For Spartak Moscow, a run to the playoffs is long overdue. The Red-and-Whites, despite their fanatical support, haven’t featured in post-season since 2011. Back then, Spartak was swept by SKA. The last series victory came in 2010 against Dynamo Moscow, and Milos Riha’s team’s win against Lokomotiv on March 22 of that year was the last time Spartak celebrated victory in a playoff game. In a nutshell, it’s been far too long.
This season, Vadim Yepanchintsev carries the team’s hopes. The newly-appointed head coach is well-known as a player whose long career took him from his breakthrough into top-flight hockey as a teenager at Spartak to spells with the likes of Ak Bars, Dynamo and CSKA before retiring in 2011 after helping Atlant to the Gagarin Cup final. Since then, he’s coached in the MHL youth league with Spartak, and was an assistant coach for the Red Stars touring team in 2014-15, before heading to Kazakhstan for his first role as head coach of an adult team with Saryarka Karaganda in the VHL.
Spartak’s modest budget means Yepanchintsev’s experience of working with youngsters is likely to be all the more important. He is well-acquainted with the current generation of prospects emerging from the Spartak system, and that is likely to be one of the key reasons why he was hired for the job. In recent seasons, the Red-and-Whites have had a strong youth program, winning the Kharlamov Cup in 2014 and producing players of the caliber of Igor Shestyorkin. Tapping into that resource could be crucial for Spartak this season.
But Yepanchintsev also has some interesting summer signings to work with. Ville Lajunen, an effective two-way D-man with Jokerit, has joined the club with a brief to replace the free-scoring Matt Gilroy on the blue line. On offense, the vastly-experienced Stanislav Chistov arrives from Avtomobilist. The 34-year-old has never been prolific, but has earned renown as a valuable member of rosters at Traktor and Lokomotiv in recent seasons and can serve as a good influence on the roster’s younger faces. He’s likely to partner Ben Maxwell, a Canadian who spent the last two seasons at HC Sochi. Spartak will be hoping the change of scenery does him good after his progress rather stalled by the Black Sea last year.
Home-grown talent Sergei Shmelyov and former SKA defenseman Dmitry Yudin are two young players worthy of attention. Yudin, 21, can claim two Gagarin Cup wins and a silver medal at the World Juniors, but would be the first to admit that his playing time at SKA was limited. A move to Spartak gives him a chance to kick-start his career and gain some serious ice time. Shmelyov, meanwhile, is now 23. He earned a good reputation as a youth team player at Atlant, and made a successful step up to KHL hockey in 2014-15, scoring well in a struggling Atlant team. But after moving to Spartak following Atlant’s demise, Shmelyov has struggled to live up to his potential. Just 10 points from 45 games last season was a disappointment for all concerned. The potential is undoubtedly there, but now he has reached an age where he needs to start delivering. A new start under a new head coach might be the trigger for a long-awaited break-out season.