MOSCOW – Is the balance of power in Russian hockey shifting? The evidence of this summer suggests that years of domination from teams east of the Volga might be coming to an end.
The fifth edition of the KHL, which starts on Tuesday as defending champion Dynamo Moscow hosts runner-up Avangard Omsk, sees an expanded Western Conference boast not only the Gagarin Cup holder, but also a revived Lokomotiv Yaroslavl (see separate story), big-spending CSKA Moscow (see interview with Sergei Fyodorov) and three new teams bringing the action to Prague, Bratislava and Donetsk. Suddenly, it seems, the best of the west are taming the beasts from the east.
Old names, new look
Of course, much of the early season attention will focus on Lokomotiv Yaroslavl as the club returns to the top level one year after the tragic air crash which wiped out the entire senior team on the opening day of last season.
Incoming head coach Tom Rowe has assembled a squad with plenty of experience, but is promising to give game time to several of the youngsters who kept the team going in the MHL (the KHL’s junior league) and VHL (the second-tier senior league) last season.
In defence, Gagarin Cup winning duo Viktor Kozlov and Maxim Kondratiev add some steel, while up front exciting Latvian forward Mikelis Redlihs has the goal-getting responsibilities.
Lokomotiv starts with a trip to Sibir Novosibirsk on Thursday – a trip which promises to be an emotional experience for both clubs, since Sibir’s popular former goaltender Stefan Liv was among the players killed last year. No games will be played on Friday, the anniversary of the air plane tragedy.
The other big name to hit the headlines was CSKA Moscow. Fuelled by Rosneft’s petrodollars, the most titled hockey club in history hopes that a big money blend can refine its title ambitions and put a new trophy on the honours board for the first time since the end of the USSR.
The summer signing of Alexander Radulov – on a reported contract worth more than $9 million – was a statement of intent, but one which earned a rebuke from Russian President Vladimir Putin about the huge salaries swilling around Russian sport in general. However, head coach Valeri Bragin rated the club’s pre-season preparations as “3-out-of-5” following the Mayor of Moscow Cup, and warned that his players needed to respond better in high-pressure situations.
CSKA’s opening game is on Wednesday, but before that Moscow gets a look at Dynamo as the Blue-and-Whites start the title defence against runner-up Avangard on Tuesday.
The game has been switched to Khodynka to accommodate the anticipated crowd at the huge venue built for the 2007 IIHF World Championship, and coach Olegs Znaroks has retained a sizeable chunk of last season’s line-up.
But doing so involved a protracted transfer saga to secure Mikhail Anisin’s signature: the top scorer in last season’s play-offs was reportedly unhappy with the terms he was initially offered, and it was only after Arkadi Rotenburg took over as club president that the on-off deal was finally done.
Not only does the Western Conference feature the league’s most talked-about teams, it also welcomes three newcomers and adds two new nations to the KHL Commonwealth. Ukraine’s Donbass Donetsk moves up from the Russian VHL, while Lev Prague brings the league to the Czech Republic for the first time and Slovan Bratislava keeps the flag flying in Slovakia.
Donbass, coached by Julius Supler and bankrolled by Ukraine’s deputy Prime Minister Boris Kolesnikov, staged something of a transfer coup by winning the race to sign Yevgeni Dadonov after the 23-year-old Russian announced plans to return to Europe after two years with the Florida Panthers organization.
The Ukrainians also feature former Salavat Yulayev Ufa goaltender Erik Ersberg and experienced defenceman Jaroslav Obsut, suggesting that Supler has once again assembled a tough-to-beat roster capable of maintaining his record of always reaching the KHL play-offs in his time with Dinamo Riga and CSKA Moscow.
Lev Prague, closely related to last season’s new boys Lev Poprad, is not a simple transfer of an existing club to a new home. Although many of the same people are involved, it is a separate outfit and the possibility remains that Lev Poprad could resume its place in the league as well in the future. But for now it’s all about the Czech Republic, and that has influenced the recruitment policy of head coach Josef Jandac.
“We’re building around a nucleus of Czech players, since in the KHL Lev will be representing the whole nation. It’s true that many of the best Czech players are tied to contracts with other clubs, but I think we’ve assembled a decent outfit,” he said.
Among his signings is Jakub Klepis, who scored the decisive goal in Dynamo’s Gagarin Cup win last season, and Petr Vrana, fresh from a successful season at the KHL’s easternmost outpost, Amur Khabarovsk.
Slovan Bratislava is a famous name in European hockey, and having been founded in 1921 has a longer history than any other organization in the KHL. After taking the step to break away from the Slovak league and try its luck in the KHL, Slovan has high hopes of adapting to the challenges of the bigger league.
After securing the services of national hero Miroslav Satan for the KHL debut campaign, there’s every prospect of attracting big crowds hoping for further Slovak success following May’s World Championship silver medal. Rostislav Cada, who began last season at Avangard, is head coach and seems likely to apply his cautious style once again.
In the East
While the Western Conference has been in the spotlight over the summer, the Eastern powerhouses have also been active – particularly Metallurg Magnitogorsk. The appointment of Paul Maurice as head coach is an intriguing one: having taken a team to the Stanley Cup finals, he has the credentials to become the first North American coach to triumph in the Russian game.
He’s been charged with reinventing Magnitka as a leaner, younger force, and the roster’s average age is down from 31 to 25. The arrival of Pittsburgh frontman Cal O’Reilly has been touted by some as the signing of the summer.
Elsewhere, Traktor Chelyabinsk has retained the services of wunderkind Yevgeni Kuznetsov, but last season’s surprise package may struggle to match its success in topping the regular season table.
Ak Bars Kazan welcomes back Valeri Belov – the incoming head coach previously worked as assistant to the all-conquering Zinetula Bilyaletdinov, and has the task of getting the Tatar team back on top after a couple of below-par seasons
And last year’s runner-up, Avangard Omsk, has gone for another Finnish coach, Petri Matikainen, twice a silver medalist in Finland’s SM-Liiga with Espoo Blues.
Russian hockey is also monitoring the labour activity across the Atlantic. Naturally, much of the talk focuses on Russia’s NHL superstars, particularly Yevgeni Malkin, Alexander Ovechkin and Ilya Kovalchuk.
The 2004-05 lock-out saw several Russian stars return home – and in the case of the likes of Alexei Morozov, remain in Russia even after the NHL opened for business again.
This time around the KHL could face an influx of top European players in the event of a lock-out – and even a few big name Canadians and Americans. The league’s management has already insisted there can be no relaxation on the limits for foreign players, but recognizes that a big-name arrival or two would be beneficial for the league and its fans.