This time last year, Avtomobilist’s aggressive transfer policy confirmed the club’s ambitions to compete with the best. And the start of the action showed what had been assembled: a win over CSKA in game two set the tone, an 18-game winning streak set a KHL record. By the end of February, Andrei Martemyanov’s team sat proud atop the Eastern Conference, having topped the entire league for much of the season.
But that form did not continue into the playoffs. A first-round sweep of Traktor could not mask all of the team’s problems and against Salavat Yulaev the wheels came off. The blistering offense of the regular season faded away; the team’s leaders fell into the shadows. The second-round series ended in a 1-4 reverse.
Just as Avtomobilist made a bid to be regarded as one of the KHL’s top clubs, so head coach Andrei Martemyanov staked his claim to be classified as an elite coach. After just three seasons behind the bench in the KHL he led a heavily reconstructed team to the top of the regular season standings. It’s naïve to suggest that anyone could get those results out of that roster; working with a stellar roster is a special talent and Martemyanov proved that he can do it.
It makes sense that Martemyanov earned a good deal of credit for his achievements in regular season. However, Avto’s playoff campaign raised questions about how well he can produce consistent results throughout the whole season.
Goalie: Vladislav Gross (Metallurg Novokuznetsk, VHL)
Defense: Rafael Batyrshin (Ak Bars), Fyodor Belyakov (CSKA), Maxim Berezin (Avangard), Pavel Vorobei (Sibir)
Offense: Vladimir Gaideik, Stepan Grymzin (both Ugra, VHL), Pavel Datsyuk (SKA), Dmitry Zhukenov (Metallurg Novokuznetsk, VHL), Evgeny Mozer (Dynamo Moscow), Brooks Macek (Chicago Wolves, AHL), Kirill Pilipenko (Ugra, VHL), Geoff Platt (Jokerit), Peter Holland (Rockford, AHL)
Goalies: Andrei Makarov (Buran, VHL), Vladimir Sokhatsky (Salavat Yulaev), Igor Ustinsky (Zauralye, VHL)
Defense: Stanislav Yegorshev, Kirill Koltsov, Alexander Lebedinets, Kirill Lyamin (Dynamo Moscow), Georgy Misharin (Torpedo)
Offense: Dmitry Arsenyuk, Alexander Borisenkov (both Ugra, VHL), Evgeny Grachyov (Avangard), Stephane da Costa (Lokomotiv), Denis Kazionov (Neftekhimik), Ilya Krikunov (HC Sochi), Francis Pare (Dinamo Minsk), Alexander Torchenyuk (Sibir), Evgeny Chesalin (Sibir)
The summer saw Avtomobilist lose some important players. Stephane Da Costa and Francis Pare’s departures put a dent in the forward line, while the departure of three goalies puts pressure on Vladislav Gross to prove himself as a viable understudy for Jakub Kovar. That’s a problem that needs to be addressed; last season we saw what happens to Avtomobilist when the Czech is unavailable.
But there are positives as well. The replacements bring proven KHL quality. Geoff Platt should add to the offense, while perhaps the biggest trade of the summer brought Pavel Datsyuk back to his native Yekaterinburg. However, Datsyuk hasn’t featured in pre-season and seems likely to miss a few games at the start of the KHL action next month.
This summer, Pavel Datsyuk turned 41. At that age, it’s never easy to keep performing consistently but there’s something unique about Datsyuk. Last season he produced a more than solid 42 (12+30) points for SKA. At Avtomobilist his role on the ice and his status on the team will be even greater. The club’s management are hoping that he can be the catalyst for a serious bid to win the Gagarin Cup. After all, playoff success owes less to reckless offense and more to experience and producing the big play at the right time. And who has more experience and big-game know-how than the Magic Man?
Avtomobilist has such an experienced roster that any youngster needs to play at a very high level to get a look-in. Maxim Rasseikin is capable of just that. The 21-year-old forward first got involved with the KHL team back in 2016/17 but produced the best results of his short career last time around with 8 (3+5) points in regular season. The summer brought a call up to Russia’s ‘B’ team at the Sochi Hockey Open and the new campaign should see him cement his status as a rising KHL player.
Apart from signing Pavel Datsyuk, the big news for Avtomobilist was that the team’s key players were going nowhere. Jakub Kovar, Nigel Dawes and Dan Sexton are all staying in Yekaterinburg. The only thing missing was new strength on the blue line. The coming season could be a significant one for the club: opposing teams will treat Avto with greater respect than they did a year ago, while the Motormen need to prove that they are ready to become a top KHL team.
There are several possible ways the story might unfold. In the most optimistic scenario, Yekaterinburg profits from Kovar staying fit all season, Datsyuk matches his productivity from last season, and Dawes and Sexton maintain their scoring form into the playoffs. If all that happens, Avtomobilist could have a shot at getting to the Gagarin Cup Final.