Gagarin Cup winners, Olympic stars and a promising young defenseman. Each of these six have made an impact on the KHL, but won’t be back next season.
Pavel Francouz (ex Traktor, now Colorado Avalanche)
Last season was a big one for Francouz, and he starred for club and country. At the Olympics he was impressive for the Czechs until the Russians solved him in the semi-final, while in Chelyabinsk he backstopped Traktor deep into the playoffs. That was enough to persuade Colorado to take him on as it looks to strengthen its goaltending stable behind Semyon Varlamov.
Francouz’s unusual style – he catches right, unlike most goalies – makes him a stand-out. But it’s the numbers he produced in Russia that have cemented his reputation. Twice in two years he’s had the KHL’s best SVG%, last season he was named goalie of the year. Initially assigned to the Av’s new AHL affiliate, Francouz is likely to get his chance over the course of the season.
Bogdan Kiselevich (ex CSKA, now Florida Panthers)
Not many remember how it all began for Kiselevich in the KHL: 43 games for his home-town team, Severstal, in 2008-09, but not a single point for a rookie blue liner learning his trade. The two-way defenseman was merely learning his trade, though. By 2012 he was established as a powerful part of the Severstal roster and had earned his first international call-up.
A move to CSKA in 2014 confirmed his progress and unlocked the next level in Kiselevich’s career. As part of a team that won three consecutive regular season titles, he cemented his status as one of the most productive Russian D-men in the league. That form continued in the international arena, with five points in 10 games on his World Championship debut in 2017 (collecting a bronze medal in Cologne for his troubles). Last season, wearing the ‘A’ for CSKA, he went to a Gagarin Cup final and was part of the Olympic roster in PyeongChang before signing a one-year deal with the Panthers to set up his first crack at the NHL.
Ilya Lyubushkin (ex Lokomotiv, now Arizona Coyotes)
For this hard-hitting 24-year-old, the coming season brings a new challenge. Signed to a two-way contract in Arizona, he’s battling to secure a place on the NHL roster and continue the progress he made at Lokomotiv in recent years.
Like many young players, he left Moscow’s youth hockey scene to join the Lokomotiv organization, well aware of the club’s track record in bringing potential to maturity. The plan worked: stepping up to play with men in the VHL led to a rookie KHL campaign in 2013-14. By the end of that season, he was a regular on the team and featured in 18 playoff games. Lyubushkin isn’t a player who puts up dazzling scoring stats – his first love is defense, and making those juddering hits. Now he’s hoping to make a big impact on a new stage.
Ilya Kovalchuk (ex SKA, now LA Kings)
It’s fitting that Kovalchuk is off to Hollywood in search of the Stanley Cup that would clinch his membership of the Triple Gold Club. He’s been a box-office smash during his time in the KHL, and he helped to delivered long-awaited success for club and country. A Stanley Cup in LA would complete the script for one of the most dramatic careers in the game.
It all started with the lock-out. Kovi and SKA proved a perfect fit, and the forward returned for the 2014-15 season. With Vyacheslav Bykov behind the bench, and Kovalchuk piling up the points, the Petersburg team won its first ever Gagarin Cup and became Russian champion for the first time in its history. But every good drama needs a spot of controversy. The following season, with Bykov gone, Kovalchuk found himself a healthy scratch in the playoffs as SKA failed to defend its title. Normal service was resumed in 2017, and SKA won again. By now, Kovalchuk and Oleg Znarok had forged a partnership that was to bear fruit in 2018 in Korea: 7 (5+2) points in six games, a tournament MVP and a priceless gold medal as this Olympic Athlete played in his fifth Games.
Jan Kovar (ex Metallurg, now Islanders)
When this Czech forward arrived in Magnitogorsk, he had a reputation for big scoring – but was still waiting to cement his potential. He came as a Czech champion, with 26 points in 20 playoff games helping Plzen claim the prize and carried on that medal-winning form when he got to Russia.
Kovar won the Gagarin Cup in his first season as Mike Keenan’s team powered to victory. Sergei Mozyakin took the goalscoring plaudits, but Kovar’s role in the center was key to his colleague’s record-breaking success. In the playoffs, he had 18 assists (and eight goals) from 21 games; regular season followed a similar pattern – 23+45=68 points from 54 appearances. The partnership with Mozyakin and Danis Zaripov was irresistible and fired Magnitka to a second Gagarin Cup triumph in 2016. After four seasons, Kovar finished with more than a point a game – 286 in 285 regular season outings, 91 in 83 playoff engagements. That’s some consistency, sustained over an impressive period.
Alexei Tsvetkov (ex HC Sochi)
It’s entirely possible that this 37-year-old forward will be back in action, but at present Tsvetkov is a free agent looking for a club for the coming season. If he does not find one, it will be the first time since the league was formed that Tsvetkov has not played.
In those 10 years, he’s done plenty: a Gagarin Cup finalist with MVD in 2010 in the last of his six seasons with a club he helped lift out of the minor leagues. A Gagarin Cup winner with Dynamo Moscow in 2013, when his overtime goal in Chelyabinsk defeated Traktor and brought the Muscovites a second successive win. All of that success came with Oleg Znarok, who also handed Tsvetkov an international debut at the age of 35. After finishing last season with HC Sochi, Tsvetkov reached 291 points in 506 KHL appearances, with a further 44 points in 95 playoff outings.