In four of its five KHL seasons, HC Sochi has reached the playoffs. It’s a record that speaks of stability, and the 2018/19 campaign was another solid one. Sergei Zubov’s team rarely endured a serious slump and was firmly in the top eight throughout the campaign on its way to a sixth-place finish in the West.
The playoffs brought another first-round exit, this time at the hands of Lokomotiv. But here, too, were signs of progress. In taking the Railwaymen to six games, Sochi produced its best ever post-season performance by winning both of its home games before fading in the decisive encounters.
Sergei Zubov’s career began at SKA but it seems that he’s found the perfect place to develop his hockey philosophy in Sochi. In both of his seasons behind the bench, the Leopards have reached the playoffs and there appears to be a good understanding between coach and club. The coach has grown in authority every season, gaining valuable experience, while the team further reinforces its status as a solid presence in the Western Conference.
Goalie: Nikita Bogdanov (SKA), Ilya Proskuryakov (Krefeld, DEL)
Defense: Simon Bertilsson (Brynas, SWE), Anatoly Yelizarov (Salavat Yulaev), Ilya Nazarevich (Torpedo), Alexei Petrov (Traktor), Morgan Ellis (Kolner Haie, DEL)
Offense: Ilya Krikunov (Avtomobilist), Denis Orlovich-Grudkov (SKA), Konstantin Sokolov (Saryarka, VHL), Malte Stromwall (KuKu, FIN).
Goalie: Konstantin Barulin (SKA), Pyotr Kochetkov (SKA)
Defense: Alexander Budkin, Sergei Zdoborovsky (Torpedo), Jyrki Jokipakki, Ziyat Paigin (Neftekhimik), Yegor Rykov (NY Rangers, NHL), Vadim Khomitsky.
Offense: Martin Bakos (Admiral), Kirill Belyayev (Torpedo-Gorky, VHL), Stanislav Bocharov (Torpedo), Eric O’Dell (Metallurg).
In the summer, Sochi saw the departure of leading players in all areas. Goalie Konstantin Barulin left for Neftekhimik after four years beside the Black Sea, top-scoring defenseman Jyrki Jokipakka also went. And two of the top three forwards, Eric O’Dell and Stanislav Bocharov, moved to Metallurg and Torpedo respectively.
Among the arrivals there are several players new to the KHL, making it hard to assess the squad’s prospects at this stage. Morgan Ellis and Simon Bertilsson made a good impression at the Sochi Hockey Open, where the host team had the most miserly defense at the event and allowed just four goals in four games. However, Malte Stromwall, the leading scorer in Finland last season and potentially the biggest summer signing for Sochi, showed little in the same tournament. There were more promising contributions from forward Ilya Krikunov and goalie Ilya Proskuryakov.
The Swedish forward was his team’s leading scorer in both regular season (40 points) and playoffs (4 points). And that in itself is a great reason to highlight Robert Rosen as a leader at his club even in his debut season. And there’s more: fellow Swede Malte Stromwall acknowledged the role Rosen played in bringing him to the club this summer. As well as doing the business on the ice, it seems that Rosen is also helping to attract more quality additions to the Sochi roster.
There are a good number of talented youngsters at HC Sochi who have been steadily picking up points. Stepan Starkov is one name that springs to mind. But we’re expecting big things from Andrei Altybarmakyan. First, after a moderate regular season, the forward came to life in the playoffs and scored two goals. Second, the 21-year-old is proving a hit off the ice as well as on it: his entertaining videoblog has attracted several thousand views on youtube.
HC Sochi knows how to make the playoffs consistently but the next step – progressing past the first round in post season – demands some serious strengthening. The Western Conference is highly competitive, and nobody is going to reach new heights overnight. Has the summer made Sochi stronger? Only time will tell, and while success in the Sochi Hockey Open is a cause for optimism, it isn’t evidence enough to suggest definitive progress. So much depends on what the new imports contribute.