It feels like Avangard has struggled to fulfil its potential in recent seasons. After reaching the Gagarin Cup final in 2012, the Hawks have rarely shown signs of getting to that level again. Last season was a case in point: second in the Eastern Conference, Avangard looked underpowered in post season, stumbling past Admiral before falling to Ak Bars.
The club’s management acted swiftly and decisively: Fyodor Kanareikin left, and Andrei Skabelka took over as head coach. Skabelka is well known for his work with Avangard’s Chernyshev Division rival Sibir, a team that he lifted up a level after several seasons as an also-ran. After making progress with a tight budget in Novosibirsk, he’s now got a chance to reinvigorate one of the biggest clubs in Russia.
Skabelka’s game demands a high work-rate. His teams have a different set-up, compared with Kanareikin’s approach. It could take time for the roster to adapt to some new demands, but an extensive overhaul of the playing staff gives the incoming coach a line-up closer to his own image.
Three of the new faces have their roots in Scandinavia. Andre Petersson is well-known to KHL fans after a successful spell at HC Sochi. The 26-year-old has quietly but efficiently tallied up the points for the past three campaigns, and was leading the league’s scoring charts early last season before injuries slowed his progress. The Swede is especially strong on the power play – 30 of his 58 KHL goals have come against depleted opposition.
His countryman, Dennis Everberg, is another forward with a growing reputation. He was part of Sweden’s World Championship-winning roster in Cologne last May, cementing a somewhat belated breakthrough onto the international scene. Everberg, now 25, spent the early part of his career at Rogle, an elevator team in the Swedish leagues, before getting a shot at the NHL with Colorado. After a promising start in Denver, a shoulder injury slowed his progress and his second season was mostly spent in the AHL, prompting a return to Europe. Last season, he was among the leading scorers for Vaxjo Lakers, with 37 points from 53 regular-season games.
The third representative of the Tre Kronor is another forward, Johan Sundstrom. He’s won the Champion Hockey League twice with his home-town team, Frolunda, and had a stint as part of the Islanders organization, making 11 NHL appearances amid three seasons largely spent in the AHL.
The trio will be expected to replace the scoring potential of Anton Burdasov – Avangard’s most productive in terms of points-per-game last season – and Vladimir Sobotka, a talented but frustratingly inconsistent import.
With all the changes on the roster, club captain Evgeny Medvedev will have a key role to play. The 34-year-old was one of the foundation stones of the Ak Bars team until he took his chance to play in the NHL in 2015-16. That season with Philadelphia was mixed, but he wasted no time in showing why Avangard invited him back to Russia: 22 points in regular season, plus the kind of presence that keeps a locker room together, speak for themselves.
While Medvedev was doing that in the KHL, Anton Kovalyov was lighting up the Junior League. The 20-year-old only has one KHL appearance – indeed only one shift – to date, but 87 points in 53 games at junior level last season point to a serious talent. This could be the year that he establishes himself in the big league.