With the reborn Lokomotiv lining up against a new-look CSKA, this division seems to be a two-horse race between two of the league’s most intriguing teams. But with two extra teams in the Western Conference this season, the race for the play-offs looks set to be a fascinating one.
Atlant Moscow Region
Atlant has been one of the most consistent teams of the KHL era, but after a summer of wholesale changes confidence is not high – and a disappointing performance at a recent tournament in Riga has done little to help. The team lines up with two new goaltenders, Nikita Davydov and Stanislav Galimov, and the experienced Konstantin Koltsov arrives in defense. With Alexei Mikhnov reinforcing the offense, it’s clear that there are some high-caliber parts in this machine – but it remains to be seen how they will perform as a unit.
What they’re saying: “I don’t know if we can make it into the top four in the West this season. I understand that we have a completely new team. I have no doubt we will have problems at certain stages.” – head coach Janne Karlsson.
The one-time Soviet powerhouse had been reduced to a sorry state in recent years: cash-strapped, playing in an aging arena and unable to challenge for titles it once took for granted. But Rosneft’s takeover has transformed all that, immediately handing the club a lavish budget which makes it one of the leading contenders. Incoming head coach Valery Bragin – a world champion with Russia’s under-20s – has been given the enviable task of turning CSKA’s pot of gold into silverware, and the club’s purchase of KHL record point-scorer Alexander Radulov has been the big transfer story of the summer.
Key figure: It’s all about that man Radulov, and how well he can repay the huge salary he’s reportedly earning.
What they’re saying: “Based on the friendly games there are no weak opponents in the west. The competition is just crazy. Even getting into the play-offs will be very hard, never mind making further progress.” – Valery Bragin, head coach.
Kari Heikkila has added the Dinamo Minsk job to his role as head coach of Belarus’ national team, and is looking out for young local talent to help him out in both his roles. That means big things are expected of Evgeny Nogachyov and Sergei Dudko as they make their first steps in the game. Other key additions include Canadian defenseman Cory Murphy and former Winnipeg Jets forward Tim Stapleton, as well as uncompromising Swedish D-man Jonas Frogren.
Key figure: Left winger Geoff Platt, the club’s leading scorer in KHL hockey, is back for his fourth full season – and after receiving Belorussian citizenship he could also become a key part of Heikkila’s national squad.
What they’re saying: “It’s important that more and more Belorussian players play in the KHL. It’s good for our hockey. Of course they all can play in one team but if they can play at a higher level of course they develop better.” – head coach Kari Heikkila.
After last season’s tragedy, Lokomotiv can expect a huge wave of support and sympathy throughout the hockey-playing community. But head coach Tom Rowe is only too well aware that sympathy alone won’t win games, and he’s built a squad which takes the best of the youngsters who represented Yaroslavl in MHL and VHL hockey last season and seasoned it with plenty of experience. Two Gagarin Cup winners – Viktor Kozlov and Maxim Kondratiev – are joined by Alexei Kalyuzhny, Vitaly Vishnevsky and Mikelis Redlihs to add some know-how to the youthful flair on offer, while Rowe’s NHL contacts have brought some useful acquisitions from across the Atlantic.
Key figure: Vitaly Vishnevsky learned his hockey trade in Yaroslavl, and his experience at the back will be vital for the new-look side.
What they’re saying: “It’s a huge inspiration. I knew Brad McCrimmon (the Lokomotiv coach who died in last year’s air disaster) very well and we have to ensure we have a very good season. We want to make the team and the city proud. There’s an incredible fan base, and the team and the organization has a lot to live up to.” – Tom Rowe, head coach, on the emotions surrounding Loko’s return to the KHL.
Severstal concluded its preparations by winning the Donbass Cup as Andrei Nazarov’s team came to terms with a summer of comings and goings. The roster lost some big names from last season, with the likes of Staffan Kronwall and Maxim Chudinov moving on, but the arrivals of Petr Caslava and Alexander Ryazantsev, along with Swede Niklas Andersen and Finn Teemu Laakso have reshaped the defense. Up front, Vadim Shipachyov, one of the success stories of last season, remains, and both he and Evgeny Ketov were among the points in pre-season.
Key figure: D-man Ryazantsev posted +25 and scored 36 points for Traktor last season – repeating that form will push Severstal to new heights.
What they’re saying: “Cherepovets is a small but charming town. It’s hard to compare it with other cities I’ve visited, and I saw lots of interesting things when I visited for the first time. I’ve never been inside a factory before, and I hope the club will arrange a tour (of the Severstal plant) – it would be really exciting.” – new signing Teemu Laakso.
After missing last season’s play-offs, Spartak wants to return to the top table – and sign Ilya Kovalchuk! At least, the club’s general director Igor Khokhlachev has made an offer to the New Jersey Devil in the event of a lock-out in the NHL. But while that may not be realistic for the Red-and-Whites, the team boasts a Stanley Cup winner in the form of veteran Oleg Petrov, arrived from Ak Bars. There are familiar faces back in Moscow as well, with Branko Radivojevic and Eduard Levandowski returning after two seasons at Atlant.
Key figure: Goaltending was a problem last time round, so Canadian Mark Murphy, newly arrived from Carolina, can make a big difference in the coming campaign.
What they’re saying: “I’ve got happy memories of Sokolniki – I scored my first ever Superleague goal there! Spartak is a great club with a long history – how could I turn them down?” Artyom Gordeyev on his move from VHL side Toros to Spartak.
Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod
Ins and outs have been fairly limited at Torpedo this summer, and it’s little surprise that the leading pre-season point scorers are all familiar names: Matt Ellison, Robert Nilsson and Martin Thornberg. The biggest name to move to the Volga is Pyotr Schastlivy, who previously played under Vyacheslav Bykov at CSKA and Salavat Yulaev, as well as picking up plenty of caps for Team Russia. He also had a strong pre-season, suggesting that even as a veteran he has something to offer Kari Jalonen’s men on and off the ice.
Key figure: The signing of veteran forward Pyotr Schastlivy from Salavat Yulaev might be a masterstroke, especially in terms of helping the club’s youngsters develop.
What they’re saying: “We had a very season last year and we’ve got a lot of the same guys so we’re looking forward to having a good season again.” – forward Matt Ellison.