Once again, Red Star failed to make the playoffs. This time, though, the Dragons came closer than in the previous two campaigns and might have secured a top-eight finish were it not for an extended road trip at the end of the season, enforced by the coronavirus outbreak in China. At the start of the campaign, Kunlun played six games in Shenzhen, setting new attendance records for the club and bringing the KHL to its southernmost location so far. There was also a club record five-game winning streak to celebrate as Curt Fraser’s team showed clear signs of progress.
Key players included summer goaltending acquisitions Jeremy Smith and Simon Hrubec, who shared the workload and formed one of the most reliable combinations in the league. Tyler Wong, a Chinese heritage player with a formidable strike rate in junior hockey, was also a success.
Initially, Fraser was expected to return for the 2020-2021 season. He signed a contract extension early this year and the talk at the club was about putting a long-term plan in place under his guidance. But the coronavirus situation changed everything: bureaucratic complications made it impossible for Fraser to return and Red Star’s management turned to Alexei Kovalev as his replacement. The 47-year-old has worked on the staff in Beijing for the last two seasons, but this will be his first time behind the bench.
It promises to be a big challenge, but he brings colossal experience of hockey on both sides of the Atlantic and in the international game. He’s supported by Vyacheslav Kozlov and Igor Ulanov as assistant coaches, two more men who’ve seen it and done it all as players.
Almost everyone! Of the players who represented Red Star last season, even those whose contracts extend to 2021 are unavailable at present due to the coronavirus restrictions in China. Although the club will base itself in Russia for the coming season, as a Chinese organization, all non-Russian players and staff are subject to different migration rules from imports at other clubs in the league. That poses a unique set of problems in bringing guys back to the team, although recent progress means the club expects to see its foreigners back in the near future. At the time of writing, though, only Russians Denis Osipov and Andrei Maximov are confirmed for the coming year.
Almost nobody. Despite adding a couple dozen names to the roster, at the time of writing Red Star is offering try-out contracts and looking to build a roster from scratch. Not surprisingly, the team is a mixed bag: on defense, guys like Oleg Piganovich and Nikita Pivtsakin have plenty of experience, as do forwards Ilya Krikunov and Alexei Kruchinin. But there are several guys on the bubble of VHL and KHL, or players cut from KHL rosters and seeking any new employer. There’s hunger among these players, but is there sufficient quality to build a top-eight contender?
Officially, of course, there are several familiar names whose contracts are due to extend into 2021. However, there is still uncertainty about when the likes of Trevor Murphy, Jake Chelios, Tyler Wong or Spencer Foo can rejoin their team.
Usually, this category singles out a star player. However, with so much uncertainty about the KRS roster, it’s clear that the key figure for the coming season will be Alexei Kovalev. The head coach faces a baptism of fire in his first season in charge. A couple of seasons ago, Kovalev was close to taking to the ice for Red Star during an injury crisis. It’s hard to imagine that will happen in the coming campaign, but reports from practice confirm that he’s very much a coach who performs his duties on the ice with his time rather than directing operations from the sidelines.
There’s a sense of completing a circle as well. Red Star has relocated to Mytishchi for the season, which is where Kovalev played in the KHL with Atlant, his last Russian club. That was back in 2011-2012, and produced a modest return over 22 games. Returning to Moscow Region as a head coach, Kovalev will hope for much more.
With so much upheaval behind the scenes — relocation, a whole new roster (at least until the paperwork can bring the imports back) and a new coaching staff — it’s going to be a hard season for Red Star. So much of the progress under Curt Fraser last year has been lost due to circumstances outside the club’s control and the hastily-assembled new roster faces a real challenge to challenge for that elusive playoff place.
Kovalev insists that the club has to aim higher than mere survival and pre-season brought signs that the team will be hard-working and well-drilled. And it’s too early to dismiss the team altogether: there are players involved at this stage who can contribute to a team capable of overturning the odds. However, it’s fair to say that making any kind of bid for a playoff place would represent a season that goes beyond what most independent observers could expect from a club going through the toughest of times.