Gillian Kemmerer Gillian Kemmerer
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The 2020-2021 KHL season was a high-stakes debutante ball that cast an unrelenting spotlight on Russian youth. Called to battle as COVID-19 ransacked the globe and rosters were shaken in kaleidoscopic fashion, 204 players under the age of 21 carried the weight of the championship on their shoulders. Despite mounting pressure and relative inexperience, the KHL “kids” wrote their names into the record books of an uncommon season, challenging historic perceptions of the role that youth could play on a top-tier roster.

Nearly 1,000 players competed across five countries and 23 teams, with more than twenty percent making their league debut (218, the most ever). Of the 933 competitors in total, 124 players under the age of 20 laced up for their respective clubs, an all-time single-season KHL record. Ironically, they scored exactly 124 goals as a cohort — another chart-topper in league history. While the KHL average age trended downward to 27 years and 44 days old, its lowest ever, the schedule fell just shy of most number of games played: 1,712 versus 1,714 in 2009-2010. The number of goals per game reached its highest level (5.24) since the 2014-2015 season.

Forced to rely upon junior players when high percentages of the senior squad tested positive for COVID, coaches turned to their stables in unprecedented fashion. SKA Saint Petersburg, for example, iced the youngest team in league history within the first month of play. During a clash with Sibir on September 23rd, Saint Petersburg’s roster averaged 21 years old, down from 21 years and 184 days (the record previously set by Lokomotiv Yaroslavl).

As teams navigated the tumult of COVID tests, quarantines and border crossings, new leaders emerged from troubled waters. Eighteen-year-old Cherepovets native Nikita Guslistov became the youngest Russian-born player to score a hat trick in league history, as Severstal toppled Avtomobilist on January 21st. He was surpassed only by Jokerit’s Eeli Tolvanen in the 2017-18 season, who notched the record 113 days younger (in fact, he would do it twice). Guslistov was crowned captain of his hometown club just six days later, a significant upgrade from his season start in Russia’s Junior League. At 18 years and 242 days, he was the youngest player to wear the “C” in league history.

To simply marvel at these statistics is to minimize a very human story unfolding in the seams of each new nameplate. Behind every debutante stood parents, siblings, coaches and teammates who supported the manifestation of a dream — tuning in to the games with the same nervous jitters as the player who stepped onto the ice.

Voskresensk-born Pavel Tyutnev is one such example, recalled from The Railwaymen’s JHL team when an opening on the senior roster surfaced. Lokomotiv Head of Player Development Ted Suihkonen told the eighteen-year-old center to trust the assets that earned him a coveted call-up.

“When you get the opportunity to shoot, let it rip,” Suihkonen recalled counseling Tyutnev before his debut. “You have a sneaky shot that doesn’t need a big release — and at the KHL level, the time to get off a shot is shorter, so you’re already ahead of the curve. Remember that your game has spoken for itself. You deserve this. Soak in the crowd and live in the moment, because at the end of the day, you have all of us behind you.”

Tyutnev netted his first career KHL goal on March 21st versus CSKA, a perfectly-timed equalizer that sent a playoff game to overtime. It transpired exactly as his development coach had predicted, a swiftly-converted opportunity that got the better of Lars Johansson. The Swedish netminder would post seven shutouts — the most in playoff history — but Tyutnev, fifteen years his junior, prevented number eight.

Of the 933 competitors in the KHL season, Alexei Kovalev’s Kunlun Red Star cycled through 70. The Chinese club, forced to play in Mytishchi due to border closures, struggled to maintain a steady roster as imports arrived late and entire lines tested positive for COVID. 

“I had to send home some Russian players and then insert the North American guys into their positions,” Kovalev recounted after the regular season ended. “We couldn’t be too aggressive on sending Russian players home because the North Americans guys could get COVID. To make a long story short, we actually had one time where we sent three guys home, and after a week, we had to ask them to come back for a couple of games.”

While Kunlun spent much of the season in free-fall, Metallurg Magnitogorsk trended in the opposite direction. After an unsteady start, Ilya Vorobyov’s fox den rapidly ascended the Eastern Conference, finishing the regular season just shy of 2021 champions Avangard Omsk. Assistant Coach Mike Pelino highlighted the performance of Danila Yurov, a seventeen-year-old product of Stalnye Lisy ("Steel Foxes" — Magnitogorsk’s junior club).

“I think that there are a lot of very good young hockey players coming up through the ranks in Russia,” Pelino shared on Episode 3 of Icecast. “We had a young guy on our team, Yurov, who to me is a real complete player at the age of 17 already. He’s definitely someone who’s going to raise some eyebrows because he doesn’t do it strictly on a skills basis. A lot of young Russian players are real flash and dash and high-skill, but he does it in the subtle ways and in the little parts of the game.”

At 17 years and 92 days, Yurov was the second-youngest player to score a goal in the KHL playoffs. He fell one month shy of none other than Traktor’s Vitaly Kravtsov, who potted his first at 17 years and 61 days back in 2017. The highest-drafted Russian for the New York Rangers since Alexei Kovalev, Kravtsov returned to Chelyabinsk and torched any doubts lingering after a tough 2019-2020 campaign. He posted his best performance to-date, and went on to log four points in five postseason appearances. 

“The way he sees the game is different than other players that I’ve seen at his age,” Traktor veteran Nick Bailen described in June, even before Kravtsov’s impressive redemption. “He can make plays and turn games around if he wants.”

Moving our attention to the champions of the 2020-2021 season, Avangard Omsk boasted several talented cubs that contributed meaningfully to Bob Hartley’s efforts. The globetrotting coach won the Stanley Cup, Calder Cup, the Swiss League and the QMJHL prior to his Gagarin Cup victory, and he is no stranger to cultivating Russian wunderkinds. Hartley stood at the helm of the Atlanta Thrashers when a young Ilya Kovalchuk tied for the Rocket Richard Trophy. The pair reunited midseason at Avangard, the once-promising youngster now a steady veteran. All eyes flashed to Hartley’s bench when the Columbus Blue Jackets selected Yegor Chinakhov with the 21st pick of the NHL Entry Draft, a talent he had watched progress all season — even if the rest of the world seemed shell-shocked.

“[Chinakhov] is a very talented young man, great attitude, wants to learn,” Hartley described on the inaugural episode of Icecast. “With COVID-19, [Arseny Gritsyuk, Semyon Chistyakov and Yegor Chinakhov] stayed with us the whole time and they didn’t get sick. Our players deserve a lot of credit in the development of those young players. We have a great room, we have great leadership with our captain Alexey Emelin and all the veterans... we put them in game situations where we really valued their strengths.”

Among those mentors Hartley described was Reid Boucher, a twenty-seven-year-old KHL debutante who landed in Russia with a honing device for the net. The AHL import broke Avangard’s club record for longest scoring streak, notching points in 17 consecutive games and tying Alexander Radulov’s league record set in 2011.

Man of the Week — Reid Boucher

Youth wore the crown and bore the crown beyond KHL competition. The Russian Hockey Federation made waves when they opted to send a roster of U20s to the Karjala Cup, a senior men’s national team tournament hosted in Finland. Captained by SKA’s Vasily Podkolzin and under the tutelage of Igor Larionov, a mock-up of Russia’s World Juniors team swept Finland, Sweden and the Czech Republic with unflappable confidence and maturity. SKA netminder Yaroslav Askarov became the youngest goalie to register a shutout for the National Team, an accolade previously held by the likes of Andrei Vasilevsky, Semyon Varlamov and Vladislav Tretiak. Salavat Yulaev’s Rodion Amirov became the first player in history to score in each of his first three appearances for Russia’s Red Machine.

“The guys displayed their potential today,” Larionov said at the conclusion of the Karjala Cup. “Hopefully, having seen their performances here, KHL coaches will give these young guys even more opportunities at the senior level.”

Reliance on youth this season was born of compulsion. In some cases, it could have been called desperation. But if necessity is the mother of invention, then perhaps this moment will ignite a shift — or, at the very least, a recognition of what youth has to offer. As it turns out, the Russian kids are alright. In fact, they’re more than alright. They are talented, brave, and up for the challenge.

As we wrap a season of dazzling and unexpected debutantes, I admit that I already find myself peaking around the corner and wondering, “Who’s next?”

Gillian Kemmerer Gillian Kemmerer
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