Perhaps the strongest division in the KHL, the Kharlamov is typically a battle for supremacy between Ak Bars Kazan, Metallurg Magnitogorsk and Traktor Chelyabinsk. But outsiders Avtomobilist have invested heavily over the summer in the hopes of reaching the play-off for the first time since 2010.
Ak Bars Kazan
After two seasons where a gold medal seemed remote, Ak Bars has gone back to the future to bring in coach Valery Belov who was previously assistant to Zinetula Bilyaletdinov in Kazan and also for Team Russia. He’s not the only returning old-boy: forwards Janne Pesonen and Maxim Mayorov have returned from Finland and the US respectively. They are joined by another Finn, Janne Lahti, but pre-season results have been moderate at best.
Key figure: The return of the popular Pesonen is a good sign, and if he can click with compatriots Lahti and Jarkko Immonen there could be plenty of goals in Kazan.
What they’re saying: “A lot of our players were with their national teams, so our first full training session wasn’t until July 30. That meant we were slow getting back into shape and it was only at our last tournament that everything really came together. Now we can review our training, but I don’t see any big difficulties or feel any great pressure.” – head coach Valery Belov reviews the pre-season.
One of the league’s more modest teams – and certainly one of its more modest budgets – Avto has nonetheless found a way to attract some interesting signings this summer. An ambitious bid to bring Alexei Yashin back to Yekaterinburg came to nothing, but the Ural team has still strengthened its hand. Experienced goaltender Chris Holt arrives from Dinamo Riga, and Josef Straka comes from Ak Bars Kazan. Most intriguing of all, though, Dmitry Afanasenkov returns to the league after a stint in Switzerland to add teeth to the Avto offense.
Key figure: Dmitry Afanasenkov is one of the most experienced men in the competition this season, and he could make the difference between a play-off spot and an extended summer vacation.
What they’re saying: “The team’s performance levels are increasing and it’s been possible to check out all of our players. I just wish we’d had fewer injuries – Vasily Streltsov had to miss the game against Severstal and once he was back we lost Spirko.” – head coach Andrei Shayanov on his team’s silver-medal finish at the Donbass Cup.
New head coach Paul Maurice – a former Stanley Cup finalist – has brought a new mood of optimism to Magnitogorsk, and if the club succeeds in attracting Evgeny Malkin back home in the event of an NHL lock-out, the excitement will grow greater. Maurice has already succeeded in bringing the roster’s average age down from 31 to 25, and despite warnings that there could be struggles ahead, there is a real sense that Maurice is finally fulfilling the club’s long-term plan to build a solid team rather than accommodate a disjointed collection of big names.
Key figure: Forward Cal O’Reilly has followed Maurice across the Atlantic and has been seen as one of the brightest signings of the summer.
What they’re saying: “If there’s a lock-out, I’ll play for Magnitka. I don’t want to offend their fans!” – Evgeny Malkin makes plans in case he has nobody to play for in Pittsburgh.
The highlight of the summer for Neftekhimik was winning the Chelyabinsk Governor’s trophy, wrapping up top spot with a mighty 5-0 win over Metallurg. That was the high-point of a winning pre-season, and one which saw Finn Oskar Osala in fine form with 6+1=7 points. New arrival Jan Kolar managed 2+2=4 after coming from Czech side Pardubice along with Petr Koukal: the Czech pair will be looking to replace Oleg Kvasha (CSKA) and Kirill Knyazev (Dynamo), both of whom have left for Moscow.
Key figure: Defenseman Nikolai Belov will be hoping he stay in the thoughts of the Team Russia selectors this season.
What they’re saying: “It’s going to be a hard season, especially at the start when there’s a tough schedule of 22 games almost in a single breath. But it will be a tense, exciting competition.” – head coach Vladimir Golubovich.
Last season Traktor topped the regular season table, despite failing to make the play-offs 12 months earlier. That was thanks in no small part to the inspirational performances of young Evgeny Kuznetsov, who marked himself out as a star of the future with a fine season which was crowned by a call-up to Russia’s senior national team. Keeping Kuznetsov for the coming campaign has been a huge boost to Traktor, but the loss of high-scoring defenseman Alexander Ryazantsev is a blow and indifferent pre-season form makes it hard to predict how Traktor will perform this season.
Key figure: Evgeny Kuznetsov has chosen to stay in Chelyabinsk and continue his role as the team’s leader.
What they’re saying: “We’ve done a lot of hard work and on and off the ice, and not everyone has recovered from that. By the start of the season, everyone will be ready.” – head coach Valery Belousov dismisses suggestions his team is under pressure after the Romazan Memorial Trophy.
There’s a familiar feel to Yugra’s roster for the coming season, with relatively little transfer activity over the summer. Pre-season form has been mixed, with the highlight being a shoot-out success at moneybags CSKA, just a day after a 0-5 reverse at Spartak. That kind of unpredictability suggests another season of scrapping to get into the play-offs, rather than a team ready to launch a serious bid for honors.
Key figure: Mikhail Biryukov’s goaltending has been a reliable foundation for Yugra in recent seasons, and if he is to play his way into Olympic contention he needs to force himself into Bilyaletdinov’s squad on a regular basis this season.
What they’re saying: “We’ve kept the backbone of last season’s team and that’s one of the reasons why I stayed. We have a good working relationship and that should be cherished.” – Mikhail Biryukov prepares for a third season at Yugra.