Sabres Report: The Locomotive Age

By Ken McKenna

Like the steel engines from which they take their nickname, the Yaroslavl Locomotive of the Russian Superleague rumbled over their playoff opponents to easily win the championship of the top Russian hockey league. The Locomotive accomplished the feat in the minimum number of games, going undefeated in the post-season (9-0).

Yaroslavl was the top team in Russia during the regular season, as well, so their playoff success was not a big surprise. During their run to the championship, the Locomotive scored 28 goals in 9 playoff games, while allowing just 9 goals against. The defeated opponents included the Soviet Wings, the Magnitogorsk Metallurgists, and Yaroslavl’s opponent in the finals, the Kazan Leopards.

While most hockey fans would likely recognize only one name from the Yaroslavl roster (Andrei Kovalenko), many Buffalo Sabres’ fans are fairly familiar with one of the younger players on the Locomotive, former 2000 1st round pick Artem Kriukov. Artem appeared in 5 of Yaroslavl’s 9 playoff games, registering 1 goal and 8 PIMs in those contests. Kriukov was a healthy scratch in the other 4 contests, with the Yaroslavl coaching staff favoring a more veteran lineup in games against tougher opponents.

After sitting out the opening round victory over the Soviet Wings, Artem had a solid series vs. Magnitogorsk. The high point of Kriukov’s post-season action came in the deciding game against the Metallurgist, where he scored his lone playoff goal, and earned the 3rd star award for his strong play throughout this contest. Artem was not quite as effective in the finals, and he was a healthy scratch for the championship-clinching game vs. Kazan.

Aside from an injury that caused him to miss several games earlier in the season, Artem is said to have shown definite improvement over the course of the 2001-02 season. The big center played with more self-assurance against the mostly older competition in the Superleague, which has to be a bit of good news for Buffalo’s scouting staff. Kriukov’s scoring touch has yet to blossom, however, but that may be a function of the fact that he does not get a lot of quality time on a veteran-laden team.

One other scrap of news that will be encouraging to Sabres’ management is the fact that Artem has bulked up to the 193-pound range. There was some talk back at the 2000 Draft that Kriukov would need some added weight to handle the rigors of the NHL, so he is certainly making strides in that area.

Another Russian prospect drafted by Buffalo, D Denis Denisov, also experienced some growth this season, if not in size, then in his overall performance. Denisov played for the Soviet Wings in the top Russian league, where he quietly provided solid defensive play for the Wings. Denis was often paired with Ottawa’s top defensive prospect Anton Volchenkov, creating a young but defensively sound duo who were not in awe of the older competition they faced.

As for Denisov’s playoff performance, there does not appear to be much to report. The Soviet Wings were swept by Yaroslavl in the opening round of the playoffs, but it does not appear as if Denis played in any of the 3 games in that series. The reason for Denisov’s absence from the Wings playoff roster isn’t yet known, but it does not sound as if poor play had anything to do with it.

As for Buffalo’s prospects playing in the Czech Republic, none of the 3 players- C Jiri Novotny, W Michal Vondrka, W Marek Dubec– saw action in the Czech Elite League’s playoffs because their clubs failed to make the post-season. The trio instead took part in the playoffs at the Division I and II levels.

2001 1st rounder Jiri Novotny turned in perhaps the best post-season performance of the 3 players, albeit on a limited basis. Jiri played for SHC Hradec in Division II where he led that team in scoring, tallying 4 points (1G, 3A) in 3 games.

Jiri is said to be developing into a solid two-way center with some size and playmaking ability. As has been the case with Artem Kriukov, Jiri’s offensive skills have yet to really come to the fore, but this is probably due to a combination of older competition and limited ice time. When Novotny has gotten a chance to play more regularly, he has shown flashes of offensive ability that hint at better things to come.

Marek Dubec and Michal Vondrka are both works in progress who at this stage are probably borderline NHL prospects. Neither player has broken through at the upper level of Czech hockey so far (both have played at that level, however), so they need to prove themselves against the top Czech competition before they can take a serious run at making it in North America.

As for their work in the playoffs, Dubec played 9 games for SK Horacka Slavia in the Czech Division I, netting 3 goals in those games. Vondrka’s post-season activity was with IHC Pisek, a Division II team, where he scored 1 goal in just 2 games.

Buffalo’s other Euro prospect, D Calle Aslund, took part in the J20 playoffs, which is Sweden’s top junior league. Calle’s team, Huddinge IK, advanced to the semi-finals, but they were eliminated by eventual champion Vastra Frolunda. Aslund played mostly on Huddinge’s 2nd defensive pairing in the post-season tournament, registering 6 PIMs and a +2 rating in the 4 games he played.

Thanks to Eugene Belashchenko and Robert Neuhauser for providing information on some of the prospects.