The Eastern-most outposts of the KHL gained a new neighbor this season as Kunlun Red Star brought top-level hockey to China for the first time. Among the more established teams in this section, there were tough times for Salavat Yulaev and Sibir, while Admiral showed some encouraging signs.
Results: Once again, Admiral fell at the first hurdle in the playoffs. But, this time, the Sailors managed to take the series to six games for the first time. A small step, but progress nonetheless.
Summary: Alexander Andriyevsky’s team did not go for wholesale changes in the summer, but some judicious transfer activity brought Robert Sabolic to the club. The Slovenian international emerged as a leading player in Vladivostok, helping to bring the best out of young Russian prospect Vladimir Tkachyov at the same time. Tkachyov, who managed just six shifts with SKA in the previous campaign, revelled in the extra ice time available here. The 21-year-old made an instant impact, picking up points in nine of his first 10 games and finished with 39 points, second in the club’s scoring.
Initially, progress was slow. In mid-September the team was some way off the pace, and there was talk of a change in the coaching staff. But, once October began with a four-game winning streak, a slow and steady revival got the team back on course. Even so, it wasn’t until the final game that a playoff place was secured, although any last-minute nerves were eased when Sibir failed to beat Avtomobilist in regulation, ensuring that it could not improve on ninth place. Admiral came in seventh, and faced Avangard in the opening round of post-season action.
That series began with an overtime loss in Omsk. Game Two also went to Avangard, but Admiral hit back on home ice to tie the match-up at 2-2. That was as good as it got: after leaving it all out on the ice to grab an overtime win and level the series, Admiral could not recover and suffered back-to-back shut-out losses to see its season come to an end.
What’s next: Andriyevsky has already completed two full seasons at Admiral, and in an age of frequent coaching changes he enjoys an unusual level of stability. Back in 2015 his resignation was rejected by the club’s directors and it seems that their faith in him will enable the Belarusian to continue developing his team for the foreseeable future.
Results: Once again, the playoffs were out of reach for Amur. However, the club did produce a Gagarin Cup winner: defenseman Artyom Zub earned a transfer to SKA during the course of the season and featured in the championship run.
Summary: Khabarovsk revels in some of the most fanatical fans in the hockey world, but it’s been a long time since Amur delivered the kind of results that would repay that loyalty. In the KHL era the team has managed a solitary playoff campaign, under the guidance of Hannu Jortikka in 2012.
This season never looked likely to buck the trend. Bright spots, such as the continued impressive form of goalie Juha Metsola and the emergence of Artyom Zub, were hard to come by. Instead, it was a familiar story: too many moderate performers. Head coach Miskhat Fakhrutdinov left in December; a permanent replacement has yet to be confirmed.
Zub, still only 21, earned an international call-up, something of a rarity for Amur, but his elevated profile also led to his departure from the club – another familiar problem for a team that often faces a battle to keep hold of players with potential. The end result was another season of disappointment, only slightly enhanced by a late run of victories after the playoffs were out of reach.
What’s next: The next head coach is still to be confirmed, but Amur has already managed something of a coup in the summer trades. Marek Kvapil, the Czech forward who won the Gagarin Cup with Dynamo Moscow, was the first big signing. Kvapil has just helped Cometa Brno to victory in the Czech League. The club also confirmed that influential D-man Jan Kolar will remain for another year.
Results: Avangard won the division at a canter, but the playoff campaign was less impressive. Fyodor Kanareikin’s men needed six games to get past Admiral, and lost out to Ak Bars in the second round. As a result, Kanareikin left the club at the end of the season, prompting another new direction in Omsk.
Summary: Even before the season began, Avangard sprang a surprise. With preparations well underway, the club opted to replace head coach Evgeny Kornoukhov with Fyodor Kanareikin. The change didn’t greatly hamper the early stages of the season: Avangard started brightly, although even in the early stages it tended not to pick up many wins against the expected championship contenders – defeats to Lokomotiv, Ak Bars, and Metallurg Magnitogorsk (twice) blotted the record before the end of September.
That proved to be the story of the season. Generally reliable against the more modest teams, but not always impressive in the big showdowns. The same kind of solid but unspectacular performance also typified the individual scoring. Plenty of forwards managed 20 points, but Nikolai Lemtyugov (31) and Vladimir Sobotka (30) were the only ones to hit 30. Anton Burdasov was perhaps the most productive, with 17 goals and 25 points in just 35 regular-season games. That was enough to win the Chernyshev Division quite comfortably, securing second place in the Eastern Conference behind Metallurg, but there was a sense that the team was struggling to reach its full potential.
That sense was confirmed in the playoffs. In round one, Admiral should have been sunk after falling 0-2 behind, but was able to tie the series before finally running out of steam. Next came Ak Bars, and a defeat in six games sealed by a 5-0 drubbing in Kazan to end Avangard’s campaign.
What’s next: Kanareikin is gone, given less than a year to try to construct a successful team. In his place comes Andrei Skabelka from Sibir. Skabelka, alongside GM Kirill Fastovsky, earned a good reputation for his results in Novosibirsk in recent seasons. Under his guidance, Sibir stepped up from the middle of the conference to a solid playoff contender. But last season that progress came to an end. In 2017-18, both Avangard and its coach will be hoping a change of environment can pay dividends.
Results: A slow start to the season saw head coach Andrei Nazarov dismissed on September 6. Eduard Zankovets took his place and steadily shifted the team’s tactics from gung-ho offense to pragmatic defense. The change paid off: Barys reached the playoffs and overturned the rankings to defeat Traktor in round one before falling to Magnitogorsk in the Eastern Conference Semi-final.
Summary: At first glance, not all that much has changed in Kazakhstan. The leading figures on the team were Kevin Dallman, Brandon Bochenski and especially Nigel Dawes. Dustin Boyd, another familiar face, missed much of the season after a serious injury, but returned in time to make a handy contribution of his own in the closing stages.
And therein lies the problem. After failing to make the playoffs in 2016, Nazarov was tasked with improving results and putting a younger team on the ice. Zankovets delivered the results, but there was no rush of youthful talent suiting up in Astana. The old hands continue to deliver, but it’s not entirely clear where the future might lie.
There were things to celebrate: the opening round victory in the playoffs saw Barys become the only team to upset the seedings in the first phase. Brandon Bochenski saw a new mark for points scored by an import, only to be upstaged by his team-mate Nigel Dawes as the season progressed. Attendances in Astana’s new arena grew steadily, and the playoff games brought some five-figure crowds. The spectre of Damir Ryspaev, handed a lifetime ban from the KHL after his attempt to drag Kunlun players off the bench and into a fight in a pre-season game, was quickly forgotten.
But now it’s time for Barys to consolidate on what it has achieved and unearth new players – especially new scorers – who can ease the burden on the team’s familiar old faces.
What’s next: Zankovets is currently preparing Kazakhstan for its World Championship Division 1A campaign, looking to lead the country back to the elite pool of IIHF action. His long-term future in Astana will become clearer after that tournament in Kiev at the end of April. But, whoever is coaching the team, the problems for Barys remain clear: a lack of firepower outside of the first line, and an aging roster that needs a new generation to step up quickly.
Results: Like any new team, Kunlun found life tough at times. However, Red Star was always in the thick of the playoff race and secured a post-season place at the first time of asking – albeit by the narrowest of margins on the final day of the regular season. A first-round match-up with Metallurg Magnitogorsk was too much of a challenge, but Vladimir Yurzinov’s team did deliver a playoff win to Beijing in game four of the series.
Summary: There’s a sense of ‘Mission Accomplished’ in China after a debut season that let nobody down. From the start, Kunlun was competitive and a hastily-constructed roster proved that it could bring plenty to the party. Leading scorer Chad Rau took many plaudits – and earned a trip to the All-Star Game; goalkeeping tandem Tomi Karhunen and Andrei Makarov produced solid, game-winning performances.
Zach Yuen became the local hero. The most successful of the four Chinese players on the roster, he claimed the first Chinese goal in KHL history, grabbing the only marker of October 27th’s encounter against Amur. Playing as a D-man or a center depending on the team’s needs, Yuen continued to make a handy contribution on and off the ice. Aside from his scoring, which continued into the playoffs, he also became something of a poster boy for Chinese hockey.
The playoff series against Magnitka also produced some memorable hockey for a new fanbase in the People’s Republic. Despite losing out 1-4, Kunlun enjoyed a 3-1 home victory and ran the defending champion close in games two and three of the series.
What’s next: Yurzinov resigned at the end of the season and, a few weeks later, coaching legend Mike Keenan was unveiled as the new head coach. Securing the services of a man of Keenan’s stature is a huge coup for the club, and a huge boost for Chinese hockey. His tasks include improving on last season’s playoff campaign and nurturing at least five Chinese players on the KHL roster – a challenging task, but one that ‘Iron Mike’ is relishing.
Results: Now the only team never to have reached a KHL playoff, Metallurg never looked likely to break that unhappy run this season. A limited budget and a youthful roster added up to another struggle as the team finished rock bottom of the regular season table.
Summary: The return of Sergei Zinoviev to Novokuznetsk as GM at Metallurg raised hopes that things might improve for the team. But a season with few victories, three head coaches and a series of disappointments from senior players spelled the same old story.
There were bright spots – a shoot-out win at home to Metallurg Magnitogorsk, an unexpected four-game winning streak in late November and early December – and there were some star performers. Goalie Andrei Kareyev, 22, earned himself a good reputation on a losing team; his form between the piping saw off the experienced Mikhail Biryukov, who headed to Torpedo in search of more ice time. Karayev then got a move to Neftekhimik, following the tradition of youngsters getting their start in Novokuznetsk before being poached by wealthier clubs.
As usual, other young players got plenty of opportunities: Nikita Lyamkin, Timur Fatkullin and forwards Alexei Razumov, Ivan Yemets and Nikita Yazykov all featured in at least 30 games. Elsewhere in the league, Novokuznetsk-trained players enjoyed impressive seasons – Kirill Kaprizov at Salavat Yulaev, Ilya Sorokin at CSKA – and the club’s production line seems to be in good order.
But the KHL is an unforgiving league. Youth and potential are not in themselves enough. The lack of contribution from the club’s perceived stars, the likes of Mikhail Anisin, Andrei Pervyshin and Andrei Taratukhin were a big let-down and the team’s frequent, long losing streaks made it a tough season in Siberia.
What’s next: In the short term, it’s hard to see much changing. When local politicians are openly discussing the merits of continuing to fund top-flight hockey in the city, it’s far from clear where the necessary investment for Metallurg will come from. Despite this, the organization continues to nurture talented players and the evidence of this season suggests that the likes of Razumov, Yazykov and Evgeny Solovyov could be among the next crop of graduates who make a name for themselves in Russian hockey.
Results: For a time, it looked as if the unthinkable might happen. A New Year hangover turned into a long winless run, and Salavat Yulaev was in danger of missing the playoffs for the first time in KHL history. A late rally avoided that embarrassment, but a first-round loss in five games at the hands of bitter rival Ak Bars brought an end to Igor Zakharkin’s spell as head coach.
Summary: Kirill Kaprizov was the season’s shining light in Ufa. The youngster was in dazzling form, fully justifying a role on the first line alongside Linus Omark and Teemu Hartikainen. Kaprizov, still just 19, was unfazed by the step up from Metallurg Novokuznetsk, scoring 42 (20+22) points and threatening Evgeny Kuznetsov’s KHL scoring record for a junior. He was the second top scorer, and leading goalscorer, with Omark leading the way with 56 points.
But that was almost the end of the good news for Salavat Yulaev. A sluggish start – just four wins in the first 13 games – seemed to have been forgotten when October and November brought a sharp upturn in form and a comfortable position in the top eight. The good times didn’t last, though. Frequent injury problems took their toll, and 2017 saw a hideous run of nine straight losses (and a bigger picture of one win in 15 games) as missing the playoffs started to look like a serious possibility.
The highlight of the season came on Valentine’s Day, when a 3-1 victory at home to Ak Bars snapped that long losing streak and generated the momentum to get the team over the line and into post-season. But Ak Bars came back in the playoffs, dumping Salavat out of the competition and Zakharkin out of a job.
What’s next: After a remarkably stable summer last time, with Zakharkin adding experience on defense, capturing Kaprizov’s signature and holding on to most of his key forwards, this summer promises big changes. Erkka Westerlund comes in as head coach, the first foreigner to hold the position in Ufa. It’s something of a gamble: the Finn’s impressive CV includes success for club and country, but he has never led a team outside of his homeland before.
Results: Sibir failed to reach the playoffs – just – and Andrei Skabelka’s long and successful association with the club came to an end.
Summary: Injuries cut a swathe through Sibir’s season. The absence of goalie Alexander Salak for much of the campaign was hugely disruptive, even as replacements came and went. Throughout the year, the treatment room was home to other key players. The injuries were rarely prolonged, with the exception of defensemen Maxim Ignatovich and Georgy Misharin, but the cumulative effect of big players missing a handful of games was a disjointed team that struggled to find any consistent form.
Even so, the playoffs were so nearly in reach. Going into the final game, ninth-placed Sibir had to win in regulation at Avtomobilist and hope that one of Admiral and Kunlun slipped up. The team was up in the third period, only for a goalkeeping error from Danny Taylor to gift Avto an equalizer. The game went to overtime, and the playoff dream was over. Adding to the frustration, Kunlun went on to lose at Dynamo Moscow; had Sibir held its lead, it would have beaten the Chinese team to the top eight.
Instead, the season was over in February. Andrei Skabelka then left the club and eventually took over the vacancy behind the bench at Avangard.
What’s next: The club has yet to announce a replacement for Skabelka. GM Kirill Fastovsky, renowned as one of the wiliest in the competition will be seeking someone who can continue the club’s recent good work and generate strong teams through a well-maintained scouting network that excels in unearthing overlooked talent.