MOSCOW – One name has dominated this summer in Russia: Ilya Kovalchuk. After he returned home during last season’s labour conflict, Kovi was full of diplomatic noises about wanting to remain in Russia. Even when the arenas reopened back in North America, he stayed on as long as possible to take part in the All-Star Game before reluctantly returning to New Jersey. And that, it was assumed, would be that.
But the story wasn’t over. Kovalchuk was ready to back up his words, negotiating an exit from his long-term Devils deal and returning to SKA to take up where he left off. For the KHL, it’s a major coup. Previous big-name defections from the NHL have tended to be nearing the end of their careers – Jaromir Jagr – or returning home after struggling to make the anticipated impact across the Atlantic – Alexander Radulov. Kovi, though, heads East at the peak of his powers and his return has galvanized the whole league.
As always, there has been controversy: East-West relations don’t always run smooth, and transfers in and out of the NHL have sparked conflict between both sides in the past. Some in North America accused Kovalchuk of ducking the fight at the highest level, others claimed his move breached the spirit, if not the letter, of his deal with the Devils. But according to KHL President Alexander Medvedev, this time there was no dispute.
Speaking to the Sport Den za Dnyom newspaper, he suggested that the transfer had created a precedent which might bring other big names to Russia. “NHL regulations make allowances for players who wish to continue their careers in another overseas league, and when Kovalchuk returned everything was done according to the rules of the NHL.”
In Russia any carping over Kovi’s exemption from the salary cap, and his limited contribution to pre-season, has been muted by the excitement of welcoming one of the game’s biggest stars back home despite the rival attractions across the pond. And Kovi himself is ready for the challenge of inspiring SKA to its first ever major trophy after his taster last season.
“During the lockout I saw how people responded to the game, to the players,” he told Sovietski Sport. “I was genuinely impressed, and when I went back to America I talked openly with New Jersey’s general manager about letting me go back to Russia. Now I’m turning a new page in my career, and I’ll play for SKA with the same intensity I played in the NHL. I’ve no regrets, I’m sure this is the right decision.”
Now the key question is whether Kovi’s impact can turn SKA into a team capable of surviving the scrutiny of an intense play-off series – a question which it has twice failed to answer against Dynamo. Head coach Jukka Jalonen knows that his first task is to turn a stellar roster into a functioning unit on the ice, and a strong pre-season, even without his biggest star, suggests that he has already made progress on this.
If SKA starts as Gagarin Cup favourites, defending champion Dynamo Moscow goes into the curtain-raiser against Traktor Chelyabinsk under something of a cloud. Pre-season was not impressive for Olegs Znaroks and his team, and the coach admitted that harsh words were exchanged in the locker room after a dismal showing at the Mayor of Moscow Cup last weekend. Leo Komarov’s return to the ranks has cheered fans, but as always under Znaroks the team ethic is key. Dynamo will be in contention once again, but completing a hat-trick of titles is likely to be a tall order.
Across town, CSKA Moscow has broken with tradition. This bastion of Soviet sporting prowess has done what was once unthinkable and brought in an American coach. John Torchetti has the task of continuing the Army Men’s forward march after last season brought a big improvement. Alexei Morozov arrives from Ak Bars Kazan determined to prove that his career is not yet on the wane, while young D-man Nikolai Zaitsev comes from Sibir Novosibirsk to show whether he has what it takes to compete at the very top level.
In the East, Traktor Chelyabinsk has lost some of its young talent, but adds exciting Latvian forward Lauris Darzins. More important, though, Yevgeni Kuznetsov stays for another season. Despite his tender years and fresh-faced appearance, Kuznetsov is a deceptively experienced youngster. Last season brought 11 game-winning goals and a run to the grand final; this season he will be hoping to deliver a stronger individual performance in the play-offs.
In Kazan, Ak Bars is ringing the changes. Morozov has left, Danis Zaripov switches to Magnitogorsk, Denis Kulyash heads to Avangard and the golden generation which began in Tatarstan in 2005 is no more. Alexander Burmistrov jets in from Winnipeg with a point to prove, while Tim Stapleton’s prolific form with Dinamo Minsk has earned him team USA recognition and now a move to one of the KHL’s top clubs.
Avangard Omsk and Metallurg Magnitogorsk complete the serious contenders in the East, and the two clubs have chosen different paths this summer. Both were disappointing last time, but while Avangard has kept faith with Petri Matikainen, “Magnitka” has brought in Mike Keenan to replace Paul Maurice. A year ago Metallurg was keen to talk about a long-term plan built around a younger, developing roster. But a first-round play-off defeat has led to a revision of that strategy. Zaripov’s goalscoring wiles, and the solid goaltending of Vasili Koshechkin, could be key here. Matikainen, meanwhile, has rebuilt his defence, bringing in five new players. Miroslav Blatnak and Ivan Baranka come from Salavat Yulayev Ufa, Dmitri Vorobyov has joined from SKA and Stanislav Yegorshev has moved from Severstal Cherepovets. In addition Omsk old-boy Denis Kulyash returns from Ak Bars for his third spell here. Sergei Kostitsyn is also back after impressing during the labour conflict in the NHL to add some firepower in Omsk.
It wouldn’t be a KHL campaign without some expansion teams, and this year sees Croatia join the league. Medvescak Zagreb opens its season at home to CSKA on Friday with tickets sold out long ago. Croatian hockey has been in the doldrums since the break-up of Yugoslavia, with Medvescak playing in the Slovenian and Austrian leagues in recent years. Now the bears are gearing up to tackle Russia, and will look to veteran NHL defenceman Steve Montador to provide much-needed experience on the roster.
In the East, Admiral Vladivostok brings the game to the Pacific coast – and finally brings some company to Amur Khabarovsk in one of the game’s loneliest outposts. Admiral sets sail on Thursday at Amur, and for more on its maiden voyage, see here.