It’s season number 10 for the KHL, and as the action gets underway in St. Petersburg on Monday in the game between the local team SKA and CSKA Moscow, the shadow of the upcoming Winter Olympics looms large on the horizon. From Oleg Znarok’s pre-season sparring against Team Canada to a transfer merry-go-round part-fuelled by Olympic speculation, Korea is never far from anyone’s thoughts. It all adds up to an intriguing campaign – and here are some of the key trends for 2017/18.
The Olympic effect
The announcement that NHL players would not be available for PyeongChang immediately put an extra focus on the KHL for the coming season. Several players, such as Slovak goalie Julius Hudacek (Severstal Cherepovets) and Canadian forward Ryan Garbutt (HK Sochi), stated clearly that the prospect of an Olympic call-up was a big incentive for joining the KHL.
The same opportunity has also attracted some Russian stars back across the Atlantic. CSKA signed up defenceman Alexei Marchenko (ex-Detroit and Toronto) and forward Mikhail Grigorenko (ex-Colorado), bringing two of the youth team graduates back into the fold, while Stanislav Galiev moved from Washington to Ak Bars Kazan after several seasons struggling to break into the NHL. After signing Marchenko, CSKA President Igor Yesmantovich explained that the upcoming Olympics had influenced his club’s recruitment policy. “We’ve said more than once that one of our strategic directions is to bring Russian players back from the NHL to play for CSKA and within the Olympic team. Players like Marchenko, who have decent experience at the highest level but are still in the early years of their careers, will continue our victorious traditions.”
It’s not just about players: the Olympics offers new opportunities to coaching staff, such as Gordie Dwyer, newly-appointed at Dynamo Minsk after two seasons with Medvescak Zagreb. He has a scouting and player identification brief for Hockey Canada, and reckons his KHL experience – which also included a stint on the Canadian coaching staff at last year’s Spengler Cup – can be a big help to Team Canada as it prepares for February’s Olympics. “I am confident that, even without the NHL, the Olympics will introduce us to some new heroes, guys who many fans didn’t really know before,” Dwyer told championat.com.
Znarok beats Canada at last
Last May’s World Championship semi-final, where Russia blew a two-goal lead to lose to the Canadians, was the third time head coach Oleg Znarok had faced his country’s greatest rival and been defeated. Finally, though, he got a win at the Nikolai Puchkov Memorial Tournament in St. Petersburg. Admittedly, it wasn’t a full international: Znarok was behind the bench for SKA, Canada sent an experimental roster to explore its Olympic possibilities. But the result reinforced the growing self-confidence at the defending champion, despite the loss of Vadim Shipachyov and Yevgeni Dadonov.
Incoming players include Maxim Karpov (from Dynamo Moscow) and promising young defenceman Vladislav Gavrikov (ex-Lokomotiv Yaroslavl). There’s also the return of Sergei Kalinin from New Jersey; when asked about the strengths of his new club and his previous employers, he agreed that SKA was good enough to beat the Toronto Marlies and the Devils.
Znarok, too, is excited by the prospect of defending the title. “I think, on the whole, we’re better prepared now than we were this time last season,” he said after the gold medal game against Jokerit. “It even frightens me a little. I’m expecting great production from all four lines.”
Markov heads home
After 16 seasons in Montreal, few could imagine Andrei Markov playing anywhere else. The veteran D-man, known as the General, racked up 990 NHL regular season games for the Canadiens. That’s more than any other Russian player.
So, when his contract was not extended, the news came as a surprise. For Markov, the prospect of suiting up against Montreal was not appealing; a return to Russia was too good to turn down. The 38-year-old chose Ak Bars Kazakn, a club urgently seeking an experienced player after Danis Zaripov’s doping ban. The move reunites him with Zinetula Bilyaletdinov, his first head coach in senior hockey at Dynamo Moscow.
“The fact that I played for Zinetula Bilyaletdinov at Dynamo, before I even went to the NHL, played a significant part [in deciding to sign for Ak Bars],” Markov told khl.ru. “I know what he expects of his players, and I’m really glad that we’ll be working together again. You could say that it’s thank to him that I became the player I am.”
As for how much things have changed since winning the old Superliga in Moscow at the turn of the century, Markov reckoned that coach Bill, notoriously stony-faced behind the bench, now smiles more often.
Westerlund, Keenan, tackle new challenges
Two of the most decorated coaches to work in the KHL are back behind the bench this season – and both face intriguing new challenges. Mike Keenan is taking charge of Kunlun Red Star, and looking to cement hockey’s status as a major sport in China. Meanwhile, Erkka Westerlund is coaching outside of Finland for the first time in his career as he serves as the first foreign head coach at Salavat Yulayev Ufa.
For Westerlund, who previously coached Jokerit in its first two KHL campaigns after great success with the Finnish national team, the locker room to coping with the high expectations of fans in Ufa, who are desperate to see a strong bid to win the Gagarin Cup for the first time since 2011, it’s a very different environment. But the 60-year-old, twice an Olympic medallist, is confident that his vast experience can help him spring a few surprises this season.
Keenan, meanwhile, has been handed a tough brief in Beijing. Not only does the KHL’s youngest club expect an improvement in its sophomore season, it also wants to see more Chinese players on the ice. As a result, the summer has brought a complete overhaul of the playing staff, with just a handful of last season’s players remaining in the Chinese capital. For Keenan, it’s a new challenge: after winning the Gagarin Cup in Magnitogorsk with a roster of top-class players, he now needs to coax the best results from a more modest line-up. “We can call our players talented, but they are not superstars like Mozyakin, Zaripov or Kovar,” Keenan said at a press conference over the summer. “Plus, there’s a layer of Chinese prospects who will hope to be part of the Beijing Olympics in 2022. It’s going to be interesting to see how everything plays out during the season.”
End of an era in Urals
In Magnitogorsk, things look a bit different. The all-conquering Mozyakin-Kovar-Zaripov line is no more: Danis Zaripov had left the club even before receiving his suspension. Tomas Filippi is the man in waiting to join the front line, while much-travelled KHL hot-shot Matt Ellison also arrives.
There are also big changes on defence. Young guns Alexei Bereglazov and Viktor Antipin are off to the NHL, while Chris Lee is returning home after four successful seasons with Metallurg. It all adds up to a new look for Magnitka as Ilya Vorobyov looks to keep his team at the top of the Eastern Conference.
Aside from Ellison, the arrival of Nick Schaus from Dynamo Pardubice adds depth to the roster. The American defenceman has a career path reminiscent of Lee’s: undrafted, he’s worked his way up through college hockey and the European leagues to get to the KHL. Another name to look out for might be Grigori Dronov, a young defenceman who broke into the Metallurg roster last season. He’s a lock for the World Juniors, and could be the biggest beneficiary from the departures of Antipin and Bereglazov.
As the KHL begins its 10th season, the league is planning various commemorative events to celebrate the landmark. One is already known – the first ever ‘Winter Classic’ in the KHL is set to take place in Helsinki in December when Jokerit hosts SKA. That game, due to be played on a pad close to the earliest hockey venue in Finland, is due to mark the 50th anniversary of Jokerit as well as the league’s first decade.
Further celebrations are set to be announced as the season progresses.