Prospects to watch in the KHL in 2008-09

By Alessandro Seren Rosso

A new season has started in Russia, and many things are changed by passing from the Russian Super League to the Kontinental Hockey League, but a thing that’s not going to change is Russia’s ability to produce top-level talents. This is definitely not the right place to discuss the RSL to KHL transition, but now that the regular season has finally kicked off, the position of youngsters is more clear. Note that in the RSL there used to be a rule that obliged the teams to dress a minimum of two under-20 players, while in the new league this obligation doesn’t exist anymore. Also effecting defensive prospects is the rule that 21 skaters, not 22, can be dressed for a game, meaning that only seven defenders are now usually dressed instead of the usual former eight.

Here is a team-by-team breakdown, analyzing the chances of all the youngsters in the different KHL teams.

Kharlamov Division

Amur Khabarovsk

2007-08 season: playoffs first round exit

The perennial sold-out, far eastern team has faced many changes in order to become more competitive. Filled with veteran players, Amur has never been a bright place for prospects even if some players are born there — Evgeny Grachev (NYR) and Sergei Plotnikov (Chicoutimi Sagueneens), just to name two.

The remote hockey hot bed will feature a good share of young players. None of them have top line duties, but Denis Kazionov (TBL) could become a core player of the team if he keeps on working on the offensive side of his game. Amur presents some young blood on the blue line with defenders Kirill Gromov and Evgeny Bolyakin, the latter a Kazakhstan native and junior national team member.

Avangard Omsk

2007-08 season: playoffs first round exit

Avangard Omsk is the team that had most of media attention during the summer as they signed NHL star Jaromir Jagr. But not only did they bring in Jagr, the Omsk Hawks changed most of their team trying to forget about the disappointing 2007-08 season.

Now their team features an interesting number of prospects. The first unit is patrolled on the blue line by Nikita Nikitin (STL), who’s having a breakout season being already +4 after five games, while the second line can count on Alexei Cherepanov (NYR) at the right wing, who started the season a little slowly as he suffered from a groin injury and is still scoreless. The lineup contains other NHL prospects less likely to report in America, like defenders Denis Ezhov (BUF), Mikhail Lyubushin (LAK) and Evgeny Kurbatov, who hasn’t had a big role in the team so far. Top scorer Dmitri Pestunov (PHO) and Igor Volkov (NYI) are the ones who spend more time on ice among the players of our interest, while Viktor Alexandrov (STL) after a spectacular 2007-08 season with Metallurg Novokuznetsk is struggling to get into the first lines and might be traded to another team if he keeps on playing that way.

Dynamo Riga
2007-08 season: inactive

Latvian KHL newcomers of Dynamo Riga present in their lineup a number of youngsters, but right now none of them seems to be of NHL caliber.

Lada Togliatti

2007-08 season: playoffs first round exit

Lada Togliatti is always a team known for its quality youngsters and this season will be no different. For the 2008-09 season, called back was defensive coach Petr Vorobiev. Another comeback was made by giant goalkeeper Vasili Koshechkin, who’s trying to reboud after a troubles-filled season in Ak Bars Kazan, concluded with an early bilateral contract resignation.

Lada’s defense features other two blue-chip prospects: 2008 world champion Dmitri Vorobiev (TOR) and the Philadelphia FlyersDenis Bodrov. His position has been a bit controversial: after a summer move to Avangard Omsk, breaking news announced that he was signed by his NHL team to a rookie contract so his contract with Avangard has been voided and he headed back to Togliatti, where he kept training for the new season. The KHL has started and he’s still with the team and there he will remain for the season. We will see what happens in the future. It’s not clear if and when Vorobiev will try the jump overseas, but for this season he will be Lada’s toip blue liner and won’t have the ice time issues that many times afflict players who decide to stay in Russia.

Defensive mix is completed by undrafted Valeri Vasiliev and by 2009-eligible Kirill Yuriev.

But not only is Lada’s defense young, so is the attack. First line center Anton Krysanov (PHO) is expected to have a breakout season. The gifted playmaker might be called by Bykov for one of the Euro Hockey Tour stages, he already skated with the national team last season prior to the World Championship, serving as a first line center with former Penguin Alexei Morozov and Danis Zaripov.

Undrafted players Evgeny Bodrov and Vadim Golubtsov are core members of the teams, which will feature also Andrei Mikhnov (STL). Other players might join the team occasionally, like 2009-eligible Semen Valuysky.

Lokomotiv Yaroslavl
2007-08 season: RSL runner up

Lokomotiv Yaroslavl is another team who is known for producing a number of good players throughout the last decade. After losing Varlamov to the Washington Capitals, the most awaited prospect is Alexander Vasyunov, especially after the good performance in last year’s semifinals. Lokomotiv is expected to have a good season after the finals reached and lost in 2007-08, but coach Kari Heikkila doesn’t leave much room for youngsters as for example Evgeny Grachev (NYR) skated in only one match despite his undeniable talent.

Another important member of Lokomotiv’s defense is Vitali Anikeenko (OTT), who will play his fourth season in the highest Russian championship.

Team’s third goalkeeper will be Sergei Gaiduchenko (FLA), but he will  hardly get significant ice time being behind two veterans like Zvyagin and Gelashvili.

Sibir Novosibirsk
2007-08 season: 19th place in the regular season, missed the playoffs

Sibir Novosibirsk is another team who changed much in order to forget quickly a disappointing 2007-08 campaign. Defender Denis Grot (VAN) moved there, but he’s off to a tough regular season start as he is -4 in the first five games, while top defenders are all positive with roughly the same ice time. There aren’t other prospects who are going to get a significant role in the team, but promising Vladimir Tarasenko, late 1991 born and thus eligible for 2010 NHL draft, is regularly playing with the team and scored his first pro goal in the first KHL game of Sibir against Dynamo Moscow. He also skated with Russia-91 at the last Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament. Staying at 6’0 and 191 lbs, he plays hard and moves well without the puck, he has an interesting ceiling but he must be seen more on a consistent basis.

Chernyshev Division

Ak Bars Kazan
2007-08 season: semi-finals exit

Ak Bars Kazan is surely among the teams to watch for prospect fans as in their lineup presents a fair share of youngsters. Perennial first line defenseman Ilya Nikulin has considered an offer from the Atlanta Thrashers for almost the whole summer, but he eventually turned it down. He will try next summer again to break Atlanta’s lineup. Nikulin’s partner is Andrei Pervyshin (STL), a good player that year after year climbed till a top-two role. He had two very good season in 2006-07 and 2007-08 and will try to repeat himself in 2008-09. Among the most popular young players in Russia there is Alexei Emelin (MTL). After his move from Lada, he has declined a bit and thus he will try to rebound, maybe with the intention of finally jumping overseas for the next summer. Vyacheslav Buravchikov (BUF) is another young defender who had some hard time in this organization, but his recent play has been really encouraging as he seems to be more confident and focused on the ice.

On the offensive lower lines are Kirill Petrov (NYI), Grigori Shafigulin (NAS) and Mikhail Zhukov (EDM). So far no one of them has a significative role in the team, but the things can change as the season progresses. Dmitri Kazionov (TBL) is in a different situation as he is a core member of the team and given that it’s hard that the shut-down center will try the jump overseas anytime soon, but he would have the tools to make it through in the National Hockey League.

Dynamo Moscow
2007-08 season: quarterfinals exit

A popular hockey powerhouse, Dynamo Moscow has been struggling in producing top-end talents lately. Their lineup might be not as interesting as others for prospect watchers, with Roman Voloshenko (MIN) probably having already concluded his North American career. Undrafted Vitali Karamnov, previously invited by the Edmonton Oilers to skate in a training camp, will skate with Dynamo for the 2008-09 season, but he’s still yet to play a single match as he suffered from a preseason injury that will keep him in the infirmary. Apparently the Oilers aren’t interested in him anymore.

Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk

2007-08 season: playoffs first round exit

Neftekhimik from Nizhnekamsk is another of the few KHL teams that doesn’t have real NHL bound prospects in their lineup.

Vityaz Chekhov
2007-08 season: 18th place in the regular season, missed the playoffs

Vityaz is more known for their hard-nosed, sometimes beyond the edge style of hockey played with the acquisition of Reid Simpson, Darcy Verot and for this season Chris Simon. Dmitri Megalinsky (OTT) will play his second season with the team, after the good development stage he reached firstly in Lokomotiv Yaroslavl then in Khimik Voskresensk.

Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod

2007-08 season: last place in RSL regular season

After a very disappointing 2007-08 campaign, concluded with the last place in the regular season standings, Torpedo has changed a lot, luring some good level players mainly from Dynamo Moscow. They also managed to get back two home grown players in Artem Chubarov (VAN) and Mikhail Tyulyapkin (MIN). Ilya Kablukov (VAN) is another perspective player who changed team this season, passing from CSKA Moscow to Torpedo, a team that would give him more ice time and a more important role in the lineup, but so far he has been dressed in only three games out of the five played by the Nizhny Novgorod team.

Barys Astana
2007-08 season: Russian High League semi-finals

These Kazakhstan newcomers are off to a hard regular season start, but Konstantin Glazachev (NAS) is doing very well his job as first line left winger. In five games he had one goal and four assists, constantly putting extra pressure on the opponent defenses with his burning accelerations. He could be very interesting for his NHL franchise if he develops some finishing skills. Kazakhstan top prospect Evgeny Rymarev is also developing well with two goals in three matches. He’s a technically sound winger who would not have been snubbed in the last couple of drafts if he would come out of a less exotic location.

Bobrov Division

Salavat Yulaev Ufa
2007-08 season: RSL Champions

The RSL reigning champions, whose name has been spread out due to the Radulov affair, never had a good system based on youngsters like other Russian teams and thus they don’t have young players of NHL quality, even though Kirill Koltsov (VAN) is among the players that readers every year ask if he will come back to America.

Atlant Mytischi

2007-08 season: playoffs first round exit

Formerly named Khimik, Atlant is having a great season so far as they are first overall in the standings. Former Ottawa Senator Ray Emery wasn’t playing well, so former Colorado Avalanche Vitaly Kolesnik has took his place and is now the team’s No. 1 goalkeeper. The team relies on young players more than average and one of them is already on the second line: Ilya Krikunov (VAN). The quick winger has been injured during the preseason and thus he’s yet to get his best form, but he’s improving and working hard. The fourth line features one of the best 1990 born Russian players who weren’t drafted last spring, Anton Lazarev, who’s having a breakout season thanks to his natural ability in creating scoring chances.

The season has been not easy so far for Alexander Bumagin (EDM). The gifted forward has been scratched from the lineup after Krikunov’s return and it’s not clear when he can be dressed again despite the very good performances he delivered both this and last season. Pavel Chernov is another young player who could see some ice time during the season and he is likely to make the WJC roster.

Andrei Zubarev (ATL) was traded here in late August from Ak Bars Kazan. The reliable defenseman is having a good season, not spectacular number-wise, but he is a stay-at-home defenseman who the less he’s noticed, the better he plays.

Severstal Cherepovets
2007-08 season: quarterfinals exit

Severstal Cherepovets is struggling after the first several matches and they are now third last in the standings. The team changed a lot during the summer, with a big signing in Ladislav Nagy who is still pointless so far. Yuri Alexandrov (BOS) is out for at least other two months with a dislocated shoulder. Undrafted Maxim Chudinov has played in only one match so far, while Maxim Trunev (MTL) is not succeeding in his task of becoming a Severstal regular; he plays less than ten minutes per game. Things can change because this team has potential, but the situation isn’t bright at all for them now.

Metallurg Novokuznetsk
2007-08 season: 17th place in the regular season, missed the playoffs

Metallurg Novokuznetsk is so far the surprise of the season as they are fourth seeded, but they played one more match than most of the others. 2009-eligible Dmitri Orlov is probably the best defenseman of his birth year in Russia and so far he has been dressed for a couple of game, but seeing limited ice time. If Orlov isn’t showing much in his start of pro career, another youngster is having some great first steps. Maxim Kitsyn is a late 1991 born and thus is eligible for 2010 draft and his three goals in four games surely attracted some attention on him even if he’s not unknown to scouts as he’s a regular of Russia-91 since 2006. It will be interesting to see how things turn out later in the season.

Denis Stasyuk (FLA) is going to play his third consecutive season in Metallurg’s main lineup, but at this stage is highly doubtful that the sized, versatile winger will ever try his fortunes in North America.

Spartak Moscow
2007-08 season: playoffs first round exit

Spartak Moscow is still paying for having folded for the 2006-07 season as many good players walked away and never returned to the team. Kirill Kabanov is a 2010-eligible first-round material who is rumoured to play in North America for the next season, but that’s hardly likely as he will play a significant role this year. The team changed a lot from last season and Kirill Lyamin (OTT) is one of the newcomers. The young defensive defenseman is already playing an important role for the team, constantly playing top four minutes. Mikhail Yunkov (WAS) is another young player important for the team. He finally found his way in Spartak after the years spent in Kazan. There has been some buzz about his invitation by the Caps to their training camp, but the outcome is that he will play in Spartak honoring his two-year contract. On a side note, Czech Ondrej Fiala (MIN) has been loaned to high league’s Molot-Prikamie Perm.

Dynamo Minsk
2007-08 season: semi-finals exit in Belarusian Championship

These Belarusian KHL newcomers don’t feature NHL-caliber youngsters in their roster.

Division Tarasov

Metallurg Magnitogorsk
2007-08 season: semi-finals exit, winner of European Champions Cup

Losing Kulemin to the Toronto Maple Leafs, Metallurg didn’t manage to replace him, conducting a really quiet summer transfer campaign with the result of being currently on the 15th place in the overall standings. Metallurg, who will face New York Rangers in Bern on Oct. 1 for the first Victoria Cup, isn’t playing at their standards: Belousov isn’t managing in making the team play his combinational hockey, the defense isn’t doing well and Mezin’s performances between the pipes have been weak. The team currently doesn’t have any NHL prospects in the lineup as Stanislav Chistov and Alexei Kaigorodov (OTT) hardly will report back to the National Hockey League.

CSKA Moscow
2007-08 season: quarterfinals exit

CSKA is doing a good job with youngsters lately, Konstantin Korneev (MTL) is now the team’s captain. Reliable and calm, Korneev is improving year after year and is now CSKA’s top defenseman. Georgi Misharin (MIN) and Maxim Goncharov (PHO) are two other defenders in the roster, but it’s Misharin who gets more space as Goncharov played only when the first was injured. The mix on the blue line is completed by Denis Kulyash, another high-calibee player who’s not likely to report in America anytime soon, as Artem Ternavsky (WAS). The same can be said for Denis Parshin (COL) and Sergei Shirokov (VAN), who now play top line minutes in Bykov’s four-line-rolling regime.

SKA St. Petersburg

2007-08 season: quarterfinals exit

SKA is among the teams that invested more this summer, bringing in many new players like Robert Esche, Sergey Brylin and Nils Ekman. The unique NHL prospect who belongs to 2008-09 roster is Igor Makarov who is awaiting for Chicago Blackhawks’ training camp that will start on Sept. 19.

2007-08 season: playoffs first round exit

This team will feature in the 2008-09 roster two low-caliber NHL draft picks in Igor Knyazev (CAR) and Roman Derlyuk (FLA).

Traktor Chelyabinsk
2007-08 season: playoffs first round exit

Traktor is another traditional hockey school who produced many good players in the past and carries on doing the same. Daniil Alistratov (2009 eligible) is a good goalkeeper who has recently conquered his first KHL shutout. He shares with Soviet legend Vladislav Tretiak and former Calgary Flames second round pick, now retired from pro hockey, Andrei Medvedev, the record for the youngest starter in the highest Russian League. Other youngsters play on a significant offensive role: Evgeny Dadonov (FLA), Andrei Popov (PHI) and Evgeny Skachkov (STL). For all three, but especially for Dadonov and Popov, this year will be really important to see their actual stage of development.

Khimik Voskresensk
2007-08 season: Russian High League champions

With not too much time to assemble the team (Avtomobilist Ekaterinburg has been excluded from the league due to financial reasons at the last minute), Khimik appears on paper to be the weakest team of the KHL and they rely mainly on veterans, without any NHL-bound prospects.