Minsk is one of the most passionate hockey cities in the KHL, but big crowds haven’t yet seen Dinamo find a winning formula. The Bison have almost always been competitive in regular season, but have yet to get past the first round of the playoffs.
In the past, the club has worked hard to bring imports to Belarus – in many cases, naturalizing North American players and seeing them go on to represent the national team – but this season the plan is a bit different. There are some key imports, but there’s a greater interest in promoting local talent. With Belarus failing to make the Olympics for the second time in a row, providing opportunities for a new generation of Belarusian stars is a new priority in the national program.
Incoming head coach Gordie Dwyer is the youngest in the KHL. But, even at the age of 39, he’s had a good look at this league during two seasons with Medvescak. He also had a brief spell in Switzerland at the end of last season, helping Ambri-Piotta escape relegation from the top league there. Now he’s taking on the Dinamo Minsk brief, and faces the challenge of balancing a reduced budget with demands for a strong team on the ice.
Part of the focus on home grown talent brings Belarusian prospects back home. Dmitry Buinitsky, born in 1997, is a good example. The forward made his Dinamo debut in the 2014-15 season before heading across the Atlantic. Last season he played for Quebec Ramparts in the QMJHL; now he’s back home, and hoping that his North American experience can help him cement a place on Dwyer’s new-look Dinamo team and earn a call-up to the senior national roster. Defenseman Roman Dyukov has a similar resume: he emerged from the Belarusian League, made the World Championship roster in 2016 and went to join the Calgary Flames organization. He played last season with the Adirondack Thunder of the ECHL and returns to his homeland at the age of 21 looking to establish himself.
It’s not just fresh-faced youngsters returning to Minsk, though. Vladimir Denisov, a veteran defenseman, is back at Dinamo for the first time since 2013. He spent the intervening years at Torpedo, Ak Bars and, most recently, Traktor; his long list of clubs also includes two AHL stints with Lake Erie and Hartford, plus a season in Switzerland at Ambri-Piotta. A regular for the national team, which he captained at the 2012 World Championship, his experience is vital for club and country. Experienced forward Charles Linglet – one of those naturalized Belarusians – is also back after spending part of last season with Tappara in Finland and Eisbaren Berlin.
It’s not all about Belarus though: two key new faces come from overseas. Goalie Jhonas Enroth, 29, has plenty of international experience with Sweden. He helped the Tre Kronor to gold at the 2013 Worlds, where he was named the best goalie of the tournament and was on the Olympic roster that won silver in 2014, although he did not play in Sochi. By that time, he had gone to the Buffalo Sabres, beginning a tour of the NHL that saw him on the books of five clubs without ever establishing a place as a starter. He’ll be expected to fill the void left by Ben Scrivens’ move to Salavat Yulaev.
The other eye-catching arrival is Justin Fontaine. The 29-year-old Alberta native graduated the University of Minnesota-Duluth and went on to spend three seasons in the NHL with the Wild. That time brought him 68 points from 197 games and when he was sent to the AHL last season his name was on the radar of several KHL teams. Dinamo secured the winger’s services and will hope that he can replace the scoring power of Matt Ellison, who left for Metallurg Magnitogorsk in the summer.
For Dwyer, who has yet to sample KHL playoff action, a top-eight finish is the first big goal. Beyond that, Dinamo is still waiting to win a playoff series in this league. Can a roster trying to develop local talent finally break through that barrier?