For SKA St. Petersburg, it’s been a relatively quiet pre-season – but hockey lovers in Russia’s northern capital will be hoping that is merely the calm before their heroes storm the KHL. In recent seasons SKA has been noted for eye-catching transfers and backroom volatility, but this time around head coach Milos Riha (pictured) is preparing for his second campaign with the club – and hoping to improve on last season’s run to the Conference finals.
Seeing Riha at the helm for the second season running offers welcome stability at a club which went through a swift turnaround of coaches in 2010-11 before finally settling on the experienced Czech. And although the former Atlant and Spartak coach admits he is still interested in strengthening the roster before the puck drops, he is confident that his squad will be strong enough to challenge for honors in the coming campaign.
With average crowds of more than 10,000 making SKA the best supported team in Russia, the pressure to finally bring a major hockey prize to St. Petersburg remains intense. A recent pre-season game against Sibir Novosibirsk brought a loud contingent of home fans to a warm-up game, underlining the hunger for SKA to rival Zenit’s footballing achievements.
But Riha, speaking after that game, said that the team had nothing to prove to its supporters, despite a crashing 0-4 series reverse to Dynamo Moscow in the Western Conference finals. “Last season was very good,” he told journalists. “In the NHL, for example, the top three teams from the regular season could not even get through the first round of the play-offs.
“SKA will continue the work we began last season. We will look for something new, but I can’t make any promises. It’s going to be a tough season: our rivals are stronger, there are new teams and everyone wants to win.”
As for changes to the playing staff – and playing style – the focus has been on defense. If recent SKA line-ups have relied on offensive power, the class of 2012-13 is set to be a more resilient unit. “We won’t be on the front foot so much, and hopefully our discipline will be better,” Riha added. “There’s no place for individualism at SKA – everyone must play for the team. That’s what we’re striving for.”
And that philosophy is reflected in the summer additions: although there are reinforcements up front, including promising youngster Anton Burdasov from Traktor Chelyabinsk and the experienced Alexei Badyukov, more attention has been paid to the defense. Among the new arrivals we find Kevin Dallman, who comes from Barys Astana with a reputation for grabbing more than his fair share of points, and Maxim Chudinov, a 22-year-old from Severstal Cherepovets who made his debut for Russia’s senior team in last season’s Euro Tour.
The new-look line-up is showing promising signs in pre-season, most notably with a flawless record in winning the President of Kazakhstan’s trophy, scoring 16 goals and conceding just two in four games in Astana, while the preparations continue at this week’s Donbass tournament in Ukraine. The action gets underway for real on Sep. 6 with an appetizing home clash against last season’s runner-up Avangard.