had originally intended to preview Slovan Bratislava after Dinamo Riga, but Slovan’s article is on hold for now — they simply have not yet done enough building of their roster, particularly at forward, for me to say anything useful right now. I will post their preview when we have a better idea of what the team will look like in 2018-19.
Five wins from Kunlun Red Star’s first seven games in 2017-18 under legendary Head Coach Mike Keenan, and all of them on the road, too… but then things went horribly awry for the KHL’s lone Chinese club. A winless November was followed by Keenan’s exit, and interim bench boss Bobby Carpenter could not turn things around. Playing the entire 2017-18 season in a temporary home in Shanghai probably did not help Kunlun Red Star, but there is some good news there: though KRS will again start this coming season in Shanghai, reports are that they plan to return to the Chinese capital in December. As for the roster, and their prospects for a rebound campaign, read on…
Kunlun Red Star Beijing in 2017-18: 15 W — 4 OT/SO W — 8 OT/SO L — 29 L (7th in Chernyshev Div., 12th in East Conf., 23rd in KHL. Missed Playoffs).
2017-18 Quarterly Splits**: .500 / .476 / .214 / .262
Head Coach: Juusi Tapola
In: D Victor Bartley (Örebro [SWE]); F Justin Fontaine (Dinamo Minsk); D Tomáš Kundrátek (Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod); D Ville Lajunen (Spartak Moscow); G Alexander Lazushin (Lada Togliatti); F Patrik Lundh (Djurgårdens IF [SWE]); F Tomáš Mertl (Škoda Plzeň [CZE]); F Josh Nicholls (Storhamar [NOR]); F Olli Palola (Jokerit Helsinki); D Blake Parlett (Eisbären Berlin [GER]); F Alexandre Picard (Amur Khabarovsk); F Veli-Matti Savinainen (Ugra Khanty-Mansiysk); D Ondřej Vitásek (Ugra Khanty-Mansiysk)
*=Player on try-out.
Out: F Yaroslav Alshevsky (Neftyanik Almetyevsk [VHL]); D Jesse Blacker (Unknown); F Kyle Chipchura (Unknown); D Roman Graborenko (Unknown); F Gilbert Brulé (Unknown); F Brandon DeFazio (Unknown); G Magnus Hellberg (SKA St. Petersburg); D Nikita Khlystov (Traktor Chelyabinsk); F Andrei Kostitsyn (Dinamo Minsk); F Kirill Lebedev (Torpedo Ust-Kamenogorsk [VHL]); F Lucas Lessio (Unknown); F Brendan O’Donnell (Unknown); D Sergei Peretyagin (Unknown); F Alexei Ponikarovsky (Unknown); F Jaakko Rissanen (KalPa [FIN]); D Nicholas Schaus (Slovan Bratislava)
Kunlun Red Star’s defence was not strong in 2017-18, giving up more than 32 shots per game, and it was only thanks to some decent work by Magnus Hellberg in goal (51 gp, .926 sv%) that they gave up “only” the sixth-most goals in the league (146). Hellberg departs to back up Igor Shestyorkin in St. Petersburg, but KRS do seem to have found a solid replacement in Lazushin. The 30-year-old, a former longtime backup to Alexander Yeryomenko at Dynamo Moscow, had two superb seasons in the Russian capital from 2013-15, and while his .924 sv% in 31 games for Lada last season was just a hair above league average, he is a capable goalie. Alexander Skrynnik, who posted a .921 sv% in nine games last season, will likely handle the backup duties at KRS, and that’s fine too.
Kunlun Red Star’s blueline corps was, as noted, a defence that needed fixing, and none of the departing rearguards could boast a strong 2017-18 campaign for KRS (Schaus was probably the best of them). But the Chinese club has hung on to, unquestionably, their best d-man of last season, Belarusan Pavel Vorobey. Vorobey led the defence group in points (albeit with just 12 in 52 games, which is a bad sign) and was the only blueliner to score more than two goals (he had four). More impressively however, on a team that was outscored by 43 goals, Vorobey went +8 to lead the team by five in that category. The most significant other returning defenceman is Zach Yuen, who went 2-1-3 and -1 in 21 games of limited ice-time last season before being cut loose by Keenan. The 25-year-old Chinese-Canadian ended up eventually at KRS’ VHL farm-team, and we’ll see what happens this year.
But hats off to KRS for some very solid off-season procurement in the defense department. Vitásek is an excellent defensive defenceman who posted an even +/- in 42 games last season for Ugra, a team that was out-scored by 74. Vitásek won’t score much himself, but the play-making Lajunen can; a KHLer since 2014, he posted a line of 6-20-26 in 52 games last season for Spartak. Kundrátek, too, is a smart hire: an experienced two-way rearguard with three seasons of KHL action and a few NHL games for Washington on his resume. A top four of some combination of Vorobey, Vitásek, Lajunen, and Kundrátek makes Kunlun Red Star’s defensive outlook better already, even if everything is still “on paper.”
But where will the goals come from? Kunlun Red Star scored just 103 last year, second-fewest in the KHL, and they have now lost the services of their top goal- and point-man, Brulé (47 gp, 17-19-36), after the mid-season departure of another talented scorer in Wojtek Wolski (32 gp, 7-21-28). Brulé is a free agent, and could conceivably return to KRS later this summer; for the team’s sake, I hope he does. Cory Kane (55 gp, 12-8-20) and Brandon Yip (48 gp, 9-9-18) will return to the forward group, but those numbers will hardly set hearts a-flutter, and both struggled at the defensive side of the game. Another player to watch will be Greg Squires, who missed most of last season due to injury but is a strong candidate for a bounce-back campaign; he’s got some solid years in the Swedish league in his past. And I should mention also Taylor Beck, who arrived in December, after a miserable stint with Avtomobilist Yekaterinburg. Beck showed encouraging signs of recovery at KRS, scoring 4-9-13 in 21 games and going +1. Modest, but as I said, encouraging.
The incoming forwards, meanwhile, are an interesting group, but there is no certainty that a KHL scoring star is among them. Savinainen was the top sniper in the Finnish Liiga in 2016-17 (30 goals in 55 games for Tappara), but managed just nine markers in 50 matches for an admittedly very weak Ugra side in 2017-18. Similarly, Mertl was the top goalscorer in the Czech Extraliga last season (30 goals in 50 games), but prior to that he scored just 22 times in 108 KHL games. Palola had a tremendous 2017-18 playoffs for Jokerit (six goals in ten games) but has generally struggled to score at the KHL level. Lundh and Fontaine had decent but unspectacular 2017-18 campaigns for their respective teams, and so on. It’s decent bunch, as I said, and an experienced one (all the players mentioned above are in their early 30s), but without some further reinforcement this summer, some of Kunlun Red Star’s forwards may be asked to do more than they can.
One of the big perennial questions with Kunlun Red Star is: how goes the club’s project of developing Chinese hockey ahead the country’s hosting of the 2022 Winter Olympics? The jury is still very much out on that, but, with those Winter Games fast approaching, Chinese hockey authorities, and the KRS club itself, seem to be looking to recruit as many Chinese-Canadian and Chinese-American players as they can. KRS players like Squires, Yuen, Yip, Kane, and depth forward Lucas Lockhart are now listed as Chinese players by the KHL, and if I understand things correctly are on course to receive Chinese “sports citizenship” from the IIHF in a year or two. The club’s VHL farm team, Kunlun Red Star Heilongjiang, who may be moving to Beijing for this coming season, contains another group of North-American-born players in that category (notably 21-year-old forward Hu Yang, who scored 12-12-24 in 51 VHL games last season and may get a brief KHL look in 2018-19), as well as some home-grown Chinese players. It’s not a bad strategy, all-in-all; the North-American-born players can allow China to ice a competitive, though probably not a contending, men’s team in 2022, while the grassroots development of hockey in the country goes on at its own, necessarily slower, pace.
So, to sum up Kunlun Red Star Beijing in 2018-19. Goaltending? Decent if not world-beating. The defence? Much, much, improved, or at least it should be. The forwards? Still a work in progress. And the new Head Coach? A relatively little-known KHL rookie who nonetheless arrives having done some good things in his home league in Finland. This Kunlun Red Star team should be able to compete for a playoff spot in 2018-19, but with no guarantees whatsoever that they will win that fight in the end.
Next up: Admiral Vladivostok or Slovan Bratislava
** = This is a new thing in the previews this year, showing the percentage of available points that the team picked up in each quarter of 2017-18 regular season (each quarter comprised 14 games, and thus 42 possible points). Numbers in red indicate that the team was in the bottom five (plus ties) in the KHL for pts% in that quarter, while green indicates that the team was in the top five. The full table of KHL 2017-18 splits can be seen here.