Last summer, CSKA suffered some colossal losses: leaving aside players on the fringes of the team, half the team left. The first choice goalie, three defensemen and six forwards all departed and many of them (goalie Ilya Sorokin, two of the D-men and three forwards) were among the very top players not just on the team but in the entire league. This exodus was not just down to players leaving for a shot at the NHL; several players had to go to ensure that the club stayed under the new salary cap. One year on, we can see that even though the cap dealt a heavy blow to CSKA, the club withstood the challenge. The existing depth on the roster meant that the club could not merely survive this reconstruction but even consolidated its place as a league leader. In the Opening Cup, the Army Men suffered an overtime loss against Ak Bars (2-3) but a 1-0 victory over the same opponent on the final day of the regular season secured top spot for the third year running and cemented CSKA’s status as favorite for playoff glory.
And the Army Men were good value for that status. The first round maybe was not quite as straightforward as the scoreline suggested, and the second was almost the last, but CSKA survived. The third round, oddly enough, was possibly the easiest; even when SKA battled back from 0-3 to 2-3, CSKA always looked in control. And, thanks to Ak Bars’ defeat against Avangard, most made CSKA the favorite to win it all, feeling that Bob Hartley’s attacking hockey would come adrift against the rigid systems of Igor Niktin’s team.
But, as we know, Hartley’s Avangard stayed on course and won the final in six, blanking CSKA in the last two games. Even so, it would be wrong to regard the season as a flop for CSKA, even allowing for the club’s ambitions to win the cup. Topping the regular season table and reaching the Grand Final is a success for any team, especially one that had to contend with the kind of losses CSKA faced in the summer.
78 games, 69 (24+45) points
After Kirill Kaprizov, Linden Vey and Mikhail Grigorenko left CSKA, Okulov was expected to drive the team’s scoring. Even though Anton Slepyshev, who had 11 points more than Okulov last season, stayed in Moscow, Konstantin lived up to his billing. True, Slepyshev missed two dozen games during the championship, but Okulov’s leadership was undisputed. And it’s not just about the scoring; despite not being a center, Okulov dictated his line’s play and stood out due to his skills and vision on the ice. Among his achievements, Okulov shared the lead in post-season scoring with Sergei Tolchinsky, despite playing one less game.
74 games, 53 (30+23 points)
While Okulov was the leading scorer in the playoffs, Shalunov had most goals. And it wasn’t even close — he topped Reid Boucher by four goals. Maxim also had the best plus/minus of the playoffs (+12), with Okulov just behind as they formed the most effective partnership of the post season, combining for 22 goals together. Indeed, it could be that a suspension for Maxim was all that denied CSKA the cup. In game four, leading 2-1 in the series and ahead in the game, Shalunov was ejected from the game. Avangard recovered to win that one, and then won game five when the forward was suspended. Thus a potential 3-1 lead turned into a 2-3 deficit. Some might say that Maxim let his team down; others would point out that this turn of events underlines his importance to his team.
47 games, 33 wins, GAA 1.39, 94.3% saves
Johansson missed the start of the regular season and did not arrive until the end of October. He played 24 games, allowing 1.59 goals per game. Although this figure was unattainable for anyone else last season, it was Johansson’s worst in his KHL career. In the playoffs his numbers improved to 1.2 GAA, helped by a record-breaking seven shut-outs in the race for the Gagarin Cup.
It’s not easy to pick out any one game for a team that topped the table and reached the cup final. Thrashings of Dinamo Riga, Sochi or Neftekhimik don’t hit the spot due to the weaknesses of the opposition. The gritty win in Kazan that secured the Continental Cup even as Ak Bars had twice as many shots on goal is also hard to include — a 1-0 scoreline resembles football more than hockey. Instead, we’re looking at the CSKA-Spartak derbies — there were eight in total, four in the regular season and four more in the playoffs. And the first was perhaps the best of them all. Spartak, notionally the home team at the arena shared by the two clubs, jumped to a 2-0 lead, then got up 3-2. CSKA got ahead for the first time in the last minute of the second period but Spartak tied it up again right after the intermission. In the end, CSKA managed to secure the win, with hat-trick hero Pavel Karnaukhov making the difference.
It was also Alexei Ravodin’s 850th game as referee.
Cliches about a systemic coach and a systemic team are already outdated. Not only are they trotted out as lazy alternatives to analysing how a team plays, they are also meaningless since they imply that other teams and coaches somehow have a haphazard approach to their game. In addition, reference to ‘systems’ tends to refer to a determination not to make mistakes, as if other teams incorporated errors in their gameplans. Talking about systems is often accompanied by comments about rigid play and, sometimes, complaints that it can be dull to watch, even though charging forward at every opportunity is equally a system of play. Put simply, at this level of hockey, every coach and every team plays to a system.
So what of Igor Nikitin’s ‘system’? Apart from the aforementioned desire to eliminate errors, it is characterized by confidence and calm. The Army Men don’t try to overwhelm opponents, preferring to methodically dismantle them. Usually they are calm, even when down a goal or two, if there is time remaining in the game. Rather than galloping forward in a desperate bid to salvage the situation, they stick to the gameplan and, typically, pot the necessary goal(s). Where others adopt an ‘all or nothing’ approach, Nikitin’s charges show their composure.
So much for psychology. But you can also add physics. Coaching strategies are best characterized in the second period, when smart play that takes into account the distance from the defense to the bench can have a huge impact. Even if it doesn’t deliver goals right away, it can drain the opponents’ fitness and leave them vulnerable in the third period, or have them without the energy to fight back if they are already behind. Last season, Nikitin was peerless in second periods. His teams won 27 second periods in the regular season and another eight in the playoffs and each time went on to win the game. No other coach can much that 100 percent record. But that’s not all. On the 15 occasions that Nikitin lost the second period in the regular season, he recovered to win the game on seven occasions. That’s also a league-leading stat, albeit tied with Dmitry Kvartalnov of Ak Bars. Only in the playoffs did Nikitin’s second period strategy falter. After losing seven seconds periods, he went on to lose each of those games, including three against Avangard in the final.
“The better team won. I’m proud of my team. Avangard just deserved it more. Hockey is a team game. We had a chance to win it with this roster. Any playoff is a series of games where a goalie can stand on his head. I’d like to thank CSKA for the chance to work with this club. And I’d like to say thanks to our guys.”
Compared with last season, few departures are likely to seem hugely significant — unless, once again, half the team leaves. And at CSKA, that is hardly the case. The goalkeeping stable has been completely replaced but it’s worth noting that, for all Johansson’s success, he owes the bulk of that to the players in front of him. Incoming goalies Adam Reideborn and Ivan Fedotov are also strong goalies, so it’s unlikely that scoring on CSKA will suddenly get much easier.
On defense, the loss of Mat Robinson, Dmitry Samorukov and, to a lesser extent, Yegor Rykov, is quite significant — but hardly on the scale of last year’s exodus. So far, only Viktor Svedberg has signed in their place, but it’s possible that Nikita Nesterov will return.
There are more questions about the offense. Extended contracts for Okulov and young Maxim Sorkin are a boost, but the uncertainty over Maxim Mamin (restricted free agent) and Maxim Shalunov (unrestricted free agent) are cause for concern. The departure of Ivan Telegin and the outbound trades for Brendan Leipsic, Andrei Loktionov and Nikita Korostelyov should not pose huge problems, but they will need to be replaced. So far, only two Swedes have arrived to boost the roster — the unproven Lucas Wallmark and the more impressive Joakim Nordstrom.