Extending on both sides. Eastern Conference preview

4 September 2013, 07:59

Admiral.jpgAdmiral Vladivostok

Head coach: Hannu Jortikka (appointed this summer)

Last season: Did not compete

Prospects: Is Vladisvostok ready for top-level hockey? By the time Admiral plays its first game on home ice, against CSKA on Sep. 27, fans in the Far East will have had plenty of chances to see their new heroes on TV. But while a seven-game road trip could be ideal to get the team to gel, a run of poor results could make it hard to attract the public to games from the start. Much will depend on Jortikka’s wiles as he returns to the Russia following his success at Amur. On the ice, Enver Lisin’s experience may well be crucial if the newcomer is to achieve more than novelty status.

Ak%20Bars.jpgAk Bars Kazan

Head coach: Valery Belov (continues from last season)

Last season: Conference Finalist (lost 3-4 to Traktor)

Key arrivals: Alexander Burmistrov (Winnipeg), Tim Stapleton (Dinamo Minsk), Alexander Svitov (Salavat Yulaev)

Prospects: It’s the end of a glorious era in Kazan, with the departure of Alexei Morozov and Danis Zaripov representing the biggest exodus of top-class talent since 2005. That turmoil kickstarted a spell of domination which brought three championships – will the new-look team follow suit this time? The new-look offense has potential: Burmistrov has a point to prove after a modest season in Canada, Stapleton has been prolific in Belarus and Svitov was the key man in Ufa last term. But one of the players remaining from last season, goalie Konstantin Barulin, may yet be the key figure. If he can recapture the form which took Atlant to the 2010 final, few teams will enjoy much success against Ak Bars.

Amur.jpgAmur Khabarovsk

Head coach: Evgeny Popikhin (replaced Hannu Jortikka last season)

Last season: Failed to reach the play-offs, runner up in the Nadezhda Cup

Key arrivals: Jan Mursak (Detroit), Jakub Petruzalek (Dynamo Moscow)

Prospects: After taking Amur to a rare play-off campaign in 2012, Jortikka paid the price for failing to build on that success last time around. But his legacy endures in a club which is more determined than ever to start rewarding its loyal fanbase with something to cheer. The arrival of Mursak, a Slovenian forward who starred as the Red Wings’ farm club claimed the AHL title last season, is likely to determine whether that happens, while the return of Petruzalek from his short stint at Dynamo ensures at least one popular player remains in Khabarovsk for the coming campaign. But questions remain over coach Popikhin, who is still looking to establish himself at a club after four unsuccessful stints elsewhere.

Avangard.jpgAvangard Omsk Region

Head coach: Petri Matikainen (continuing from last season)

Last season: Conference semi-final (lost 1-4 to Traktor)

Key arrivals: Sergei Kostitsyn (Nashville), Teemu Lassilla (Barys), Denis Kulyash (Ak Bars)

Prospects: Avangard is determined to secure its first Gagarin Cup, and some are surprised that Matikainen has kept his job after a shot-shy show against Traktor saw the team meekly bow out of the play-offs last time. But the Finn is back, and is banking on a revamped rearguard to bolster hopes of glory. The departure of Kari Ramo is a disappointment, but his compatriot Lassilla has impressed at Barys. In front of him, it’s all change among the defense, but the signing of Sergei Kostitsyn could be the attacking spark which pushes Avangard deep into the play-offs this time.

Avto.jpgAvtomobilist Yekaterinburg

Head coach: Anatoly Yemelin (appointed in the summer, from Metallurg Novokuznetsk)

Last season: Failed to reach the play-offs

Key arrivals: Jan Kovar (Mountfield, CZE), Eric Belanger (Edmonton Oilers)

Prospects: The Yekaterinburg club is under new management, following the arrival of GM Leonid Vaisfeld from Metallurg Novokuznetsk. And, as we saw last year, the struggling Ural outfit is hoping to make progress with a solid goalie. Chris Holt’s skills between the piping couldn’t lift Avto last time, so now Czech international Kovar will take on the task following a stellar season in his home country last time around. The other eye-catching addition is Canadian veteran Belanger, who has 820 NHL appearances with seven clubs. The forward arrives from Edmonton where he suffered a disappointing campaign last time around.

Barys.jpgBarys Astana

Head coach: Ari-Pekka Selin (appointed in the summer)

Last season: First round play-off (lost 3-4 to Traktor)

Key arrivals: Nik Antropov (Winnipeg Jets), Ari Ahonen (Metallurg Mg)

Prospects: The loss of head coach Vladimir Krikunov, who is back at Neftekhimik, is the strongest indication that Barys will face a tough season; the return of lock-out star Nik Antropov is the best argument for better things in Kazakhstan. The earlier influence of the Kazakh national team has also waned, with the likes of Vadim Krasnoslobodtsev and Alexei Troshchinsky moving on. Meanwhile, the overseas contingent remains stable, with the trusted Dawes-Boyd-Bochenski line surviving the summer intact. The question is whether the little-known Selin can match the results that Krikunov achieved.

MMG.jpgMetallurg Magnitogorsk

Head coach: Mike Keenan (replaces Paul Maurice this summer)

Last season: First round of the play-offs (lost 3-4 to Salavat Yulaev)

Key arrivals: Vasily Kosechkin (Severstal), Danis Zaripov (Ak Bars), Evgeny Timkin (Vityaz)

Prospects: Another season, another North American attempts to bring success to Magnitogorsk. Last year Paul Maurice’s arrival was unveiled as the start of a long-term plan to rebuild the roster in a more youthful shape. Now Maurice is gone, Keenan is in and local lock-out hero Evgeny Malkin is back in Pittsburgh. But transfer dealings have brought great experience in the form of wily forward Zaripov, powerful potential from young attacker Timkin and solid goaltending from Kosechkin. A first-round flop in last year’s play-off is a bitter memory; hopes are high for an improvement this time.

MNK.jpgMetallurg Novokuznetsk

Head coach: Alexander Kvitov (replaced Anatoly Yemelin this summer)

Last season: Failed to reach the play-offs

Key arrivals: Raymond Giroux (Ambri-Piotta, Switzerland), Niko Hovinen (Oklahoma, AHL)

Prospects: Given the financial problems which dogged Novokuznetsk, merely completing the season was an achievement. The team has yet to reach a KHL play-off, and it’s hard to see that unhappy record change this time around. Changes in the organization’s management haven’t made the club any wealthier, so it’s another youthful team which will contest the coming season. French-Canadian D-man Giroux returns to Russia after a season in the Alps, while much is likely to rest on the form of Finnish goalie Hovinen.

Neftekhimik.jpgNeftekhimik Nizhnekamsk

Head coach: Vladimir Krikunov (arrived from Barys this summer)

Last season: First round of the play-offs

Key arrivals: Mikhail Anisin (Severstal), Branko Radivojevic (Spartak)

Prospects: Krikunov is an immensely popular and respected figure in Nizhnekamsk, and his return alone would give hope of giving the underdogs extra bite. And the capture of Anisin and Radivojevic could do just that, even if Anisin’s controversial reputation saw him leave Dynamo under a cloud after his explosive play-off form helped the Moscow team to the 2012 Gagarin Cup. Krikunov believes he has the measure of the talented but unpredictable forward; if he has, Neftekhimik will be a dangerous proposition this term.

Salavat.jpgSalavat Yulaev Ufa

Head coach: Vladimir Yurzinov Jr (replaced Vener Safin during the previous season)

Last season: Conference semi-final (lost 3-4 to Ak Bars)

Key arrivals: Anton Babchuk (Calgary Flames), Teemu Hartikainen (Edmonton Oilers)

Prospects: The dark horses of the East, Salavat Yulaev have had a low-profile summer compared to their biggest rivals. After a steady improvement through the latter stages of last season, the team has strengthened on defense with the arrival of Babchuk. He joins the likes of Brent Sopel and Vitaly Proshkin, both of whom impressed last season. But up front things are less encouraging. Several attackers have moved on, most notably Alexander Svitov, perhaps motivated in part by a wish to cut the playing budget. Their replacements are largely unproven, with Hartikainen in particular arriving as something of a mystery.

Sibir.jpgSibir Novosibirsk

Head coach: Dmitry Kvartalnov (since 2012)

Last season: Play-off first round (lost 3-4 to Avangard)

Key arrivals: Jarno Koskiranta (Tappara, Finland), Vyacheslav Belov (Traktor)

Prospects: The departure of two key players – goalie Jeff Glass and defenseman Nikita Zaitsev – has hit Sibir’s chances of joining the conference’s big guns and turning the current ‘big five’ into a ‘super six’. Instead, the upcoming season looks to be a case of consolidation. But the Finnish forward Jori Lehtera remains, and he’s joined by Koskiranta to offer some hope of another serious play-off push.

Torpedo.jpgTorpedo Nizhny Novgorod

Head coach: Peteris Skudra (appointed this summer)

Last season: Failed to reach the play-offs, played in the Western Conference

Key arrivals: Jarkko Immonen (Ak Bars), Georgy Gelashvili (Metallurg Magnitogorsk)

Prospects: A new coach and a new broom in Nizhny Novgorod, where former goalie NHL Skudra is taking on his first head coach job. He’s coming in with big plans, and refuses to be content with scraping into the play-offs. The offense has been reshaped, with Immonen’s arrival going some way to off-setting the loss of Matt Ellison, Dmitry Makarov and Martin Thornberg. Pre-season brought some positive signs, particularly at the club’s home tournament, although a surprise defeat to Medvescak and a moderate showing in Donetsk preseason tournament suggests that Skudra might need time to get his team playing at its best.

Traktor.jpgTraktor Chelyabinsk

Head coach: Valery Belousov

Last season: Runner up (lost 2-4 to Dynamo Moscow in Gagarin Cup final)

Key arrivals: Anton Kuryanov (Avangard), Renat Mamashev (Neftekhimik), Lauris Darzins (Ak Bars)

Prospects: The Traktor production line of talented young hockey players has lost two of its rising stars – but crucially it’s kept talismanic forward Evgeny Kuznetsov for another season. It’s likely that he’ll be off to the NHL next summer, so this is his last chance for a while to grab Gagarin Cup glory. Last season’s run to the final was impressive, but Kuznetsov himself knows his play-off form lacked the sparkle of a regular season where he scored 11 game-winning goals. To reinforce the offense, Darzins and Kuryanov replace Maxim Yakutsenya and Vladimir Antipov, while the defense gets a new look. Deron Quint will be missed, but Mamashev could be a masterful addition.

Yugra.jpgYugra Khanty-Mansiysk

Head coach: Sergei Shepelev

Last season: Failed to reach the play-offs

Key arrivals: Veli-Matti Savinainen (Assat, Finland), Guntis Galvins (Dinamo Riga)

Prospects: Much of the action here has been off the ice, with a new general manager arriving in Khanty-Mansiysk. Andrei Belmach has set the team the task of reaching the play-offs, and after struggling to keep hold of several highly-rated players the pressure on last season’s top scorer Igor Skorokhodov is as great as ever. Savinainen may relieve some of that: he scored 36 points in 46 games to help Assat win the Finnish title, and earned himself a call-up to the World Championship. Latvian defenseman Galvins is looking for a new challenge after several years in Riga, and a change of environment could reinvigorate his career.