We continue our summary of the season just gone with a look at the Tarasov Division. The regular season brought success for CSKA and Vityaz, but the playoffs belonged to Lokomotiv. Meanwhile, three of these seven teams have already dismissed last season’s head coach …
Results: Regular season champion for the third year running, CSKA looked well placed for a serious tilt at the Gagarin Cup that still eludes it. But Lokomotiv derailed Dmitry Kvartalnov’s team in the Conference Semi Final, and that saw the head coach dismissed.
Summary: In a word, mixed. CSKA, in recent seasons, has returned to the high expectations and standards of the past. In Soviet times, it was inconceivable that the Army Men would not be in the running for hardware; today, the quest for the Gagarin Cup is the inspiration. Under Kvartalnov, there was a sense that glory was edging closer. A Conference Final loss to SKA in 2015, a Gagarin Cup Final loss to Magnitka in 2016, the sequence suggested 2017 might be the year.
Admittedly, the roster lost some of its luster over the summer. Alexander Radulov, arguably the most exciting talent in the KHL, headed across the Atlantic for a second crack at the NHL. Nikita Zaitsev, one of the brightest young defensemen in Russia, followed. Kvartalnov faced the task of replacing the irreplaceable, and to some extent did not attempt to do so. Summer recruits – Greg Scott, Bud Holloway – were solid, rather than spectacular. This was to be a pragmatic, hard-to-beat CSKA, rather than a team perpetually on the brink of an eruption of goals.
In regular season, it worked. For much of the season, the race for top spot was neck and neck. SKA provided the flair, the flamboyance and a record-breaking goal tally. CSKA quietly won and won. When the music stopped, the two were almost inseparable: 137 points each, CSKA got the nod due to more wins in regulation.
But in post-season, that pragmatism teetered on the brink of predictability. A first-round sweep of Jokerit was impressive on paper, but three games going into overtime suggested that it wasn’t as dominant as the box scores suggested. There was a feeling that CSKA was finding it hard to put teams away and, as the opposition got stronger, would become increasingly vulnerable. Thus it proved. Lokomotiv found the answers, winning three games straight to take the Conference Semi Final 4-2 and run down the curtain on Kvartalnov’s time in the capital.
What next: Until a new head coach is confirmed, CSKA will inevitably be subject to intense speculation. Whoever takes on the job will be expected to lead a serious bid for the big prize, with little margin for error.
Results: At times terrible, at times terrific, Dynamo eventually took third place in the Western Conference before yielding to SKA in the Conference Semi Final. Head coach Sergei Oreshkin left the club at the end of the season, to be replaced by Vladimir Vorobyov, promoted from within.
Summary: There was a time when it seemed that the unthinkable could happen. Dogged by uninspiring form, Dynamo was in danger of missing out on the playoffs in the first half of the season. Eventually, the team turned it around with a powerful run in the New Year, amassing 14 wins from 16 games to climb to third in the table.
However, the seeds of the team’s playoff problems could be seen even in that run: defeats against Ak Bars and Metallurg Magnitogorsk during that run suggested that there was still some distance between Dynamo and the league’s biggest hitters. That was pretty much how things turned out. A first-round series with Torpedo provided challenges – four games went to overtime – but Dynamo prevailed 4-1. Up against SKA in round two, though, not even a hat-trick from Maxim Karpov in Game One could save the Blue-and-Whites. That opening game brought the team its only victory; the other noteworthy moments came from Andrei Kuteikin’s goals from the red line to embarrass Mikko Koskinen and Mikhail Biryukov during the playoffs.
Once again, Dynamo saw plenty of players deliver solid performances – six forwards and three D-men contributed 20 or more points in the regular season. But only two, Martins Karsums and Juuso Hietanen, went over 30. The lack of a real go-to guy who could snap tight games ultimately prevented Dynamo from emerging into the front-runners this time around.
What next: Vorobyov’s appointment offers continuity. He was part of Oreshkin’s coaching team last season and will be among familiar faces again next time. His ambition, clearly stated in a recent interview, is to bring the Gagarin Cup back to Dynamo. But last season suggests there is some distance to travel before the Blue-and-Whites can launch a genuine championship push.
Results: Sochi’s battle to make the playoffs was not resolved until the final day of the regular season – and ended in failure. A ninth-place finish saw the Black Sea team miss out on post season for the first time in its three-year history, and prompted the departure of head coach Vyacheslav Butsayev.
Summary: It all started so well. In the early weeks of the season, Sochi was in fine form and Swedish forward Andre Petersson was among the leading scorers in the KHL. The talk in the south was about whether this team could improve on its previous, brief playoff runs and mount a more serious challenge.
Then it all went wrong. Petersson, and others, ran into injury trouble. Twelve losses in 18 games through November and December put a big hole in those playoff hopes. The New Year saw a revival – six wins, three losses in January, and the playoff dream was still alive. But Sochi’s rivals, Jokerit and Vityaz, also kept picking up points. It came down to the final week, and the fixture list conspired against the team. Trips to title-chasing CSKA and SKA were hardly ideal for a team in desperate need of wins; two defeats, and Sochi was left just outside the top eight.
With no playoff action, the focus fell on Butsayev. He took charge of the team when it was created to make use of Sochi’s Olympic facilities, and assembled a roster from scratch that was never out of its depth in the Western Conference. But, after three years, there was little evidence of progress and the decision was made to seek a new direction.
What next: Sergei Zubov, most recently seen behind the bench at SKA in 2015-16, is the incoming head coach. Zubov was not involved in the season just gone, leaving SKA when Oleg Znarok arrived in Petersburg. The 46-year-old brings a wealth of experience, winning two Stanley Cups and Olympic gold as a player and joining Vyacheslav Bykov’s Gagarin Cup-winning coaching crew at SKA. Now he has a chance to build a team in his own image for the first time.
Results: Lokomotiv came fourth in the Western Conference table, stunned regular season champion CSKA in the playoffs and reached the Conference Final before succumbing to SKA. The Yaroslavl team finished with bronze medals for its efforts.
Summary: In his second year at the helm of Lokomotiv, head coach Alexei Kudashov was looking to turn potential into results – and a deep playoff run. The summer brought new recruits in the form of Max Talbot, a former Stanley Cup winner, and Brandon Kozun, fresh from an effective season with Jokerit. Kozun arrived from Finland via SKA, who traded him for Sergei Plotnikov’s rights after the former Loko forward returned from a tough season in North America.
Those two new forwards quickly found an understanding with Petri Kontiola, producing a line that plundered 132 points in the regular season. On defense, the early departure of Patrik Hersley to SKA was offset by the arrival of Jakub Nakladal, while Staffan Kronwall remained a solid figure on the blue line.
But, first and foremost, Loko impressed with its young players. Pavel Kraskovsky, Yegor Korshkov and Alexander Polunin continued to make an impact, building on last season’s success. Kraskovsky and Korshkov, the older two, won call-ups for Russia’s senior team during the Euro Hockey Tour, while Polunin made his second trip to the World Juniors as all three cemented burgeoning reputations in the game.
The regular season was solid, with Lokomotiv taking fourth place in the West. Consistency was the key – save for one run of four defeats in five games as September moved into October, the team never suffered any prolonged loss of form. There were a few stand-out games along the way, most notably a 2-1 win at SKA that avenged a 1-7 mauling on home ice a few weeks earlier and wrapped up an impressive sequence of road wins that also took in CSKA and Torpedo.
CSKA and SKA would also define Lokomotiv’s post season. After despatching Dinamo Minsk in round one of the playoffs, Kudashov’s team was rated as an outsider against regular season champ CSKA. But the Army Men ran out of steam; a series that had been close snapped open in Game Four as Loko powered to a 5-1 victory. That tied the scores overall, and the Railwaymen won the next two games to advance to the Conference Final for the first time since 2014. SKA proved too strong, but the 0-4 result did not entirely reflect a series of close games; the eventual Gagarin Cup winner found a happy knack of snatching late wins, and ended Loko’s season.
What next: This season was a clear step forward for Lokomotiv, and with the younger players on the roster gaining valuable experience – especially in the playoff pressure cooker – the future seems bright. Kudashov, a Gagarin Cup winner as player with Dynamo, is steadily crafting his own reputation as a talented young coach, and his Loko team could be one to watch in the coming seasons.
Results: It’s a long time since playoff hockey came to Cherepovets – 2013 was the last post-season adventure for Severstal. A new head coach couldn’t buck that trend, but could it offer hope for a brighter future?
Summary: Alexander Gulyavtsev took over as head coach at Severstal and immediately set to work on shoring up a leaky defense. The arrival of goalie Jakub Kovar from Avtomobilist looked like a good capture, defensemen Clay Wilson and Adam Masuhr promised stability on the blue line. However, there wasn’t a sharp drop in goals allowed over the course of the season, and Kovar agreed a move back to Yekaterinburg once the campaign was over.
Things got off to a bad start, with a run of nine straight losses following an unexpected shoot-out win over Magnitogorsk. Roster reshuffles followed: former team captain Andrei Shefer and forward Roman Berdnikov were scratched but, apart from a five-game winning streak in the fall, results did not improve. The club marked its 60th anniversary with kind words and warm applause for its efforts in the upper echelons of Russian hockey, but spirited performances during that ‘retro weekend’ could not prevent home defeats against SKA and CSKA.
By the start of February, even a theoretical chance of making the playoffs was gone. Comfort came elsewhere, with Maxim Trunyov repaying the faith of Gulyavtsev to record his best ever KHL season and 19-year-old defenseman Vadim Kudako earning a bronze medal with Russia at the World Juniors. Daniil Vovchenko, 20, also picked up plaudits after impressing in a struggling team. Severstal has a long tradition of nurturing talent – think Vadim Shipachyov or Pavel Buchnevich, in recent seasons – and Kudako or Vovchenko could yet be the next big players to be forged in Cherepovets.
What next: When budgets are tight, everything depends on raising home-grown talent. Gulyavtsev, whose connections with the club go way back, showed every willingness to trust the local lads emerging from the junior teams and – with his position seemingly secure for the coming season – that is likely to continue. But it’s a big ask for a young team to end that wait for a playoff place without some meaningful investment in the roster.
Results: A bright start to the season gradually dimmed; Torpedo came in sixth in the table, and fell to Dynamo at the start of the playoffs.
Summary: After last season’s abrasive but effective performances made Torpedo the kind of team nobody wanted to face, hopes were high for the coming campaign. The more optimistic fans in Nizhny Novgorod dared to dream that this might see a best-ever KHL finish and a run to the Conference Final.
The roster did not get a huge overhaul, with Peteris Skudra content with the efforts of his players last time out, and that consistency of selection was rewarded with a flying start. Torpedo rocketed to 11 wins in 15 games in September. Up until the New Year, the team was handily placed among the leaders in the Western Conference.
It didn’t quite last. Even at its best, the team was prone to inexplicable losses against modest opposition and when injuries began to bite, form inevitably faded. A slump in the closing weeks of the season saw a top-four finish turn into a sixth-place spot; the reward was a first-round playoff against Dynamo Moscow. Four of the five games went to overtime, and a combination of fine goaltending from Alexander Yeryomenko and a horrible blunder from Mikhail Biryukov contrived to put the Muscovites in control.
Torpedo’s final goal of the season was scored by Kirill Urakov, a 19-year-old forward who made his KHL debut this season. Still learning his trade, he picked up good notices for his contribution and was part of Russia’s roster at the World Juniors over New Year. His progress bodes well for a breakout season next year.
What next: Few coaches divide opinion like Peteris Skudra. His passion on the benches can boil over into a rage that saw him get into fights and pick up suspensions over the course of the season. But he seems to have earned the respect and affection of the hockey public in Nizhny Novgorod. If the season just gone was a small step back for his team, he will be given the chance to put things right and reshape the roster over the summer.
Results: It was a historic season in Podolsk as Vityaz clinched a playoff spot for the first time in the KHL era. Head coach Valery Belov made all the difference after his arrival from Ak Bars; stepping out from his role alongside Zinetula Bilyaletdinov, he assembled a roster that was good enough for seventh place in the West.
Summary: Belov’s return to a club that he served as both player and coach in the Russian Super League was the big story of the summer. Recent history did not paint an attractive picture of Vityaz: years as a goon show had harmed the team’s reputation, while more recent seasons had seen the organization ditch the rough stuff but fail to produce results. There were some big name players – most obviously Maxim Afinogenov – but previous playoff bids tended to fizzle out in January at the latest.
This time, things were different. Belov recruited well, with the capture of Sibir’s Alexei Kopeikin proving to be a masterstroke. Kopeikin, approaching the veteran phase of his career, was rejuvenated by the move, scoring 51 points. That, in turn, seemed to inspire Afinogenov to his best ever KHL production with 47 points at the age of 37. Throw in the contribution of Miro Aaltonen, with 44 points in his rookie KHL season, and Vityaz had a potent offense. On defense, Jakub Jerabek made a big contribution while young goalie Igor Saprykhin stepped up effectively after injury ruled out first-choice Harri Sateri late in the season.
The season didn’t produce any blistering winning streaks, nor any alarming slumps. Instead the team maintained a steady mix of victories and defeats more or less throughout. Along the way, a high-scoring 9-5 win at home to Dinamo Minsk caught the eye and a 5-3 success at home to Kunlun clinched that long-awaited playoff spot. The game was played on Valentine’s Day, the result no doubt gladdened hearts.
Into the playoffs, and Vityaz faced a tough task against SKA. Ultimately, it was too much. A battling 1-3 loss in Game One was respectable, but the remaining three games ended in heavy defeats. “We no longer had the strength to fight,” concluded Belov.
What next: With Belov firmly in place, the team will look to build on this success and ensure that last year’s playoff run isn’t just a one-off. Getting beyond the first round becomes the next target.