Mission: Get Znarok. Western Conference preview

3 September 2013, 13:01

Atlant.jpgAtlant Moscow Region

Head coach: Sergei Svetlov (replaced Janne Karlsson during the previous season)

Last season: Play-off first round (lost 1-4 to SKA)

Key arrivals: Evgeny Artyukhin (SKA), Vitaly Atyushov (Salavat Yulaev), Bobby Sanguinetti (Carolina Hurricanes)

Prospects: Last season came close to disaster for Atlant, with the team languishing well off the play-off pace for most of the autumn. Svetlov took charge and inspired a surge in the New Year which saw the Mytishchi men sneak into eighth place in the West, securing a play-off spot and confirming the head coach’s position. This time, though, Svetlov faces more exacting demands – with some impressive and experienced arrivals, better results are expected. However, general manager Alexei Zhamnov is also looking to build a stable roster with an eye to the future as well as immediate success.

CSKA.jpgCSKA Moscow

Head coach: John Torchetti (from Houston Aeros, replaced Vyacheslav Butsaev this summer)

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

Key arrivals: Alexei Morozov (Ak Bars), Nikolai Zaitsev (Sibir), Andrei Pervyshin (SKA)

Prospects: No North American coach has won a major trophy in Russia, and many who associate CSKA with the proudest traditions of the Russian game will be surprised that the Army Club has looked across the ocean to fulfill its hopes of glory. Last season showed signs of progress – the play-off series win over Lev Prague was CSKA’s first post-season success since 2008 – but the abrupt dismissal of head coach Valery Bragin also highlighted the impatience to see new additions to the longest honors board in hockey. To keep his job, Torchetti may find his biggest challenge is to manage those expectations in a competitive conference where SKA and Dynamo also have genuine title pretensions.

Din_Minsk.jpgDinamo Minsk (Belarus)

Head coach: Alexander Andriyevsky (replaced Kari Heikkila in Oct. 2012)

Last season: Failed to make the play-offs

Key arrivals: Derek Meech (Winnipeg), Jacob Mikflikier (Biel)

Prospects: Belarus is building up to host the 2014 World Championship, but for Dinamo it’s time to tighten the belt, reduce the budget and trust in youth in an effort to battle into the play-offs. There’s been little transfer activity, and much of it has involved exits – Tim Stapleton being perhaps the most notable departure. However, the arrival of Meech, a fringe member of Detroit’s Stanley Cup winning roster in 2008, has potential, while forward Mikflikier brings a formidable scoring record from Switzerland, where he posted 50 points in 48 games last season.

Din_Riga.jpgDinamo Riga (Latvia)

Head coach: Artis Abols (replaced Pekka Rautakallio in November 2012)

Last season: Failed to make the play-offs, won the Nadezhda Cup

Key arrivals: Marcel Hossa, Alexander Nijivijs, Oskars Cibulis (all from Lev), Sandis Ozolins (Atlant)

Prospects: Slovak international Hossa is something of an adopted Latvian hero after his success here in the early years of the KHL. His return, via Kazan and Prague, will rouse supporters who are concerned that the club is becoming a rich feeding ground for wealthier rivals eager to pick off star players – Martins Karsums’ move to Dynamo being the latest in a long list of Latvian hockey exports. But whether it will be the catalyst to return Riga to its status as a dangerous outsider remains to be seen.

Donbass100.jpgDonbass Donetsk (Ukraine)

Head Coach: Andrei Nazarov (replaced Julius Supler this summer)

Last season: Failed to reach the play-offs

Key arrivals: Ruslan Fedotenko (Philadelphia), Oleg Piganovich (Avangard), Maxim Yakutsenya (Traktor)

Prospects: After narrowly missing out on the play-offs in its debut season, Donbass is determined to step it up this time around. Bringing Nazarov behind the bench is a statement of intent following his impressive work at Severstal last term, and the return of Fedotenko after his successful stint during the NHL lock-out adds much needed firepower. He’s one of the icons of Ukrainian hockey, and has reportedly been handed a contract to match his lavish reputation, so much will be expected of him.

Dynamo_Moscow.jpgDynamo Moscow

Head Coach: Oleg Znarok (starting his fourth season in charge of Dynamo following the club’s merger with HC MVD, where he had coached for two seasons)

Last season: Gagarin Cup winners

Key arrivals: Leonid Komarov (Toronto Maple Leafs), Martins Karsums (Dinamo Riga), Maxim Karpov (Traktor)

Prospects: Dynamo is gunning for a third consecutive Gagarin Cup triumph – but pre-season form has not been impressive. The recent Mayor of Moscow Cup saw the Blue-and-Whites fail to win a single game, and Znarok admitted that voices had been raised among players and directors following Sunday’s 2-5 defeat against Spartak. The club was frustrated in its efforts to sign Traktor’s highly-rated teenager Valery Nichushkin, who opted to move to Dallas Stars, but has grabbed another youngster from Chelyabinsk, Maxim Karpov.

Lev.jpgLev Prague (Czech Republic)

Head coach: Vaclav Sykora (took over from Josef Jandac in Octo. 2012)

Last season: Play-off first round (lost 0-4 to CSKA)

Key arrivals: Petri Vehanen (Lukko), Niko Kapanen (Ak Bars), Martin Thornberg (Torpedo)

Prospects: The Nikolai Zherdev saga, which saw the double World Champion sign up for Lev then quit Prague just days before the start of the season, has dominated the build-up to the Czech team’s second KHL campaign. But that shouldn’t overshadow some canny recruitment which seems likely to ensure last season’s debut is more than just a flash in the pan. Familiar faces from Finland in the form of goalie Vehanen and forward Kapanen add strength to the roster while Thornberg is a prolific forward. After bringing the KHL to the Czech Republic last season, Lev can hope for consolidation in the coming campaign.

Lokomotiv.jpgLokomotiv Yaroslavl

Head coach: Tom Rowe (appointed 2012)

Last season: Play-off first round (lost 2-4 to Severstal)

Key arrivals: Ilya Gorokhov, Sergei Konkov (both Dynamo Moscow), Jonas Holos (Vaxjo)

Prospects: Keeping faith with head coach Tom Rowe, Lokomotiv will hope to get deeper into the play-offs with a larger and more experienced squad. On paper, at least, Rowe can now call on six full lines – ensuring maximum competition for places. There’s big-game experience in there as well, with the arrival of Gorokhov and Konkov from Dynamo’s all-conquering roster to bolster their home-town club. D-man Holos, with a season of NHL action behind him in Colorado, is an intriguing addition – but much will depend on whether Rowe can stay on the right side of fiery club president Yury Yakovlev and keep his position throughout the campaign.

Medvescak.jpgMedvescak Zagreb (Croatia)

Head coach: Mark French

Last season: did not compete

Prospects: Stepping up from the Austrian League to the KHL is going to be a tall order for the team from Zagreb. Passionate fans will make games in the Croatian capital occasions to remember, but on the ice the team is likely to face a steep learning curve. Not that the roster is totally devoid of top level talent – the likes of former Chicago Black Hawk Steve Montador will play a huge role in leading the team through its debut season. While hopes of a play-off place are high, however, that may be an ambition too far for Medvescak this time around.

Severstal.jpgSeverstal Cherepovets

Head coach: Igor Petrov (replaced Andrei Nazarov in the summer)

Last season: Conference semi-final (lost 0-4 to SKA)

Key arrivals: Ivan Kasutin (SKA), Vladimir Antipov (Traktor)

Prospects: After impressing last season, Severstal has suffered the traditional fate of a club which punches above its weight: the head coach has moved on to Donbass, while key players have also been lured away to more lucrative pastures. Consequently it’s hard to see Severstal repeating last season’s heroics – merely making the play-offs would constitute a real achievement for the modest Petrov in his first season in charge.

SKA.jpgSKA St. Petersburg

Head Coach: Jukka Jalonen (replaced Milos Riha in Dec. 2012)

Last season: Conference final (lost 2-4 to Dynamo Moscow)

Key arrivals: Ilya Kovalchuk, Alexei Ponikarovsky (both New Jersey Devils), Roman Cervenka (Calgary Flames)

Prospects: Everyone’s talking about Kovalchuk, and hopes are high that his talents will be the spark which finally sees SKA fulfill its Gagarin Cup ambitions. However, Jalonen has presided over a busy summer of comings and goings, with a total of 28 transfers in and out of SKA. Pre-season form has been impressive, despite Kovalchuk being unavailable, suggesting that the reshaped roster has already found its rhythm. But the big question remains: having demonstrated imperious regular season form in recent seasons, can SKA finally overcome its play-off jitters and get to a grand final at last?

Slovan.jpgSlovan Bratislava (Slovakia)

Head coach: Rostislav Cada (continuing from last season)

Last season: Play-off first round (lost 0-4 to Dynamo Moscow)

Key arrivals: Martin Skoula (Lev), Tomas Netik (Neftekhimik)

Prospects: Much of the experience which guided Slovan through its debut campaign – players like Miroslav Satan and Lubo Visnovsky – has gone, but Cada’s roster has not undergone major surgery this summer. Only a handful have moved on, and relatively few new faces have joined up. Skoula, an experienced defenseman who helped Avangard to Gagarin Cup final two seasons ago, brings plenty to the club; Netik flattered to deceive at CSKA before finding some form last season in Nizhnekamsk. Last season was solid but unspectacular, and it’s hard to see any big changes this time around in Bratislava.

Spartak.jpgSpartak Moscow

Head coach: Fyodor Kanareikin (replaced Andrei Sidorenko in Dec. 2012)

Last season: Failed to reach the play-offs

Key arrivals: Jeff Glass (Sibir), Deron Quint (Traktor), Rastislav Shpirko (Avtomobilist)

Prospects: Spartak seems to be healthier than in recent seasons, and a second-place finish in the recent Mayor of Moscow Cup has given fans grounds for optimism ahead of the coming season. The incoming players arrive with impressive reputations, and the capture of a member of Traktor’s Gagarin Cup final roster is an impressive vote of confidence in the club’s prospects for the coming campaign. After some time in the doldrums, things may finally be looking up for Spartak.

Vityaz.jpgVityaz Moscow Region

Head Coach: Yury Leonov (continuing for a second season)

Last season: failed to reach the play-offs

Key arrivals: Maxim Afinogenov, Maxim Rybin (both SKA)

Prospects: Vityaz has never reached a KHL post-season, and the small-town (formerly Chekhov, now Podolsk) hopeful will need to punch above its weight to improve on that record. Operating with one of the smallest budgets in the competition, the team is inevitably at a disadvantage and while it has a good record at developing young talent, its brightest stars are often snapped up by wealthier rivals. The arrival of Afinogenov and Rybin offers experience, while the team seems to have abandoned its old policy of importing North American enforcers with big penalty counts: this season’s new defenseman, Logan Pyett, has just 145 PIM from 288 AHL games with Grand Rapids.

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