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Club-by-club preview – Kharlamov Division

3 September 2014, 20:39

Avto.jpgAvtomobilist
Head coach: Anatoly Yemelin
Last season: lost in first round of the play-offs
One to watch: Sami Lepisto is the star man on this roster, having proved his credentials as part of Finland’s Olympic team. He certainly looked the part in Yekaterinburg last season, picking up 25 points from the blue line and returning a +6 coefficient over the season.
Point to prove: Veteran forward Viktor Kozlov didn’t get a minute of ice time at CSKA last season, but the 39-year-old is refusing to give up. He’s accepted a one-year deal in Yekaterinburg, and his experience could help steer a relatively raw roster towards a play-off return.
Prospects: Yemelin’s coaching talents are well-known, and taking Avto to last season’s play-offs was a fine achievement. It’s unlikely that he can improve on that this time, but don’t bet against the Ural team repeating its top-eight finish.

AkBars.jpgAk Bars
Head coach: Zinetula Bilyaletdinov (replaces Valery Belov)
Last season: lost in first round of the play-offs
One to watch: Justin Azevedo shot to fame in last year’s play-offs, finding the net in all seven games of the final series. That wasn’t quite enough to help Lev lift the cup, but after moving to Kazan he has realistic hopes of going one better this season.
Point to prove: Ilya Nikulin found himself scratched from Russia’s Olympic team after three games and wasn’t called up to play in Minsk. The veteran defenseman will surely want to prove that he’s still the dominant figure we’ve been used to seeing the KHL.
Prospects: Bilyaletdinov’s reputation might have taken a battering during Russia’s Olympic struggle, but in Kazan he remains nothing short of a hero. Back behind the bench at Ak Bars, he’ll be determined to recreate the glory days of the club closest to his heart and will surely be happier back in the day-to-day routine of club coaching. An improvement on last season’s play-off blip is the minimum expectation; a revitalized Bill could lead them all the way.

Lada.jpgLada
Head coach: Sergei Svetlov
Last season: lost in the first round of the VHL play-offs.
One to watch: Denis Barantsev is a Togliatti lad who went on to develop his game as part of Dynamo’s defense under Oleg Znarok. Even if his game time in Moscow was limited, the experience he gained in two title-winning campaigns represents a huge boost for a young player’s development. Now he can look forward to more ice time and more responsibility with his home-town team, and could be on the cusp of breakout season.
Point to prove: Few players have suffered as difficult an introduction to senior hockey as former Lokomotiv prospect Maxim Zyuzyakin. Faced with a hefty share of the burden of reviving the Yaroslavl club after 2011’s tragedy he found it tough to break into the senior team under Tom Rowe when the team came back to the KHL. A brief stint in Novokuznetsk didn’t quite work out either, but good form in the VHL has earned him a chance here at Lada.
Prospects: Lada’s return is great for the romantics, but reality is liable to intervene quickly. Svetlov has experience of working with a hastily-assembled roster after taking over at Admiral part way through last season, and this time he got to select his own team. But it’s unlikely to be an easy task to steer this team into the play-offs at the first time of asking.

MMG.jpgMetallurg Magnitogorsk
Head coach: Mike Keenan
Last season: champion
One to watch: Sergei Mozyakin needs no introduction after spending every KHL season tormenting defenses. But after he turned down a call-up to Oleg Znarok’s World Championship roster, will this most potent goal-getter be invited to join the national team again this season?
Point to prove: After such a great season last time around, there’s nobody at Magnitka who could be considered under pressure. Of the new arrivals, maybe Maxim Yakutsenya is the man most likely to really establish himself at the top level after good seasons in Chelyabinsk and Donetsk.
Prospects: Two of the three previous Gagarin Cup winners went on to successfully defend the trophy, and Keenan has every reason to believe he can emulate that feat. It’s true that everyone knows what to expect from Magnitka this season, but as we saw in the spring, understanding the need to silence that powerful Mozyakin-Kovar-Zaripov line is a long way from successfully spiking those guns.

Neftekhimik.jpgNeftekhimik
Head coach: Kari Heikkila (replaces Evgeny Balmin)
Last season: failed to make the play-offs
One to watch: Tim Stapleton is one of those rarities – a European-based player regularly called up for Team USA at the World Championships. He first made his mark in the KHL with 40 points for a struggling Dinamo Minsk team, before a season at Ak Bars was also fairly productive. Following the short move across Tatarstan he’s now posed to be a real leader in Nizhnekamsk in the coming season.
Point to prove: Gleb Klimenko’s career has taken him to some of the biggest clubs in Russia, but he’s struggled to find a settled place for his undoubted talents. Last season was perhaps his toughest yet, dividing his time between two struggling outfits at Vityaz and Severstal. But with Neftekhimik looking like a club on an upswing, this season could be a profitable one for the 31-year-old.
Prospects: Heikkila is a coach who knows his way around this league, and he took Lokomotiv to the grand final in the first KHL season. But he also had a less happy time at Dinamo Minsk and will be keen to banish those memories by leading Neftekhimik to the play-offs.

Traktor.jpgTraktor
Head coach: Karri Kivi (replaces Valery Belousov)
Last season: failed to make the play-offs
One to watch: Kyle Wilson had a storming season for Dinamo Riga last time out, and is set to spearhead Traktor’s attack in this campaign. He’s stepping into some big skates, but another good performance will cement his reputation in this league.
Point to prove: Martin Ruzicka helped Amur to its only KHL play-off in 2012 but injuries meant we only got a fleeting glimpse of what this Czech winger can do. Traktor offers a second chance to impress in Russia.
Prospects: Traktor’s disappointing results last season came despite the offensive power of Petri Kontiola and Yevgeny Kuznetsov, both now departed. Kivi has a tough task ahead to replace them, but his defensive reinforcements look promising and should make Traktor tougher to beat. This team looks like a work in progress right now, with Kivi still an unknown quantity at the helm.

Ugra.jpgUgra
Head coach: Dmitry Yushkevich (replaces Oleg Davydov)
Last season: failed to make the play-offs
One to watch: Defenseman Philip Larsen is one of the players who has turned Denmark into a World Championship regular, and his arrival from Edmonton is a quite a capture for Ugra. The 24-year-old featured in 30 NHL games last season, and posted big minutes for the Danes in Minsk. With a bright future ahead of him, Larsen could be a big player in Khanty-Mansiysk this term.
Point to prove: Nikita Filatov has gone from bright prospect to run-of-the-mill forward in recent years, but he has shown flashes of talent throughout his career. Two seasons at Salavat Yulaev didn’t quite see him click into a go-to guy for the team, but Ugra gives him a chance to add consistency to his undoubted talent.
Prospects: Yushkevich’s work as defense coach at Lokomotiv was picked out as one of the key contributors to the team’s run to the Conference final. Now he’s running the show for himself, and could be the key to getting Ugra back into the play-offs.