Prospects to watch in the KHL: 2009-10

By Alessandro Seren Rosso

After the first-ever KHL season ended with the Ak Bars Kazan’s triumph, a new season is going to kick off soon in Russia. Once again it has been a busy summer as many movements have been controversially in place from Russia to America (Kirill Kabanov) or the other way around (Jiri Hudler). The movement from the RSL of old to the new KHL has definitely been a good step forward for hockey not only in Russia, but also for the post-soviet countries who have teams in the league. The good performances by Latvia and Belarus in the last WC and Kazakhstan’s promotion to the elite level are examples of this.

The KHL will be once again have 24 teams, with Avtomobilist Ekaterinburg instead of Khimik Voskresensk, out for financial reasons. Lada Togliatti and Vityaz Chekhov have been in danger as well, but they found last-minute sponsors who allowed them to ice a team this season. Differently from the last season, the league has been split into Eastern and Western Conference and thus the divisions have a geographical alignment.

Below is a team-by-team breakdown analyzing the different prospects’ chances.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

Bobrov Division

CSKA Moscow

Always a talent-builder, CSKA Moscow will keep on doing that especially now that the economic situation isn’t easy as it was before. The starting goalie duties will be split between Konstantin Barulin (STL) and former AHLer Nolan Schaefer, with the second advantaged mostly because Barulin’s inconsistence.

Captain Konstantin Korneev (MTL) is at his fourth season with the team, the second with the C on the chest, and because of his position within the organization it’s hard to think about him moving to North America. More keen to cross the ocean is Maxim Goncharov (PHX), who already declared to be ready to move after his contract is over, on April 2010. But we have to see what happens by then.

The team features two additional NHL drafted defensemen: Georgi Misharin (MIN) and Mikhail Pashnin (NYR). If it’s unlikely that the first will ever report, Pashnin surely has some interest on a transfer and the Rangers will rate him throughout this season, in which he has to show that he’s ready to play at least at the KHL level.

On the other end of the rink, after Sergei Shirokov (VAN) decided to cross the pond due to the contractual conflicts, only Denis Parshin (COL) remains, who has been reported to have turned down an offer from the Avalanche because they didn’t secure him a spot in the NHL lineup. That was probably a bad move for the Colorado franchise as they would have needed a player of Parshin’s technique and speed, especially considered the weak results of the last season, but they preferred not to make that commitment.

Dinamo Minsk

After a rocky season, the Belorussian team strengthened a lot the team signing a number of Finnish players, some of them with NHL experience like Ossi Vaananen or Ville Peltonen, along with local talent Janis Sprukts (FLA). Regarding NHL-worthy prospects, the Belorussians returned Artem Demkov from the QMJHL and still have Dmitri Korobov in their lineup, but as far as now they are off any NHL radar.

Dinamo Moscow

For the North American audience, Dinamo certainly will be an interesting team to follow throughout the 2009-10 season. Two are on defense: Pavel Valentenko (NYR) and Dmitri Vorobiev (TOR). Valentenko arrived in Moscow in the middle of the latest season, and Vorobiev has been signed this summer after he was cleared to play by the doctors who visited him for his appeared heart troubles that haven’t allowed him to play for half of last year. In the preseason the two have been played together in the second defensive pair, but it probably isn’t going to last as KHL veteran Denis Denisov will be back soon after he missed all the preseason because of an arm injury. There will be enough interest also in the offensive side: after shocking NA fans signing both Johan Harju (TB) and Linus Omark (EDM), Dinamo managed to get the Czech center Hudler. If Hudler will be the first line center, the second troika will be all Sweden as the two aforementioned players will be joined by former Minnesota Wild Mattias Weinhandl.

Two other marginal NHL prospects have been signed by Dinamo this summer: Leo Komarov (TOR) and Anton Krysanov (PHO). The two players are talented, more solid and rounded Komarov, more creative and technically sound Krysanov, but most likely will never report overseas. Dinamo’s junior team first call-up likely player will be Alexander Avtsin. Dinamo’s head coach Sergei Kotov spoke well of him during the summer and most likely Avtsin will spend a part of the season with Dinamo’s main roster.

Dinamo Riga

Just like the last year, Latvian Dinamo Riga doesn’t feature NHL-caliber prospects even if they returned back home Janis Sprukts from the Florida Panthers. Moreover, they reactivated and signed former Stanley Cup champion Sandis Ozolinsh.

SKA St. Petersburg

After the 2007-08 failure, Alexander Medvedev’s team has been a lot active on the transfer market, signing the likes of Alexei Yashin, Alexander Korolyuk, Maxim Rybin and others. As a result the team looks really good, at least on paper, but really veteran-stacked, thus leaving little space to the youngsters. The only player worth of any attention will be Igor Makarov (CHI). The talented right winger opted not to report to Chicago’s training camp this year, probably intending to develop for a further season prior crossing the pond in the 2010-11 season.

Spartak Moscow

Spartak Moscow is a team with a big tradition in producing young players, but is still suffering from the 2006 folding that saw many players leaving the team. 2010-eligible Kirill Kabanov left first for Salavat Yulaev Ufa, then for the QMJHL Moncton Wildcats. The team looks quite young on paper, but from an NHL point of view there isn’t much to observe. Two-way center Ilya Kablukov (VAN) will have this season the real test. After being a highly-touted prospect, his development stalled despite a good season two years ago in CSKA’s third line. Then he surprisingly moved to mid-range team Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod, but even if he didn’t look out of place he certainly lacked some serious production as he scored only four points in the whole season.

Tarasov Division

Atlant Mytischi

One of the teams with the deepest lineup, Atlant mixes up a good number of youngsters with veterans. Even if they just moved Alexander Bumagin (EDM) to Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk, they might remain one of the teams to follow for the ones who like to watch junior hockey. Blueliners Andrei Zubarev (ATL) and Denis Bodrov (PHI) are called to a key season. If Zubarev had an excellent end of the season, culminated with a call into the national team for the WC preparation, the same can’t be said for Bodrov, who last year moved to Atlant from Lada after reported attitude problems. The young defenseman played alright in the second half of the season with the Mytischi team, scoring six points in 21 games, but he needs to raise his contribution this season to secure a spot in his team’s top four.

Other prospects worth attention are undrafted Pavel Chernov, Oleg Yashin and Anton Lazarev, but veteran-poised coach Fedor Kanareikin hardly will give them significant ice time, especially after signing former New York Ranger Nikolai Zherdev.

HC MVD

The Moscow region team has never been a talent builder, and it doesn’t look like they will begin now. Gennady Stolyarov (DET) will spend the 2009-10 season there after a not bad season with Barys Astana, but at this point an eventual move across the Atlantic is unlikely. The team will feature Alexander Boikov, Roman Derlyuk, Martin Strbak, Filip Novak, Yuri Babenko, Pavel Vorobiev and Alexei Kudashov, as well as Canadians Michael Garnett and Matt Ellison.

Lokomotiv Yaroslavl

One of the top Russian teams, Lokomotiv lost the last two finals, against Salavat Yulaev Ufa and Ak Bars Kazan. The team lead by the Finn Kari Heikkila is one of the best schools in Russia, but their current head coach never trusted youngsters too much, often giving them fringe roles, with the notable exception of goaltender Semyon Varlamov (WAS). Staying with goalkeepers, the starting duties have been taken by Georgi Gelashvili. The 25-year-old had an excellent 2008-09 campaign. The team’s third netminder has just been promoted to the second goalie position, big Sergei Gaiduchenko (FLA), who has always had good stats but was hardly trusted by the veteran-biased Heikkila. Now Gelashvili is out for a few weeks with a hand injury and thus the young Panther will have to show that he can take the role and face the pressure with success.

The team’s blue line is patrolled mostly by veterans, included long-time NHLer Vitaly Vishnevsky, but one of the leading role is took by 22-year-old Vitaly Anikeenko (OTT). After a couple of bad seasons finally the large-sized defenseman found the right motivations to play at his peak and he’s always a threat while on ice thanks to his big-time slap shot from the point and his hard-nosed style along the boards, two qualities that make him an utility tool both on the power play and penalty kill.

That being said, it’s questionable to think that he has NHL abilities or potential. Their other young defenseman, Anton Klimentyev (NYI), will most likely spend a large portion of the season in the Russian junior league, but he will be considered for injuries call-ups. The same can be said for former Rouyn-Noranda Huskie Sergei Ostapchuk, still undrafted despite 63 points in his first QMJHL season. Finding some room is the interesting Daniil Sobchenko, who was meant to play in the junior league too, but after a solid pre-season he managed to find a spot in the main team. Relatively unknown as he never had a real chance with the national teams because of contrast with coach Vladimir Plyuschev, the 1991-born is a legit prospect capable to play both center and winger, with his top feature being his passing game. We will hear his name again in the future.

Severstal Cherepovets

Defenseman Yuri Alexandrov (BOS), who participated in the Bruins’ development camp this summer, is back with the Cherepovets team, where he plays first line hockey paired with team’s captain Alexander Shinin. The young blueliner has to rebound back after a rocky year last season, where he played fairly well, but his effort has been limited by a shoulder injury. If the season will be successful, and its start surely was, probably Alexandrov will have a shot in the 2010-11 Bruins. The team’s defense features also young undrafted Maxim Chudinov, an overage player who might get some attention this spring, especially if he repeats the strong play he had in the 2009 WJC.

Among forwards, Maxim Trunev (MTL) will probably be followed a lot. After a slow start of the last season, he played fairly well in the second half and he needs to consolidate himself. As far as now he is getting only nine minutes of ice time, but it will improve should his performances become better. Severstal also signed Slovak Marek Zagrapan (BUF).

Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod

After a not bad 2008-09 season, the Volga team is called to improve their results in the new season. They had a very good transfers campaign in the summer, with the most notable signing being Joakim Lindstrom from the Phoenix Coyotes. The team’s top contributor is so far the line made up of Viktor Aleksandrov (STL), Ilya Krikunov (VAN) and Grigori Shafigulin (NAS). They are having a good season start and who knows if one out of the three will get some attention overseas, even if it’s hard to say, especially for Shafigulin, who might lack offensive ceiling in order to make it through the NHL.

Vityaz Chekhov

Considered by many the Broad Street Bullies of the KHL because of players like Darcy Verot, Nathan Perrot and Chris Simon, Vityaz is a team that barely made it for the season as they got a last-minute chance and a big chance to fold. Young dangler Alexander Vasiliev is going to have a good chance to repeat what he did in the second half of the last season, where he scored 18 points in 23 games, great numbers for a 19-year-old player. Even though he never had a legit chance in the last couple of years with the national junior team, he surely has tons of raw talent and speed that might appeal North American teams, especially if he keeps on the pace he had last year. KHL veteran Dmitri Megalinsky (OTT) is a steady physical defenseman who has been the captain of the team. His size and defensive play might be interesting from an NHL perspective, but probably he lacks that extra gear needed to make it through the world’s best league. The team will ice also a couple of NHL-drafted players who never had a chance on the other side of the pond: Viktor Bobrov (CAL) and Vladislav Evseev (BOS).

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Kharlamov Division

Avtomobilist Ekaterinburg

The KHL 2009-10 newcomers have many young players in their lineup, but probably none of them has a future in pro North American hockey. Denis Kazionov (TB), who was invited to Tampa’s development camp without reporting, doesn’t look to be NHL material as he doesn’t have enough offensive development room.

Ak Bars Kazan

The reigning KHL champions feature just as usual an interesting number of young players. Forward Kirill Petrov (NYI) is called to a successful season after the rocky 2008-09 campaign, but this season’s start doesn’t indicate it will be any different as he barely played three shifts in one match so far. Unfortunately for him, Ak Bars Kazan has a very stacked lineup, with little room for junior players. The situation is a tad different for two defensive prospects in the team: Alexei Yemelin (MTL) and Vyacheslav Buravchikov (BUF). Waited for years by their NHL clubs, the two players are still in Russia most likely for a combination of better salary and little desire to spend time in the AHL. In the past, Yemelin used to play with Grigori Panin in the third line, but his pairing mate has been moved up recently.

Other prospects Mikhail Yunkov (WAS) and Dmitri Kazionov (TB) are capable players with some experience who have been in the past rumored to join their respective NHL teams in different moments, but as far as now it doesn’t look like they’ll ever cross the pond. Moreover, the team’s backup goalie is the young Stanislav Galimov, who so far outplayed NHL veteran Mikael Tellqvist. In other years, Galimov would have been drafted, but the recent troubles between NA-Russia transfers caused teams being prudent with Russian talent.

Lada Togliatti

Lada is another team who has been hit by the current economic situation, and had troubles even earlier. This caused them to use youngsters more than other teams and they produced some good ones. Sergei Andronov (STL) is a quick winger with good nose for the net who had a good start to the season already, scoring two goals in three matches. The team’s top scorer so far is 21-year-old Evgeny Bodrov, a player who has been mysteriously overlooked during the past drafts. He has all the tools to be effective even in a North American system as he’s not only a technically sound player, but can also play with an edge without exaggerating and accumulating many PIMs. He’s also fairly good on the faceoff dots.

Metallurg Magnitogorsk

2008-09 rookie of the year, goalie Ilya Proskuryakov, has had a spectacular start, posting two shutouts in the first three matches, rejecting 80 shots out of 81. The considerations written about Ak Bars’ Stanislav Galimov are valid for him too. Proskuryakov’s backup for this season is going to be Alexander Pechursky (PIT), who many believed he was going to report for Tri-City of the WHL this summer, but if the starting goalie keeps on playing like that, it won’t be easy for him to find room. The team, who signed Sergei Fedorov this summer, doesn’t feature too many young players who might end up in the NHL, both because of the age (Evgeny Gladskikh, Denis Platonov) or because they had their chances (Stanislav Chistov, Alexei Kaigorodov, Igor Radulov).

Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk

Never considered a hot team for juniors, Neftekhimik might be changing a bit as they started producing some interesting youngsters, like 2012-eligible Nail Yakupov, who will be playing for Neftekhimik’s junior team. The team’s top attractive player for prospect observers is former Atlant Alexander Bumagin (EDM). Unloaded to Neftekhimik after spending a year without playing much under Leonid Kanareikin, he replied posting two assists in his very first match for his new team. This will be a key season for Bumagin as he has to demonstrate his talent throughout a whole season, not only a handful of games.

Traktor Chelyabinsk

One of the teams most dedicated to juniors in Russia, Traktor has just lost their top prospect Evgeny Dadonov to the Florida Panthers. Young goalie Daniil Alistratov has been highly touted in the past, but he failed at the WJC and probably such a bad performance will keep NHL teams away from him. Twenty-one-year-old Andrei Popov (PHI) started the year on the team’s third line, and most likely he’ll improve the poor production he had last year. In the 2009-10 season he already scored two goals and three points in the first three matches, but he has to show some consistency. 2010-eligible Evgeny Kuznetsov is probably going to spend the season on Traktor’s junior team.

Chernyshev Division

Avangard Omsk

Jaromir Jagr’s team is looking to rebound back after last year’s relatively poor play, especially in the regular season, and they got a couple of interesting players in Karri Ramo (TB) and Lasse Kukkonen. Even if they don’t play many youngsters, they have some fresh blood in the defense thanks to Nikita Pivtsakin, who has been picked up by the Shawinigan Cataractes of the QMJHL without reporting. The young blueliner appears to be a regular in Avangard defense, averaging more than seven minutes a game. Twenty-four-year-old Dmitri Pestunov (PHX) has been demoted off Jagr’s line and thus his production has considerably slowed down. The other young players of the team seem not to have any NHL appeal.

Amur Khabarovsk

KHL’s most remote team doesn’t have any interesting young players in the lineup. Despite producing some quality players like Evgeny Grachev (NYR), the city often loses their best players to the more western teams.

Barys Astana

The Kazakhstani team, just like Dinamo Riga and Dinamo Minsk, presents in their lineup a number of young players, peaked by Evgeny Rymarev, who scored six goals in 2008 WJC. Konstantin Glazachev (NAS) has had a breakout year in 2008-09, but despite his skills and speed doesn’t seem to have any interest from the NHL.

Metallurg Novokuznetsk

Metallurg Novokuznetsk was a relatively unknown team to the NA audience since they started producing some good players, the best two are surely Dmitri Orlov (WAS) and Maxim Kitsyn, 2010 eligible. Orlov is a young offensive defenseman with very good technique and poise who improved a lot his shot lately and scored already in his first match of the season, after a coast-to-coast that made him look like Oleg Tverdovsky on his prime. Kitsyn is a power forward with lots of technique, able to score even with a dirty touch from the deep slot who can fit very well to the more demanding North American style, but who has to get further experience and smooth his play, still a bit raw. Goalkeeper Sergei Bobrovsky is in the same situation of Ak Bars’ Galimov and Metallurg Magnitogorsk’s Proskuryakov.

Salavat Yulaev Ufa

The true losers of the Kirill Kabanov saga, the 2007-08 champions tried to rebound back signing Russian national team head coach Vyacheslav Bykov (along with his assistant Igor Zakharkin) and many notable players, included Sergei Zinoviev, Dmitri Kalinin, Viktor Kozlov and former Edmonton Oiler and Philadelphia Flyer, Norwegian Patrick Thoresen. In such regime there isn’t much room for youngsters, even if 19-year-old Alexander Chiglintsev is getting more than 10 minutes a game, theoretically taking Kabanov’s place.

Sibir Novosibirsk

Sibir will be an interesting team to follow in the next season mostly because of one player: Vladimir Tarasenko. The projected first-round pick in 2010 has to fight the sophomore slump and he hasn’t had many chances to do as he got an injury in his second game. Nothing serious, but he’s going to miss some matches. Besides the all-around forward, the Siberian team offers late 1991-born Nikita Zaitsev. One of the top Russian defensemen in the 2009 U18 WJC, Zaitsev is a two-way defenseman with a very good reading of the ice, but lacks a bit in size. He has some chances to fall into the WJC team even if he has a lot of players in front of him.