The traumas of last September still haunt everyone connected with the club. A nightmare start to the season saw head coach Vladimir Yurzinov depart after six straight defeat, only for the incoming Alexander Andriyevsky to lose his first six games in charge. A new KHL records for a losing start to any season and not even the consolation of bonus point for forcing overtime. Not surprisingly, the roster was radically reshaped by the new coach.
Most of the imports were swapped and things began to improve. Five straight wins in November, plus a four-game hot streak in January – the playoffs were still within reach. However, the closing stages of the regular season went badly and Sibir was left stranded in ninth place at the end of the campaign.
Nikolai Zavarukhin is one of three head coaches preparing for his first season in the KHL. Unlike Craig MacTavish and Mikhail Kravets, he’s relatively young and he has never before served as head coach of an adult team. That’s not to say he lacks experience: he started his coaching career in the respected Ufa school and worked his way up through two levels of the Youth Hockey League, a short stint as assistant in the VHL and a solid three-year stint as #2 at Neftekhimik and Avtomobilist, working under Vladimir Krikunov.
In that time, he earned a reputation as one of the best assistants in the KHL. He took responsibility for his teams’ offense, something that will continue in Novosibirsk. Zavarukhin also has connections with Sibir, where he coached Sibirsky Snaipery in the Youth Hockey League and put together the foundations of a team that went on to win a bronze medal.
Goalie: Harri Sateri (Grand Rapids, AHL).
Defense: Andrei Yermakov (CSKA), Sam Lofquist (Kunlun Red Star), Nikolai Timashov (Neftekhimik, via Avtomobilist), Yaroslav Khabarov (no club).
Offense: Juuso Puustinen, Mikael Ruohomaa (both Neftekhimik), Alexander Torchenyuk, Evgeny Chesalin (both Avtomobilist).
Goalie: Danny Taylor.
Defense: Pavel Vorobei (Avtomobilist), Maxim Ignatovich (Neftekhimik), Konstantin Klimentov, Oleg Piganovich, Roman Savchenko (Lokomotiv).
Forwards: Gilbert Brule (Kunlun Red Star), Semyon Ivanov (Rubin, VHL), Vladimir Peshekhodov (CSKA), Shane Prince, Pavel Tkachenko (Dynamo Moscow).
“You can’t play hockey without a goalie,” said GM Kirill Fastovsky. “Last season we suffered that to the full.” Not surprisingly, then, the arrival of Finnish netminder Harri Sateri is a key signing for Sibir this summer. Sateri already helped Vityaz to the playoffs and is more than capable of doing the same again here. But the problems went deeper: last season Sibir conceded more goals than all but two teams; summer has seen five defensemen leave the club, including former captain Oleg Piganovich and local favorite Maxim Ignatovich.
The new roster has a strong Finnish accent – in addition to Sateri, Sibir has added Puustinen and Ruohomaa, so effective for Neftekhimik last time around. Jukka Peltola, hugely respected in his homeland, is set to captain the team this season. There’s also a clear emphasis on players who have worked with Zavarukhin in the past. He went back to Neftekhimik and Avtomobilist to sign Nikolai Timashov, Alexander Torchenyuk and triallist Evgeny Chesalin, three experienced players who can support the rookie coach this season.
Last season, Yegor Milovzorov didn’t crack the top three scorers on the team. But he still showed that he is something of an icon on this roster. He was the leader of the second line, which picked up the banner dropped by the imports early in the season. In many respects the forward became a cornerstone of the team, part of the foundations that Fastovsky was eager to maintain. In the past, he’s been labelled something of a journeyman but now there are signs that he’s ready to step up and play to his potential. At the age of 31, it’s high time to take the lead and repay his dues with his hometown club.
There’s no hiding from the fact that Sibir has struggled to bring on players from the youth system in recent years but now there are two worthy contenders for the status of top prospect. Ilya Morozov and Nikita Shashkov both played at the World Juniors last season, which says much of their qualities. While Shashkov is likely to find it tough to crack the Sibir roster this season, Morozov already looks to be establishing himself on the blue line in a revamped defense. The coming season will be his third in KHL after he made his debut under Pavel Zubov and continued to feature for Yurzinov and Andriyevsky. Solidly built and blessed with impressive composure, Morozov has attributes that make him stand out among typical young players.
Once again, Sibir will be in the thick of the battle for a playoff place. Whether the team can cross the dividing line from ninth to eighth place will depend on the new coach and the incoming goalie: if Sateri and Zavarukhin deliver, Sibir can look forward to post-season action once again.
The rest of the team has what it takes to end that three-year wait. There’s offensive power from the defense thanks to Demidov, Lofquist, Yermakov and Alexander Loginov, plus a potent import line of Puustinen, Ruohomaa and Peltola. More importantly, the backbone of the team remains intact from last season. Since 2014, Sibir has suffered a series of big departures every summer. Things are different this time.