From championship glory at SKA to rock bottom at Dinamo Riga, the Bobrov Division was a tale of the haves and have-nots. The seven teams in this section highlighted the clear contrast between clubs with significant budgets and organizations trying to assemble bargain rosters. Here’s a rundown of all seven clubs and their achievements and disappointments in 2016-17.
Results: The Belarusians enjoyed their best ever regular season campaign, but are still waiting to make playoff progress. A first-round loss to Lokomotiv Yaroslavl means Dinamo has yet to reach the second round.
Summary: Craig Woodcroft’s arrival in Minsk brought a few changes. Goalie Ben Scrivens came with NHL experience, D-man Marc-Andre Gragnani returned to the KHL after helping Lev Prague to the 2014 Grand Final and the offense was reshaped to accommodate Sergei Kostitsyn, one of Belarus’ favorite hockey sons.
Dinamo started its season late, delayed by Belarus’ Olympic Qualifying campaign. The first game ended in a 4-2 defeat at Spartak, but 11 wins in the first 15 outings set the tone for a strong regular season. Hefty defeats at SKA and CSKA dampened thoughts of joining the Western Conference leaders, and suddenly the season was off on something of a roller-coaster. At times, Dinamo was excellent, stringing together winning runs and testing the strongest teams in the competition. At others, it was awful – to the point that even the President of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, was moved to describe a 1-3 home loss to Dinamo Riga as ‘shameful’.
Oddly, the combination added up to statistically the club’s best KHL season, finishing with 105 points to claim fifth place in the West. But then, once again, the slump struck. A playoff series against Lokomotiv was over in five games with 2-7 and 1-5 defeats along the way; a solitary home win came too late to test the Railwaymen and Dinamo’s season was over. Woodcroft’s campaign, never short of entertainment, ended up posing as many questions as it could answer.
What’s next: Woodcroft, who is also assist coach for Team Belarus, will be staying next season. A self-confessed perfectionist, he spoke of learning the lessons of the playoff defeat and warned that the season should not be judged on those five games alone. Now he and his team will get the chance to put that learning into practice next time round.
Results: Rock-bottom of the Western Conference, and never in serious contention for a playoff place, this was another frustrating season for the Latvians.
Summary: Without a big budget, Dinamo did well to hold onto many of its stronger players from the previous season but found it tough to add to its roster. With Arena Riga in use for Olympic Qualifiers in early September, the team also began with a tough road trip: six games in the Eastern Conference, many against strong opposition. That yielded just one point from a shoot-out loss in Ufa, piling up the pressure from the start.
It wasn’t that any individual result was particularly poor. Instead, Dinamo suffered a string of narrow losses, typified by a four-game series of shoot-out losses in October that left head coach Normands Sejujs suggesting it might have been less painful to take heavy defeats in each game rather than narrowly miss out time after time.
There were isolated bright spots. The arrival of Latvian legend Sandis Ozolins on the training staff coincided with an upturn in form in November. In December, two games played in Tallinn brought sell-out crowds to a new destination for the KHL. Overall, though, this was a season of struggle and defeat in Beijing on Jan. 16 saw Dinamo’s playoff hopes officially come to an end. Too many established players – Miks Indrasis, Mikelis Redlihs, Tim Sestito – saw their production fall away this season compared with last and the end result was inevitable.
What’s next: With one of the smaller budgets in the KHL, and with few young players making much of an impact in 2016-17, it’s hard to see where an improvement in Dinamo’s fortunes would come. However, as Sejujs pointed out, so many narrow losses could have been different if the team had been better at taking the chances it created. A handful of extra goals – well within the reach of several of Riga’s players – could have transformed last season from failure into a genuine playoff bid and, therefore, could make next season more successful.
Results: Throughout the season Jukki Jalonen’s team faced a battle to secure a playoff place. In the final stages of the regular campaign, the Finns booked their spot but suffered a 0-4 loss against CSKA Moscow in the first round of post-season.
Summary: Not for the first time, Jokerit had to cope with the departure of its leading scorer. Brandon Kozun swapped Helsinki for Yaroslavl, blunting the team’s offense. It was a loss comparable to the departure of the Lo-Ko-Mo line that powered the Finns in their first KHL season, but this time it was compounded by the departure of head coach Erkka Westerlund.
Jalonen came in, and presided over a frustrating campaign. Jokerit rarely looked capable of stringing together a winning run and, aside from the impressive 48-point haul from Danish forward Peter Regin, did not have the kind of individual performers who could turn tight games around. Summer signing Brian O’Neill did a decent job in support of Regin; the American put up 36 points in his first KHL campaign.
There were some memorable individual results along the way – most notably a 6-3 win at CSKA in October. But, in keeping with the season’s overall inconsistency, that game was preceded by a 0-6 reverse in St. Petersburg.
The playoff series against CSKA was, in many ways, closer than the scoreline suggested. Jokerit was close in every game, but not close enough to win one. That, in a nutshell, was the story of a transitional season in Helsinki.
What’s next: Jalonen is set to remain behind the bench, Jokerit has scotched suggestions that it might drop out of the KHL, and fans in Finland will be hoping for a more consistent performance next time. In the longer term, confirmation that Jokerit will remain in the KHL for at least the next five seasons should help the club lay the foundations for a competitive roster in years to come.
Results: Medvescak came into the season hoping that a strong team identity and passionate home support could help it back into the playoffs. Instead, it finished the campaign with just 14 players dressed for a game against Slovan Bratislava and ended up well outside the top eight.
Summary: Another team on a tight budget, Medvescak’s problems came in the trade market. As soon as a player put together a bit of form, it seemed, another club made an offer that the Zagreb team could not refuse. Thus, starting goalie Danny Taylor went to Sibir following Alexander Salak’s injury, forward Gilbert Brule headed to Neftekhimik to join up with Andrei Nazarov and, by the end of the season, even head coach Gordie Dwyer was head-hunted by Ambri-Piotta in the Swiss League.
Against that background of constant change, Medvescak gave ice time to five goalies, 10 D-men and 20 forwards – 35 players in total. Only seven of them – Mark Katic, Goran Bezina, Blake Parlett and Thomas Larkin on defense, Francis Pare, Alexandre Giroux and Mike Glumac on offense – appeared in more than 50 games. Consistency was hard to come by, and results reflected that. There were good days – wins over SKA and Magnitogorsk – but there were also some nightmares. Six-goal hidings against CSKA and Metallurg highlighted the gap between the top of the league and the outsiders, but a 3-7 reverse at fellow struggler Severstal was especially hard to take.
Dwyer, one of the youngest coaches in the game at just 39, worked hard to build a team in a North American image and succeeded in making Medvescak a highly distinctive outfit in the KHL. But, with leading players regularly allowed to leave the club, it proved impossible for him to mold that into a winning roster.
What’s next: After four seasons in the KHL, Medvescak announced last month that it had successfully applied to compete in next season’s EBEL, an Autrian-based cross-border league. The club’s management suggested that the financial strains of continuing in the KHL would be too much unless more sponsors came forward. A definitive answer on the club’s future is expected when next season’s clubs are confirmed in the coming weeks.
Results: Lifting the Gagarin Cup, setting new records and staking a claim to be regarded as the top KHL team of the past three seasons – this campaign could hardly have gone better for SKA. And, along the way, head coach Oleg Znarok built a roster around Russian talent that can help him in his role as national team supremo.
Summary: The arrival of Znarok in St. Petersburg was both logical and surprising. Logical, in that SKA has the budget and the ambition that requires coaching staff of the highest possible caliber, and Znarok’s proven record at club and international level fits that bill. Surprising, in that Znarok’s post as head coach of Team Russia has been seen as a full-time role since Vyacheslav Bykov left the job in 2011. Could Znarok successfully serve two masters?
The first test came in September, when Russia went to the World Cup of Hockey. SKA barely flinched, blazing through the month with just two losses in 11 games under the stewardship of Pyotr Vorobyov, the veteran former Lokomotiv head coach. Pauses for other international competitions were similarly smooth. SKA kept on winning, and kept on piling up the goals. In total, the team scored 249 in the regular season, setting a new KHL record. No other team topped 200.
Ilya Kovalchuk and summer signing Pavel Datsyuk played a big role in that, bringing a touch of magic to the team’s offense, but scoring power came all over. The bright partnership between Vadim Shipachyov, Evgeny Dadonov and Nikita Gusev matured and promises to do some serious damage for SKA and for Russia in future seasons. In goal, Igor Shestyorkin set a club record of 272 minutes without allowing a goal as he came of age.
Post-season, SKA remained imperious. The Gagarin Cup was won with just two games lost, making for the quickest post-season campaign in KHL history. Even the absence of Datsyuk and Vyacheslav Voynov, two players with Stanley Cup-winning experience, had little impact on the team’s progress. That Shipachyov line was irresistible, Patrik Hersley provided some handy scoring on defense and, when the need arose, the likes of Dinar Khafizullin and Alexander Barabanov proved to be unlikely heroes.
What next: Winning is hard, defending the crown is harder. SKA will be aware that last season saw almost everything go right. But, with a powerful roster and great strength in depth, plus a coaching staff that knows how to get the maximum from those enviable resources, this is a club that is set up for success. If anyone can combine the pressures of an Olympic year and a Gagarin Cup defense, Oleg Znarok is likely to be that man.
Results: Milos Riha’s magic touch could not lift Slovan into the playoff places this season as a catastrophic series of injuries slowed the Slovaks’ progress.
Summary: The summer trades were not kind to Slovan. Key players such as Cam Barker, Lukas Kaspar and Lubo Visnovsky left the club, with the latter calling time on his illustrious career. Jeff Taffe, an experienced American who had impressed at Neftekhimik, did his best to replace Kaspar’s goals and delivered 43 points, but the team would inevitably suffer due to a loss of leading players. Then injuries began to chip away at the roster: after a 4-2 defeat at CSKA in October, Riha lamented that his team flew to Moscow with 10 first-choice players injured. Efforts to patch up the squad didn’t work out: the signings of Filip Novak and Tomas Kopetsky looked good on paper but contributed little on the ice.
Goaltending was another issue. Michael Garnett’s reliable presence between the piping was never fully replaced; both Justin Pogge and Barry Brust combined game-winning performances with nights to forget, making it hard for Slovan to generate a run of results. Brust didn’t help his cause by embarking on a war of words with Riha.
There were some bright spots. The emergence of young forward Michal Hlinka in the latter half of the season showed some promise for the future. He picked up the bulk of his 11 points in the final 20 games of the season after making the step up from playing in the Slovak League with Dulka Trencin and could be primed to make a more significant contribution next term. Overall, though, this was a frustrating season in Slovakia.
What’s next: The nucleus of a decent team can be found in Bratislava, but turning Slovan into playoff certainties rather than top-eight hopefuls will depend on getting more consistency. Better goaltending, and fewer injuries, could make the difference next season.
Results: It was another season of struggle for the Red-and-Whites. Despite enthusiastic support, the Moscow team could not reach the playoffs and that failure cost German Titov his job as head coach.
Summary: If a single game was to sum up Spartak’s season, it would be the derby against CSKA in January. The Red-and-Whites went into the game on an eight-game losing streak, and prior to hosting their city rivals, footage emerged online of the team being angrily chastised in the locker room by supporters. That encounter ended with pledges to do better, to restore pride by winning the derby. Sadly, after a competitive opening, Spartak allowed CSKA to jump out to a 5-0 lead in the second period; the final score of 1-6 offered no comfort to the long-suffering supporters.
Hopes were high after last season’s transitional roster seemed to settle into something more permanent. But the team never really found a run of form – and got through a huge number of players along the way. In total, 35 skaters got on the ice in the KHL for Spartak last season, and too many made little impact. The likes of Tim Stapleton, a mid-season arrival, would have expected better than one goal and six assists in 22 games; Marcus Hogstrom’s spell in defense ended midway through the season with the Swede leaving the club after contributing just eight points in 30 games.
Instead, the highlights came off the ice: there was magnificent support, regardless of whether the team played at Luzhniki or the VTB Arena in Moscow. And, in an anniversary year for Russian hockey, the club’s retro game against Lokomotiv on December 22 was among the brightest events of the season: a festival of nostalgia in the stands and a 2-1 victory on the ice.
What’s next: After German Titov left the club, Alexei Yarushkin took over as acting head coach until the end of the season. But, on April 20, Vadim Yepanchintsev returned to the club as head coach. The former Russian international forward played for Spartak from 1993-97, and his coaching career includes spells with the Red-and-Whites and Atlant. As assistant to Oleg Bratash, he helped Spartak’s juniors win the Kharlamov Cup. Now he’s back to try and bring success to the senior team.