Like many clubs this summer, SKA’s most intriguing change comes behind the bench rather than on the ice. The surprise departure of Gagarin Cup-winning supremo Vyacheslav Bykov, who resigned due to family reasons, has brought Andrei Nazarov to the club. And therein lies the key to the Petersburg team’s title defense. 

Nazarov is something of a divisive figure in Russian hockey. To his fans – and he has many – he is one of the brightest young Russian coaches in the game. At Vityaz he successfully nurtured young talent despite the team’s obvious problems, as one Artemy Panarin might recall. He also achieved better than average results with Donbass and Barys, and was even seen as an outside bet to replace Zinetula Bilyaletdinov as Russia’s head coach. 

However, his critics are equally numerous. They point to his playing career, in which he piled up the penalty points during a decade of roaming the NHL. That uncompromising playing style has also impacted on his coaching approach: at times abrasive, he has courted scandal in KHL arenas from Minsk to Vladivostok, taking aim at fans, officials and opponents alike. Russian hockey tends to hold itself aloof from the tough guy antics it blames on the North American game; Nazarov thus offends some of the more delicate sporting sensibilities among local observers. 

True to form, therefore, his stint in Petersburg began with a scandal. The departure of club doctor Yegor Kozlov led to speculation of all kinds of behind the scenes bust-ups and filled up gigabytes of online discussion without bringing very many facts to light. But the general feeling is that Nazarov, in his first big coaching job, will be an experiment that could go spectacularly well or disastrously wrong. 

His decision to sign up Evgeny Artyukhin from CSKA further underlines the point. Artyukhin is the kind of rough-and-ready forward that makes the purists shudder, but he added noticeable steel to a CSKA roster that was often guilty of being bullied in previous seasons. If coach and forward can ally competitiveness with self-discipline, SKA will benefit immensely. 

On the ice the big challenge will be recreating last year’s offense. Star man Panarin is off to Chicago; his deadly combination with Vadim Shipachyov and Evgeny Dadonov is over for now. Experienced Scandinavians Tony Martensson and Patrick Thoresen are also leaving, while Olympic silver medalist Jimmie Ericsson is back at Skelleftea after delivering only sporadically in the KHL. 

That puts pressure on Jarno Koskiranta, the big summer signing from Sibir. The Finnish forward impressed in Novosibirsk, helping his team to its best ever season with an impressive 51-point haul. He’s joined by an old new face: former Torpedo man Joakim Lindstrom is back in Russia after spending last season with Toronto. In Nizhny Novgorod the Swede was prolific, in Canada less so. 

Elsewhere there are few big changes from the champion roster of last season, but the arrival of defenseman Yegor Yakovlev from Lokomotiv is noteworthy. The 23-year-old has a three-year contract and reflects SKA’s stated shift in priorities from signing up big name stars to securing and developing young talent. With Panarin it was a spectacular success; now another young Russian international prospect is in line for a similar move. 

SKA is a club with high demands – and after winning its first ever major trophy the pressure is on to repeat. It makes for a pressure cooker environment for Nazarov, and promises a fascinating season in prospect irrespective of the final success or failure of the team.

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