With the start of KHL season right around the corner, Last Word on Sports has pinpointed ten newcomers to Europe’s top ice hockey league for fans to look out for in the 2015-16 season.
Ten KHL Newcomers to Watch
Mathis Olimb, F, Jokerit Helsinki
2014-15: 87 points in 84 games across all competitions for club and country
2014-15 team: Frolunda (Sweden)
When Jokerit lost their entire top line of Steve Moses, Linus Omark, and Petr Koukal, one of the players they looked at to replace them was Olimb. The Norwegian forward was named Champions Hockey League MVP last year after posting a staggering 26 points in just 13 games, and led Norway at the World Championships with eight points. Olimb is a playmaker first, and uses superb skating and terrific technique to crack open defenses and set up a teammate, though he does lack size. Seventh all-time in Norway’s World Championship history in total points, Olimb has proven he can succeed for both club and country, and now it’s time for him to step up his game and fill the playmaking void left with Omark’s departure.
Simon Gysbers, D, Medvescak Zagreb
2014-15: Averaged 24:07 ice time per game
2014-15 teams: TPS (Finland), Djurgarden (Sweden)
After a awful 2014-15 season, Medvescak looked to get a little bit younger this offseason. One of the veterans they picked up to help bring the team back to the playoffs was the former Lake Superior State defender, who reunites with former Lakers teammate Nathan Perkovich. Gysbers will likely be a key part of Medvescak’s power play and breakouts, with an excellent outlet pass and a firecracker of a point shot. His 6’4” frame also grants him a lengthy reach, but he would do better to use it more, and he’s not very physical either. However, his right-handed blast from the point will compliment Tuukka Mantyla‘s left-handed puck-moving ability very nicely.
Mattias Karlsson, D, Severstal Cherepovets
2014-15: 26 assists in 66 games across all competitions
2014-15 team: HV71 (Sweden)
The former Ottawa Senator draft pick is quite similar to Gysbers; both possess good size (Karlsson is an inch shorter, at 6’3”), both are good at moving the puck, and both have bombs for shots. What Karlsson has that Gysbers doesn’t, however, is good play without the puck. Karlsson can hit with authority, and his work rate is second to none. With Ondrej Nemec, Miroslav Blatak, and captain Andrei Shefer on the Cherepovets side, he won’t have to shoulder as much of the load as he did in Jonkoping, allowing him to be more fresh and even more of a threat.
Olli Palola, F, Vityaz Podolsk
2014-15: Scored 42 goals in 88 games across all competitions
2014-15 team: Tappara (Finland)
Palola was terrific for the Tampere side during last year’s Liiga campaign, potting 29 goals, tops in the league for the second straight season. He kept this momentum going in the playoffs, where he scored 11 goals, again tops in the league. Now, it’s time for him to prove that those goal totals in Finland were no fluke, and he’ll have his work cut out for him with a Vityaz team that has never made the playoffs. His shot has surgical precision, although he isn’t the biggest player at 5’10”.
Pavel Francouz, G, Traktor Chelyabinsk
2014-15: Posted best SV% in Czech Extraliga in both regular season and playoffs
2014-15 team: Litvinov (Czech Republic)
This offseason, one trend that was interesting was the influx of Czech goalies coming to the KHL, as teams hope to replicate the success of All-Stars Jakub Kovar and Alexander Salak. Dominik Furch joined Avangard, Filip Novotny signed with Kuznya, and perhaps the brightest of all, Francouz crash-landed like a meteor in Chelyabinsk. Over the last three years, he has gone from an anonymous 22-year-old playing in the lower leagues to a likely KHL starter with Traktor after taking home a closetful of awards last Czech season. He was named best goalie, had the league’s best save percentage, and was named playoff MVP in Litvinov’s first-ever championship run. He’ll have to earn his playing time from homegrown youngster Vasili Demchenko, but the Czech national teamer has the potential to be a superstar KHL goalkeeper.
Ondrej Roman, F, Avtomobilist Yekaterinburg
2014-15: 31 assists in all competitions
2014-15 team: Vitkovice Steel (Czech Republic)
Sticking with Czechs, Roman is a very interesting add to an Avtomobilist side that struggled to produce goals last season. The former Memorial Cup Champion with Spokane is very much a passer, with 67 regular season assists over his last two seasons in Ostrava, compared to just 26 goals. He’s a very creative playmaker, but sometimes his unselfishness can come back to bite him in the butt. With fellow newcomer Eero Elo, a Finn, being a big-time finisher, expect Roman to thread the needle and Elo to Finnish the Motorists’ chances and improve an attack that only produced 134 goals last season.
Juha Metsola, G, Amur Khabarovsk
2014-15: Named Liiga’s best goalkeeper
2014-15 team: Tappara (Finland)
The modern goalie tends to be a pretty big goalkeeper. Big guys like Ben Bishop and Carey Price have been amongst the top goalies in the world in recent years. Metsola is not one of those big guys, standing at 5’10”. But over his professional career, he’s made up for it with phenomenal athleticism and the confidence to challenge any shooter, and it resulted in him leading the Liiga in save percentage last year with a sparkling .936. Amur suffered largely from goaltending issues last season after Alexei Murygin went down on opening night, but Metsola will give them a terrific athletic goalie who will be able to steal games.
Vladimir Roth, D, Sibir Novosibirsk Oblast
2014-15: Second in Czech Extraliga in points by defensemen
2014-15 team: Ocelari Trinec (Czech Republic)
More Eastern Conference-based Czechs, and one Sibir needs to step up to replace the departed Patrik Hersley. Roth plays a very similar game to the Lokomotiv-bound Swede, in that it’s very offense-oriented, utilizing his big shot, good skating, and puck-moving ability. Two years ago he led the Czech Extraliga in goals and points by a defensemen, and he would have duplicated the feat last year if he hadn’t missed time with injury. At 25, and with a 6’3” frame, Roth should be a terrific asset for last year’s surprise team, and could be there for years to come.
Jonas Ahnelov, D, Avangard Omsk Oblast
2014-15: Fourth in SHL in average ice time
2014-15 team: MODO (Sweden)
Ahnelov’s contribution to his team will never be big numbers on the scoresheet; his single-season career high for points is 14, set in 2013-14. However, the Swede is a terrific shutdown defender, who can munch major minutes and help tidy up defensively. He can also use his size and physicality to punish any forward who dares attempt to get into his zone with the puck, and possesses superb skating. He’s also a leader, wearing the “C” for MODO last year. Ahnelov may not be the kind of guy that makes fantasy players happy, but he’s the kind of player every team needs to win a title.
Tomas Filippi, F, Metallurg Magnitogorsk
2014-15: Led team in scoring with 40 points
2014-15 team: Bili Tygri Liberec (Czech Republic)
With Sergei Mozyakin and Danis Zaripov getting up in the years, Magnitka planned for the future by picking up Wojtek Wolski, a proven KHL player with Torpedo, and 23-year-old Filippi. The Magnitogorsk side already hit a home run with a young-ish Czech forward with Jan Kovar; will lightning strike twice in Russia’s Steel City? Filippi is slightly bigger than Kovar at 6’1”, but unlike his compatriot, Filippi’s biggest asset is his surgical precision on his shot. Magnitka, an already-stellar club, has added a fantastic sniper in Filippi, and now it’s time to see what he can do at the KHL level. Is he the successor-in-training to Danis Zaripov?
Ten players, all looking to the KHL as a proving ground. Every single one has come to the league to test their skills against Europe’s best competition. Will they succeed in the KHL, or will they go immediately to the chopping block? Only time will tell.