With three new clubs and the defending champion, the Bobrov Division is perhaps the most unpredictable section in the league. While the traditionally strong clubs like Dynamo Moscow and SKA St. Petersburg will expect to qualify fairly comfortably, neither can be entirely certain what to expect from Donbass Donetsk, Lev Prague and Slovan Bratislava as all three take their KHL bows. And while Vityaz Chekhov and Dinamo Riga may seem to be outsiders, both clubs have ambitions of their own.
The league’s Latvian franchise may not have the mega-bucks budget of some of its rivals, but it enjoys passionate support and has regularly proved capable of upsetting most expensively assembled rivals. The club has lost the services of Mikelis Redlihs, last season’s top scorer, who has moved to Lokomotiv Yaroslavl, while Janis Sprukts is now at CSKA, but head coach Pekka Rautakallio has moved to bring in a handful of North American players, including the eye-catching Rob Schremp, renowned for his tricky attacking play. The conveyor belt of local talent also continues to serve the club, with 21-year-old Miks Indrasis looking to cement his place at the club after being called into the Latvian World Championship squad earlier this year.
Key figure: Rob Schremp looks terrific on Youtube, and the fans are expecting the new signing to light up the ice in Riga.
What they’re saying: “Every single person I talked to said that this is the best place to play in the KHL, as far as fans, the city and the way the organization treats the players.” – Rob Schremp shares his research into Latvian hockey.
Donbass got a taste of Russian hockey in last season’s VHL, and the ambitious Ukrainian side is out to make an impact in the KHL. With Julius Supler, previously of Dinamo Riga and CSKA, behind the bench, a new-look roster has been assembled – thanks in no small part to the investment of Boris Kolesnikov, Ukraine’s deputy prime minister. The likes of Erik Ersberg, the ex-Salavat Yulaev goalie, and experienced D-men Jaroslav Obsut and Karel Pilar, point to a team which will be tough to break down, while up front all eyes are on exciting young forward Evgeny Dadonov and former Barys frontman Lukas Kaspar.
Key figure: Coach Julius Supler has never failed to take a team to the KHL play-offs, and he will expect to keep that record going with the newcomers.
What they’re saying: “The fans in Donetsk are gaining an understanding of the game; in fact, I can say with some confidence that many people in the city are already beginning to live and breathe hockey.” – captain Sergei Varlamov.
Last season’s champion spent much of the summer securing a long-term contract for the services of Mikhail Anisin, but lost Leo Komarov and Jakub Klepis up front. Swedish forward Richard Gynge has joined from AIK, and Kirill Knyazev arrives from Neftekhimik, while at the back Roman Derlyuk is back at the club after a season in the US.
Key figure: the pressure is on Mikhail Anisin to maintain his free-scoring play-off form and justify the long struggle to sign him on a permanent contract.
What they’re saying: “The work is on-going, and players are still making mistakes. I’d give us a ‘C’ grade for this tournament.” – Head coach Oleg Znarok after Dynamo won the Mayor of Moscow Cup.
KHL hockey comes to the Czech Republic for the first time, and the Prague team can already boast a Gagarin Cup winner on the roster. Jakub Klepis, who grabbed the only goal as Dynamo won in Game 7 last season, decided to return to his homeland to help launch a new era of Czech hockey history. Other familiar names include Petr Vrana, a big success with Amur last season, Marcel Hossa, a persistent threat to KHL defenses in the colors of Dinamo Riga, Ak Bars and Spartak, and Lubos Bartecko, who skippered Lev Poprad in its debut KHL season last time round. Head coach Josef Jandac has joined from Sparta Prague, the club which shares its Tipsport Arena with Lev.
Key figure: Marcel Hossa was the league’s top scorer when he played in Riga – if he can recapture that form in Prague, the Lions have a good chance of roaring up the table.
What they’re saying: “We’re building around a nucleus of Czech players, since in the KHL Lev will be representing the whole nation. It’s true that many of the best Czech players are tied to contracts with other clubs, but I think we’ve assembled a decent outfit.” – head coach Josef Jandac.
SKA St. Petersburg
In previous seasons SKA has hogged the summer headlines, spending freely and signing up big names in pursuit of its first ever major title. This time, though, things have been quieter, with head coach Milos Riha content to tweak his squad rather than tackle a major overhaul. It all means last season’s Western Conference finalists enjoy a rare level of continuity as preparations near their conclusion. Pre-season results have been promising at times – especially in SKA’s dominant performance at the President of Kazakhstan’s trophy – although the final warm-up tournament in Donbass was less impressive.
Key figure: defensive discipline has long been the Achilles heel for SKA – Kevin Dallman could be the answer to that problem this time round.
What they’re saying: “There’s no place for individualism at SKA – everyone must play for the team. That’s what we’re striving for.” – Milos Riha.
The third debutant is a well-known name in European hockey, dating back to 1921 – 25 years before the sport arrived in Russia. Slovan Bratislava has taken a bold step in moving away from its local league – one which it has won eight times since Slovakia separated from the Czechs – to test itself at a higher level. With Slovakia’s national team delighting fans by taking silver in the World Championship, it’s a good time for Slovak hockey, and the capture of popular forward and 2002 World Cup winner Miroslav Satan has intensified excitement in Bratislava. Former Avangard coach Rostislav Cada is behind the bench.
Key figure: Miroslav Satan has won almost everything in hockey, but will be keen to put the record straight after his disappointing KHL spell at Dynamo Moscow.
What they’re saying: “I worked with Cada a few seasons ago and was impressed by the kind of hockey his teams play. During his time in Omsk I think he got to know the playing style of the teams in the KHL. He knows how to play against them, so we’ll become formidable opponents.” – Gagarin Cup winning forward Roman Kukumberg on his new boss.
The Moscow Region team is notorious for its tough guys – and new signing Trevor Gillies has vowed to join Jeremy Yablonski in “putting on a show” for spectators. But under new head coach Yury Leonov there are signs that the old days of on-ice brawling might be a thing of the past. His team has shown some improved pre-season results, including a win over Ak Bars, a 5-0 thumping of Dynamo Moscow and a successful trip to the Ruslan Salei Memorial Trophy in Minsk. Vityaz has yet to reach a KHL play-off, but general manager Alexei Zhamnov is confident that this can be their year.
Key figure: young forward Artemy Panarin is a good example of the better side of Vityaz – a strong youth system. After a short spell at Ak Bars he’s back, and eager to follow in the footsteps of Mikhail Anisin once he returns to full fitness.
What they’re saying: “I’m here to fight and to play hockey. I love doing both, and when our fans want a show it’s up to us to give ‘em one.” – new signing Trevor Gillies.