Every major championship sees new names appearing in lights – and this year’s Olympic Winter Games is sure to be no exception. In the absence of the NHL, the door is wide open for a host of guys to prove themselves on the international stage. Here’s a quick introduction to a trio of KHL stars worth looking out for in PyeongChang.
At 26, Hellberg is the oldest of our three picks. But the Swede also has the least international experience of the trio. That’s partly due to spending the past four seasons in North America trying to crack the NHL. That adventure had its ups and downs for the Predators’ draft pick: he managed just four appearances in the big show, and allowed five goals on his debut and six when he returned two years later.
The prospect of life on the bubble encouraged Hellberg to look elsewhere, and he took the bold step of heading to China and joining Mike Keenan at Red Star. Not an easy call, and not an easy season as the Chinese team found life tough in the Eastern Conference. Despite disappointing results, Hellberg was an eye-catching performer: his physical presence (he stands 1.96 and weighs in at 91kg) and smart anticipation helped him to a 92.6% success rate. That earned a call-up for Sweden’s Euro Hockey Tour action, and an impressive shut-out against Canada in the Karjala Cup cemented his claims for an Olympic place.
Hellberg has all the credentials to impress in Korea; his biggest obstacle may be overcoming a strong Swedish goaltending stable that includes former CSKA man Viktor Fasth and Dinamo Minsk’s Jhonas Enroth, the star of Sweden’s 2013 World Championship triumph.
This time last year, Zub had little international experience and had never tasted KHL playoff action. However, his form for Amur Khabarovsk had earned the attention of Oleg Znarok and, after an international call-up for the Euro Tour, the D-man, then 21, got a transfer to SKA. In the space of a few months he had won a Gagarin Cup and a World Championship bronze – a rapid upward jolt in his career.
The 22-year-old has continued to make steady progress this term, establishing himself as a reliable part of the second defensive pairing at SKA. He may not be the most stellar or eye-catching contributor – Zub’s offensive production has never been a huge part of his game but he remains a solid obstacle in the path of any forward he faces.
Not everyone was thrilled to see Zub’s name in the Olympic roster. A young prospect getting the nod ahead of the likes of Andrei Markov, a distinguished veteran of 16 NHL seasons and several previous Games, raised more than a few eyebrows. For those critical of Znarok’s reliance of players from SKA and CSKA, Zub’s inclusion was further evidence of a head coach reluctant to step outside his club comfort zone. But that misses the point. Throughout Znarok’s coaching career, he has surrounded himself with players chosen not on reputation, but selected to fulfil a specific role that the coach trusts them to carry out. Zub, clearly, is a man who has quickly won the full trust of Znarok … and is poised to repay that faith in PyeongChang this month.
When my colleague on our Russian-language site, Pavel Lysenkov, hit on the headline ‘Kaprizov, who everybody loves’, he wasn’t kidding. This baby-faced assassin of a forward plays with all the infectious enthusiasm of a schoolboy released from the classroom – but his stats prove that he packs a punch. For Salavat Yulaev last season, he posted 42 points in 49 regular season games, and added three more playoff goals. This time, at CSKA, he’s got 40 in 46 at the sharp end of the Tarasov Division winner’s offense. And the winger, comfortable on either flank, is still two months shy of his 21st birthday!
A product of the renowned Novokuznetsk school – despite the struggles that led to Metallurg leaving the KHL, the Siberian city has been a reliable supplier of Russian talent down the years – Kaprizov first showed his prowess as a luminous performer in an unsuccessful roster. That earned him World Junior call-ups, and moves to the KHL’s big clubs. Along the way, he was drafted by the Minnesota Wild … but thus far has opted to remain in Russia, honing his skills before looking to crack the NHL.
Surprisingly, PyeongChang will be his first major international tournament as an adult. At U20 level, his contribution was strong enough to have head coach Valery Bragin – not a man easily moved to hyperbole – talking up the youngster.
“Kaprizov is an even brighter prospect than Vladimir Tarasenko,” Bragin said. “I can see him being second only to Sidney Crosby in the NHL.”
Kaprizov, as captain, proved the most deadly forward of the 2017 Championship, getting 12 (9+3) points in seven games as Russia took bronze. Yet that was not quite enough to earn Kaprizov a chance at last year’s senior World Championship in Cologne; Znarok preferred to keep this weapon under wraps until Korea.