The writing was on the wall before the season even began. Head coach Anvar Gatiyatullin accepted an offer to join Ilya Vorobyov’s staff at SKA and one of the team’s leading forwards, Alexei Kruchinin went north with him. Incoming head coach German Titov didn’t last long, his brief tenure remembered for heavy losses against Jokerit and Salavat Yulaev. Alexei Tertyshny took over and did enough to make the playoffs, but eighth-seeded Traktor made little impression against Avtomobilist in the first round.
Behind the scenes, two long-serving directors left the club and a new management team came in led by Boris Vidgof.
Last season was the first since 2011 that Peteris Skudra spent on the sidelines. The Latvian was a sought-after pundit, but everyone understood that his place was still behind the bench somewhere in the KHL. He spent five years with Torpedo, a spell that brought successes and questions.
On the plus side, Nizhny Novgorod always made the playoffs. On the minus side, the team never got past the second round. That was partly due to the immense strength of CSKA and SKA in the Western Conference, but also partly due to the team becoming a hostage to Skudra’s rigid style. On taking the reins in Chelyabinsk, the coach talked about taking time to reflect and revise his ideas about the game but only time will tell whether his team will play in a traditional Traktor fashion or retain a strong Skudra accent.
Goalie: Ivan Fedotov (Salavat Yulaev)
Defense: Jesse Virtanen (Fjarestad, SWE), Dmitry Kalinin (Spartak), Vitaly Menshikov (Dynamo Moscow), Alexander Mikulovich (Kalamazoo, ECHL), Evgeny Nazarkin (Dynamo SPb, VHL), Dmitry Sergeyev (Almaty, KAZ), Sergei Tereshchenko (Salavat Yulaev)
Offense: Yegor Babenko (Severstal), Ivan Bezrukov (Lada, VHL), Tomas Hyka (Chicago Wolves, AHL), Ruslan Karlin (Dynamo Moscow via Severstal), Yaroslav Kosov (try-out), Alexei Kruchinin (SKA), Fyodor Malykhin, Andrei Popov (both Ak Bars), Lukas Sedlac (Columbus, NHL), Yegor Fateyev (Lokomotiv), Alexander Shurygin (Chelmet, VHL), Sergei Konkov (Admiral).
Goalie: Alexander Sudnitsin (Avangard), Kirill Kuzmin.
Defense: Grigory Zheldakov, Nikita Zhuldikov (Salavat Yulaev), Nikita Nikitin, Evgeny Petrikov (Rubin, VHL), Alexei Petrov (HC Sochi), Evgeny Ryasensky (Neftekhimik), Nikita Khlystov (Severstal), Alexander Shinin.
Offense: Alexander Bergstrom, Danil Gubarev, Richard Gynge (Vaxjo, SWE), Yegor Dugin, Semyon Kokuyov, Vitaly Kravtsov (Rangers, NHL), Artyom Melikhov (Dizel, VHL), Yury Mogilnikov, Denis Mosharov (Khumo, VHL), Igor Polygalov (Dynamo Moscow), Alexander Rybakov (Neftekhimik), Ryan Stoa (Orebro, SWE), Paul Szczechura (Torpedo), Joonas Enlund.
The big trend for Traktor this summer was bringing players from the organization’s youth organizations back to the club. Incoming director Boris Vidgof announced that strategy almost as soon as he took over and that shaped the recruitment policy over the summer. There was even an audacious bid to bring back Slava Voynov, but it proved impossible to bring the two-time Stanley Cup winner back to his native Chelyabinsk. Another experienced player, Andrei Popov, returns from Ak Bars to renew his long-established partnership with Anton Glinkin, while veteran defenseman Dmitry Kalinin and forward Vitaly Menshikov are back are their home club. Kalinin, in particular, looks like a potential captain. Casting the net more widely, two blue liners who have spent the last few years in North America are also coming home, with Alexander Mikulovich and Dmitry Sergeyev signing contracts at Traktor.
That’s the homespun contingent, what about the imports? The Hyka-Sedlak combination brings together two Czechs with NHL experience while Jesse Virtanen arrives from Sweden with an award as the top D-man in the SEL. Two additional forwards offer contrasting stories: Fyodor Malykhin is looking to get back on track after failing to realize his potential at Ak Bars, while Yaroslav Kosov is on a try-out after six months of inactivity and looks like more of a gamble. Between the piping, Alexander Sudnitsin’s departure raised some eyebrows, but opens up the way for promising youngster Vladislav Sukhachyov to enjoy more ice time and speed his development.
Traktor has assembled an almost entirely new team and there is a wide range of potential leaders. Those Czech forwards could be big once they’ve adapted to the KHL, while the Popov-Glinka connection has a proven pedigree. But the key figure looks to be the returning Alexei Kruchinin.
When Traktor went deep into the 2018 playoffs, he and Kravtsov were the driving force. As the pair grew up in the organization, Kruchinin was something of a mentor to the teenage talent. Back then, it seemed that Kruchinin would emerge as a key player in Black-and-White but a trade to SKA changed all that. A mixed year in Petersburg saw him called up for international action and sent down to the VHL; after a season of rotation in the north Kruchinin came back to Chelyabinsk looking forward to regular hockey.
Over the last decade, Traktor has seen three youngsters explode onto the KHL scene: Evgeny Kuznetsov, Valery Nichushkin and Vitaly Kravtsov. With the last of those going to New York this summer, there is no youngster of comparable calibre left at the club.
However, there is a wealth of promising players who have tested themselves in the VHL and Marsel Sholokhov looks to be the one to single out. Two years ago, he was chosen for the World Juniors ahead of Kravtsov. A small, energetic forward, he’s the kind of player coaches love. In particular, he should be a good fit with Peteris Skudra’s style. The 21-year-old is gearing up for his fourth season in the KHL and could be poised for a breakout year.
The big question is how Skudra will fit in Chelyabinsk. The Latvian coach has established a reputation as a man who can squeeze everything out of his players, but rarely sticks with the same line-up for long. In regular season, he is consistent but may suffer from inflexibility in the playoffs. The long-term narrative arc here might depend on how well he can match his approach to the players available and the expectations of Traktor’s fans.
One the one hand, his imports are used to the power hockey played in the NHL and AHL; on the other, Glinkin and Kruchinin have fared better on teams with a more traditionally Russian style. It will also be interesting to see how he taps into Traktor’s reserves of young talent. At Torpedo, Skudra was often criticized for not developing young players; in Chelyabinsk, ignoring the academy is unlikely to bring success.