Over the next few weeks, Last Word on Sports will be previewing the new Kontinental Hockey League season ahead of the season opener on August 24, which will pit SKA Saint Petersburg against CSKA Moskva. Today, we will look at the Bobrov Division of the Western Conference.
2015-16 KHL Season Preview: Bobrov Division
The Minsk side got back to the KHL playoffs last season, and look to advance past the first round for the first time in 2015-16. To do this, Minsk picked up Ryan Gunderson from Jokerit to bolster an already-impressive, mobile defense core, and replaced outgoing Norwegian goalkeeper Lars Haugen with KHL veteran Jeff Glass. Glass is coming off of his worst season in the KHL (posting a meager .885 SV% with Lada), and backup Dmitry Milchakov has never been a KHL starter before.
The team is also a ticking time bomb, as only two of their top ten scorers from last year are under 30, and one, Paul Szczechura, is just one year off at 29. Will father time catch up with these men? Will Glass be able to put last year’s debacle behind him and return to the form he had in Sibir? Will Milchakov be able to step up and earn his way into a starting role and, possibly, a role with the Belarus national team? There’s a myriad of questions for the Belarussian side going into this season, and we’ll have to wait for answers.
Financial woes and uncertainty had Riga scrambling last second to recruit players, and in the process, they lost key imports Kyle Wilson, Chay Genoway, Linus Videll, and Milan Jurcina, as well as head coach Artis Abols. Scrambling to assemble a team for new head coach Kari Heikkila, Riga brought in goalkeeper Joacim Eriksson and defenders Steven Seigo and Tomas Kundratek, along with import forwards Tim Sestito and Felix Schutz.
Top Latvians Lauris Darzins and Mikelis Redlihs return, but up-and-comer and top goal scorer Miks Indrasis is gone. The team also brought in more young Latvians to replace Indrasis, including 2014 Memorial Cup Most Valuable Player Edgars Kulda. However, past Darzins, Redlihs, and the imports, Riga is thin up top, with the rest of the forwards being mediocre Latvians. Will one of these Latvians step up and help, or will Riga’s attack die after the top two lines?
It’s a transition year for Jokerit after being one of the KHL’s best teams in their first season. Their entire top line, the “LoKoMo Line” of Linus Omark, Petr Koukal, and Steve Moses are gone, as is defender Ryan Gunderson. In are some new interesting pieces however.
Brandon Kozun comes in from Toronto of the NHL, along with Norwegian star and Champions Hockey League MVP Mathis Olimb. Joining those are three new Danish imports: Peter Regin up front, along with Jesper B. Jensen and Philip Larsen on defense. Throw in new Finns in Jesse Joensuu and Pekka Jormakka, along with existing veterans Niko Kapanen and Niklas Hagman, and there’s no reason to believe Jokerit can’t make a deep playoff run and continue their progression into one of the KHL’s model franchises in year two.
After a shaky 2014-15, Medvescak sporting director Aaron Fox elected to build a younger, faster team for 2015-16. Out were the days of Medvescak being a team of entirely AHL vets looking to springboard elsewhere to the KHL, and in was a team of European-based players with a mixture of upside and experience.
Out was Pascal Pelletier, Martin St. Pierre, and Bill Thomas; in came skilled Liiga veterans Jesse Saarinen and Stefano Giliati, diminutive Czech playmaker Tomas Mertl, and Slovak Extraliga goal king Radovan Pulis (on a trial which, according to his agent, he’s virtually guaranteed to make).
The big question for the Bears is in goal. Cal Heeter was very iffy in KHL play last year, posting a pedestrian .911 SV%. Competing with him are Slovenian international Gasper Kroselj, whose last top-flight hockey experience came in Norway’s GET-ligaen in 2013-14, and Danny Taylor, who did not impress in a brief stint with Dinamo Minsk last season. The performances of Heeter, Taylor, and Kroselj will determine if Medvescak is closer to the 2013-14 team than the 2014-15 one. An interesting side note: if trialist Janos Vas makes the team, he will become the first Hungarian to ever play in the KHL.
SKA St. Petersburg
After 68 years of utter failure, SKA finally got their coveted Gagarin Cup last season. However, they’ve had a rough offseason, losing Patrick Thoresen, Artemi Panarin, Viktor Tikhonov, Jimmie Ericsson, Tony Martensson, and Roman Cervenka, all of whom contributed greatly into building the championship team, as well as winning coach Vyacheslav Bykov. To make up for these losses, SKA decided to bolster the blueline by picking up Yegor Yakovlev from Lokomotiv, and added some muscle by bringing back Yevgeni Artyukhin. Joakim Lindstrom and Jarno Koskiranta will attempt to replace some of the scoring lost with those key players, particularly Thoresen and Panarin, while Mikko Koskinen will look to continue his Goalkeeper of the Year form from 2014-15.
Despite all these losses, SKA should be the favorites to win this division, but will their on-ice performance be able to distract from the ongoing Andrei Nazarov saga, in which the new coach allegedly attacked and hospitalized a team doctor?
After an eleventh hour miracle kept the Slovak side in the KHL, it was right to work in making sure the team didn’t repeat a dreadful 2014-15. Ivan Svarny returned to help a porous defense that allowed the fourth most goals in the league, while the team picked up two terrific North American goalkeepers in Barry Brust and Michael Garnett, both of whom are proven at the KHL level.
Leading scorer Ladislav Nagy also returns, and the team managed to bring head coach Milos Riha back to the KHL (and Slovan, who he had coached a decade ago), though they did lose World Junior MVP Denis Godla through contract termination. The roster for 2015-16 is still a work in progress for Belasí, but the early going is suggesting a much brighter season in Bratislava, one that will hopefully see less uncertainty among players and fans alike.
The Red-Whites are finally back. After sitting out the 2014-15 season due to financial woes, The People’s Team returns in 2015-16, with a roster largely composed of last year’s Atlant team plus Spartak juniors. Two of the KHL’s rising stars in goal, Atte Engren and Yevgeni Ivannikov, are set to duke it out for control of the crease. In front of them is an intriguing defense that includes youngster Yaroslav Dyblenko, imports Chay Genoway and Matt Gilroy, and Kazakh veteran Vitali Novopashin.
The questions for the new and improved Spartak are primarily up front. Last year’s Atlant struggled to score goals, so general manager Alexei Zhamnov got to work on adding firepower. The fruits of his labor were Lukas Radil, who has slowly become an intriguing prospect for the Czech national team with his performances for Dynamo Pardubice, and Casey Wellman, a former standout at UMass-Amherst who had dominated the AHL in recent years. Those two just add to the promising youth such as Sergei Shmelyov, Vyacheslav Leshchenko, and Oleg Yashin, and veterans such as Igor Radulov and Maxim Potapov. Can German Titov put it all together and bring the Red-Whites back with a bang?
Next week, we’ll take a look at the Tarasov Division, home of Continental Cup holders CSKA Moscow, who look to forget their epic meltdown in the Gagarin Cup semifinals.
Photo Credit: Latvijas armija via Flickr