KHL 2011-12 season preview

By Alessandro Seren Rosso
Photo: A standout in the 2011 WJCs, Vladimir Tarasenko will spend at least one more year in the KHL before playing for the St. Louis Blues. (Photo courtesy of Ken McKenna/HF)

The fourth KHL season has started, even if the start was delayed because of the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl tragedy, which claimed 44 lives, including Russian prospects center Daniil Sobchenko (SJ) and defenseman Yuri Urychev.

The KHL once again will once again consist of 24 teams, with the inclusion of Slovakian team Lev Poprad, the first team to join the top level Russian team from outside the borders of the former Soviet Union. Rumors claim teams from Milan, Italy and Zagreb, Croatia, will join the league for the 2012-13 season.

Below is a team-by-team breakdown analyzing the outlook for different prospects.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

Bobrov Division

CSKA Moscow

After a couple of difficult seasons, CSKA Moscow could finally return to contention status this year because of a solid roster built by GM and former Stanley Cup champion Sergei Nemchinov. CSKA Moscow will benefit from two players who returned from playing in North America, Sergei Shirokov (FLA) and Dmitry Kugryshev (WAS). While Kugryshev is still very young and could eventually make his way back to North America, Shirokov likely will continue his career in Russia.

CSKA Moscow will feature other players which will be interesting to follow. Forward Nikita Kucherov (TBL) had a good preseason and he will start the 2011-12 campaign with the main team’s roster as he was promoted from the junior team. The same can be said about defenseman Alexei Marchenko (DET), who already played a good part of the latest season with CSKA’s main team. Both players are expected to play a key role at the 2012 WJC. The blue line will host also Mikhail Pashnin (NYR), who did want to report to the Rangers, but was advised to stay in Russia for another season to further develop his game. Right winger Sergei Andronov (STL) will start his third season for the Red Army, while backup goalie Sergei Gaiduchenko (FLA) will be at his second year. Other two interesting players to see are Nikita Gusev and Nikolai Prokhorkin, 19 and 17 years old respectively. The two young forwards played on a line with Kucherov for most of the preseason, making a very good impression. Being a late 1993 born, Prokhorkin is eligible for the 2012 NHL draft. A 1992-born, Nikita Gusev was overlooked twice during the selections (mostly due to his lack of size and exposure), but a strong performance at the WJC might convince some teams to call his name in June. The Red Army could still call up some players from their junior farm team (MHL champion), included 2012 eligible Alexander Timirev.

Dynamo Moscow

Differently from previous seasons, Dynamo Moscow won’t feature much youth in a an almost veteran dominated lineup. Despite rumors, forward Leo Komarov (TOR) decided to sign a new contract with the team and not try his fate in the NHL.

Dynamo Riga

The KHL Latvian representatives do not have much in terms of NHL prospects. Forward Kristians Pelss (EDM) skated with the team in the preseason, but didn’t make the cut and will spend the 11-12 season with the Edmonton Oil Kings of the WHL.

Lev Poprad

The first KHL team from outside former CCCP won’t have much youth in their lineup but will have some players familiar the North American audiences, like former QMJHL player Bohumil Jank and former WHL champion Stepan Novotny. The team’s roster will feature North Americans Grant Lewis, Dan DaSilva, and Jonathan Sigalet.

SKA St. Petersburg

Year after year SKA St. Petersburg keeps on signing big names without much team success. Last year it was the Evgeny Nabokov situation. This summer, the organization decided to give the team a younger look signing Yuri Alexandrov (BOS) and Igor Makarov (CHI) to multi-year deals. They will be led by one of the top foreign coaches in Russia, Milos Riha.

Spartak Moscow

In spite of its rich tradition in players production (Ilya Kovalchuk, Danil Markov and others), Spartak Moscow doesn’t have much to offer in terms of NHL prospects also because two of their best players of late, Kirill Kabanov (NYI) and Alexander Khokhlachev (BOS) left for America at early age. Another Spartak Moscow product, Alexander Gogolev, is going to play in the WHL for the Calgary Hitmen. Denis Bodrov (PHI) is unlikely to get back to America after signing a new contract with the Moscow club. In August, the team signed former Canadiens and Senators’ prospect Andre Benoit.


Tarasov Division

Atlant Mytischi

After last year’s finals defeat, Atlant managed to strengthen its lineup thanks to a number of signings, attracting new players like Nikolai Zherdev and Alexei Kovalev. With the exception of Andrei Zubarev, who declared to attempt to get a spot with the Winnipeg Jets next year, there is not much to follow in terms of NHL prospects. Most of the younger players in the organization (including Ivan Vishnevsky and Konstantin Barulin) are very unlikely to ever play North American hockey.

Dynamo Minsk

The lone Belarus KHL representative packed as usual its team with import players (included former NHL player Geoff Platt, at his third season in Minsk, and former first round pick Lukas Krajicek). At September start, it’s still unclear where Mikhail Stefanovich (DAL) will play next year.

Lokomotiv Yaroslavl

Over the last week there were a number of options offered to Lokomotiv Yaroslavl to keep their team operational during this season. Right after the tragedy most of KHL franchises agreed to assign two or three players to Lokomotiv to allow them to ice a team, and a number of players were very vocal in supporting this possibility, including former NHL players Denis Grebeshkov and Alexander Suglobov, both who spent significant portions their career in the Yaroslavl organization.

However, during the Lokomotiv players’ funerals, team president Vladimir Yakunin announced the team won’t be taking part to the 2011-12 season.

Severstal Cherepovets

Severstal is a team which had some success with prospects in the latest few years and their success is continuing. Maxim Trunev (MTL), though, isn’t having hard time in converting his junior performances into pro hockey success as he scored only four goals and eleven points in the latest couple of seasons. Trunev needs to find his game if he wants to get a regular spot with his KHL team, let alone having a true chance in the NHL. Severstal’s blue line will be patrolled once again by Maxim Chudinov (BOS), one of the top young Russian defensemen right now. The 21-years-old is one of the most iced players in the entire league and last year he had a career season with eight goals and twenty-three points. Now that he’s a bit older, Chudinov improved his discipline and defensive play and is now even a candidate for the national team. If he doesn’t sign a new deal with his Russian club, the Bruins’ fans can most likely expect to see him in Providence next year.

Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod

The team, based in one of Russia’s biggest cities, doesn’t have any NHL prospect in its lineup, even if they can count in WJC champion Semyon Valuyski.

Vityaz Chekhov

In spite of signing players like John Mirasty and Nick Tarnasky, Vityaz had a decent summer transfer campaign as they managed not only to get one of Russia’s top prospects Artyomi Panarin to a new multi-year contract, but also signed WJC champion Nikita Dvurechensky. If they will manage to stay out of too many brawls, this season can be good for Vityaz.


EASTERN CONFERENCE

Kharlamov Division

Avtomobilist Ekaterinburg

For the second consecutive season, Avtomobilist faced financial uncertainty and there was no guarantee there would be a team until the last minute. Their lineup won’t feature any NHL prospects.

Ak Bars Kazan

One of the top KHL teams, Ak Bars Kazan just lost their coach as Zinetula Bilyaletdinov was hired as new Team Russia head coach after the 2011 World Championship. With that being said, Ak Bars Kazan still has some very interesting players, Kirill Petrov (NYI) among them. After an encouraging season with Yugra Khanty-Mansiysk, with 19 points in 47 regular season games and interesting ice time, the 21-year-old Petrov is now back in Kazan in hopes of getting a good role on a contending team. Traditionally a veteran team, Ak Bars Kazan doesn’t have any other legit NHL prospect in their lineup, even if they will feature former draftees Evgeny Skachkov (STL) and Konstantin Korneev (MTL). The will also count on on WJC champions Stanislav Bocharov and Denis Golubev

Yugra Khanty-Mansiysk

After Kirill Petrov‘s transfer to Ak Bars Kazan, Yugra doesn’t have any NHL prospect in its lineup.


Metallurg Magnitogorsk

Traditionally one of the league’s top teams, Metallurg Magnitogorsk had an intriguing off-season, signing two of the top KHL snipers in Sergey Mozyakin and Konstantin Glazachev, both former NHL picks. The team will also ice former Pittsburgh Penguin Alexander Pechursky and Yaroslav Kosov (FLA), who although will most likely see limited ice time in the KHL and might play parts of the season in the Russian Junior League.

Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk

Neftekhimik won’t have much new blood in the system, even if prospects Pavel Kulikov and Bogdan Yakimov see any playing time. Kulikov is most likely going to play at the WJC, while Yakimov, a late 1994 born and thus eligible for the 2013 NHL draft, played at last year’s U18s and was named one of the top three players for Bronze Medal winning Team Russia. At 6’4, 201 lbs, Yakimov already has an NHL body at the age of 16.

Traktor Chelyabinsk

Traktor has always been one of the top player producers of the Russian hockey system, producing NHLers such as Sergie Gonchar, Dmitry Kalinin, and more recently Evgeny Dadonov (FLA) and Vyacheslav Voynov (LAK). One of the most awaited players of the season will be Evgeny Kuznetsov (WAS), who opted to spend another year in Russia to further develop his game. Kuznetsov never hid the fact he would prefer going to America as a fully developed player, possibly without having to spend much time in the AHL.

This team will be even more interesting for the North American audience as it will also feature Nikita Nesterov (TBL) and Maxim Shalunov (CHI), both expected to have a role within the team. Forward Andrei Popov (PHI) will have to sit for the first few games of the season due to a training camp injury.

Chernyshev Division

Avangard Omsk

In spite of having two WJC champions in the lineup, defenseman Nikita Pivtsakin and forward Sergey Kalinin, Avangard doesn’t really have a young team. Karri Ramo (MTL) is going to protect the crease of the Siberia-based team for the third consecutive season.

Amur Khabarovsk

Amur managed to strengthen its lineup signing expert players like Jan Lasak (who played four years in North America) and other good players by European standards, but didn’t add any hot prospect to their organization.

Barys Astana

The Kazakhstani team has some local young players, but none of them are close to being NHL prospects. Defenseman Kevin Dallman is looking forward to its fourth season with the team.

Metallurg Novokuznetsk

Metallurg Novokuznetsk in the last season lost two of their top young players, since Dmitry Orlov (WAS) and Sergey Bobrovsky (PHI) left for North America. With that being said, Metallurg Novokuznetsk is traditionally a good team when it comes to junior players and Maxim Kitsyn (LAK) is back in the lineup after his stint in the OHL with Mississauga. The team’s lineup will also feature three players which most likely will represent the Mother Land at the 2012 WJC: goalkeeper Sergey Kostenko, defenseman Zakhar Arzamastsev, and forward Anton Slepyshev.

Salavat Yulaev Ufa

The KHL reigning champions have a veteran-filled team and there isn’t much space for youngsters. With an average age of almost 30 years, Salavat Yulaev Ufa is one of the KHL’s "oldest" teams.

Sibir Novosibirsk

Sibir’s top move for the 2011 offseason was most likely getting Vladimir Tarasenko (STL) to stay within the team even if he was believed to be playing in St. Louis. Tarasenko, who was instrumental for Russia’s triumph at the latest WJC, will be playing on the first line and as alternate captain. His line will be centered by another Blues prospect, Finn Jori Lehtera, who will be flanked on his other side by Finn Jonas Enlund (ATL). The unit was in great shape in the preseason, where Vladimir got nine points in just five games. At this point it’s hard to predict if Tarasenko will report or not next summer.