2012-13 KHL preview

By Alessandro Seren Rosso

Nail Yakupov - Russia

Photo: Edmonton Oilers prospect Nail Yakupov rejected an assignment to the AHL and instead returned home to play in the KHL during the NHL lockout (courtesy of Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images)

 The 2012-13 KHL season, the fifth season for this largely Russian league, has just begun, with some changes in team lineups in part due to the NHL lockout. The league has welcomed Ukrainian team Donbass Donetsk, who played last season in the Russian High League, and HC Slovan Bratislava, one of the most reputable teams in Europe and a multiple winner of the Slovakian Championship title. Moreover, HC Lev relocated from the Slovakian city of Poprad to Prague in the Czech Republic.

The NHL lockout wasn’t enthusiastically embraced like it was 8 years ago and the league did put some restrictions on the NHL players signed, albeit not as harsh as in Sweden, where players can only sign with a Swedish team for a minimum term of one season. Russian KHL teams now are allowed to sign a maximum of three NHL players, including one foreigner. Non-Russian KHL teams don’t have the limitation on foreign players. A number of NHL players have already signed contracts with KHL teams, including superstars Evgeny Malkin, Ilya Kovalchuk, and Alex Ovechkin.

Western Conference

Tarasov Division

Atlant Mytischi

The ever-changing roster of this Moscow suburb region team isn’t featuring much of interest from a North American point of view. During last year’s playoffs they parted ways with Alexei Kovalev, but they still have some former NHL players and prospects (like Alexei Mikhnov, Nikolai Lemtyugov, Ilya Kablukov, and others). The team recently announced the signature of Anton Khudobin to a “lockout contract”.

Dynamo Minsk

The only Belarus team in the KHL were unsuccessful in their attempt to lure Mikhail Grabovsky, but have already announced the signing of goalkeeper Nicklas Backstrom. The Bisons do have a good array of young players, but not one of them is NHL material.

CSKA Moscow

CSKA Moscow had probably the most expansive summer transfer campaign in the KHL, mostly due to the signing of former Nashville Predators forward, Alexander Radulov. The talented winger was the highlight of the free agency, but they also signed other former NHL players like Oleg Kvasha and Denis Arkhipov who will mostly play in minor roles. The Red Army managed to sign to NHL lockout contracts Pavel Datsyuk, Ilya Bryzgalov, and Mikhail Grabovski and is still negotiating with Anton Volchenkov, thus getting much advantage from the NHL work stoppage. This summer the team lost two very interesting prospects, Nikita Kucherov (TBL) and Nikolai Prokhorkin (LAK), who already signed entry-level deals with their respective NHL teams. CSKA still features some interesting players, like Andrei Marchenko (DET) and Nikita Gusev (TBL), who will be trying to establish themselves in adult hockey after good junior careers. More prospects are in the pipeline as CSKA manages one of the top hockey schools in Russia, but it’s unlikely that they will see much ice time. With that being said, the team already invited to travel with them as third goalie Maxim Tretiak, the nephew of the famous Soviet hockey legend Vladislav. It’s unlikely, however, that Tretiak will play for CSKA this season.

Lokomotiv Yaroslavl

After last year’s tragedy, Lokomotiv is back to top-level hockey after one year in the Russian High League where they started reconstructing their team. They had the chance to sign some young players from other teams and they opted to pick, among others, some NHL prospects: Lokomotiv Yaroslavl features Mikhail Pashnin (NYR), Maxim Trunev (MTL), and other youngsters like last year’s WJC squad first-line center, Daniil Apalkov. Semyon Varlamov and Alexander Semin will strengthen the Tom Rowe-led team until the end of the NHL lockout.

Severstal Cherepovets

The northern team had to sustain a serious loss in the roster this summer when one of the league’s top defensemen, Maxim Chudinov (BOS), moved to SKA St. Petersburg. The Vologda team won’t have many interesting players for the North American audience, but they do feature one of the most interesting young players in Russia in Pavel Buchnevich, a dynamic winger and 2013 NHL Draft-eligible, who might create some interest should he manage to repeat his excellent MHL season. Buchnevich will most likely have some ice time at the KHL level. The team just announced the signing of forward Andrei Loktionov, a prospect of the Los Angeles Kings.

Spartak Moscow

One of the highlights of the summer transfers campaign for Spartak Moscow was the signing of young star Alexander Khokhlachev (BOS), surely favored by the fact that his father Igor is now the team’s General Manager. Spartak should have a much better team this season, with Khokhlachev starting the season on the team’s first line, and they should be more interesting to watch with the usual selection of good young players.

Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod

The Volga team as usually doesn’t boast many interesting young players, but right before the season’s start they managed to get their hands on Maxim Kitsyn (LAK). The 19-year-old right wing did need a change of atmosphere after a few unlucky seasons with Metallurg Novokuznetsk and Kings’ fans will have to hope that this change will be for the good.

Bodrov Division

Dinamo Riga

The Latvian KHL representative faced a lot of changes this summer as they changed most of their hockey operations staff. The highlight of the summer transfer campaign was the signing of former NHL player Rob Schremp to a 2-year deal. From the NHL lockout front, Dinamo Riga signed Kaspars Daugavins. During the last KHL Draft, the Riga team managed to ensure a very good prospect, Rihards Bukarts, eligible for the upcoming NHL Draft. Bukarts, whose older brother is a Dinamo Riga veteran player, will most likely play the whole season in the MHL.

Donbass Donetsk

The KHL's newest team from the Ukraine won’t have much to say to North American hockey fans as they don’t have any NHL prospects in their lineup, but they managed to sign a good young player in Evgeny Dadonov. For the NHL lockout, the team will be strengthened by Alexei Ponikarovsky and Ruslan Fedotenko.

Dynamo Moscow

The reigning KHL champion just landed their top alumnus, Alexander Ovechkin, even if they first stated that they weren’t interested in signing him due to the excessive financial requests of the Washington Capitals' super star. Dynamo Moscow doesn’t have a lot of young players, just as they don’t have true stars in their lineup. They are mostly an extremely balanced team with good goaltending and very competent coaching.

HC Lev Prague

The Czech team had a very good start to the season, mostly due to the great performance of former Columbus Blue Jackets goalie, Tomas Popperle. The Prague-based team doesn’t have much to offer in terms of young players, but their lineup features some former North American leagues players like Marcel Hossa and Tomas Mojzis. They've already announced the signing of Jakub Voracek and Jiri Hudler to NHL lockout contracts.

HC Slovan Bratislava

The Slovak team is going to face more difficult competition compared to what they were used to playing in Slovakia, so the team most likely will need one or two seasons to build a competitive team. This season, Bratislava will feature some players with North American experience, like Miro Satan and Josef Boumedienne, and for the lockout they already signed Lubomir Visnovsky. They will most likely get other big name Slovakian players should the lockout continue.

SKA St. Petersburg

SKA recently made big news in the hockey world as they signed Ilya Kovalchuk to an NHL lockout contract. Many Russian teams were involved in the Kovalchuk race, but at the end SKA got the upper hand, with their generous sponsoring surely being one of the most influential factors. SKA also signed Vladimir Tarasenko (STL) who had a great playoff rush last year. As usual, SKA is one of the contenders for the Gagarin Cup.

Vityaz Chekhov

The KHL's toughest team embraced a new vision this summer and did change their roster a fair amount while still keeping some tough players on their roster. Vityaz will now be a more technically sound team and will try to land a playoff spot for the first time in their KHL history. This summer the team signed four North American players in Brian Fahey, Mark Cullen, Trevor Gillies and Josh Hennessy.

Eastern Conference

Kharlamov Division

Ak Bars Kazan

A perennial contender, Ak Bars Kazan just announced the signing of Detroit Red Wings superstar Pavel Datsyuk to a NHL lockout contract. The team’s star remains Alexei Morozov, but as he is getting older other players are becoming more and more important. Among those emerging players is Kirill Petrov (NYI), who was re-signed this spring to a new, more lucrative two-year contract. At this point it’s hard to predict whether he will cross the Atlantic at all, but he’s still young (22) and thus he might as well wait another couple of years and report to the Islanders as a complete player. The team will also most likely sign Alexei Emelin to a NHL lockout contract. Ak Bars doesn't have much more interesting to offer in terms of NHL prospects, but they are a very good team with a solid, balanced roster.

Avtomobilist Ekaterinburg

Long involved in negotiations with Pavel Datsyuk and Alexei Yashin (who hail from Ekaterinburg), the team is not featuring any NHL prospect material.

Metallurg Magnitogorsk

The Urals-based team was the most active in negotiating with NHL players and they opted to fill their three allowed spots on the first day of negotiations, securing their alumni Evgeny Malkin and Nikolai Kulemin, while also signing veteran defenseman Sergei Gonchar. Yaroslav Kosov (FLA) will start his second full season with the team and he will try to repeat last year’s good performance (four goals and five assists in 25 games). Metallurg ices some youngsters, but none of them seems to be NHL material.

Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk

One of the most interesting players to move to the KHL during the NHL lockout is last draft’s first overall pick, Nail Yakupov, where he joins his mother club, Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk. Yakupov reportedly refused a move to the AHL and thus ended up in the KHL with a lockout contract. It will be good for Yakupov to get acquainted with adult hockey before joining the Edmonton Oilers once the lockout ends.

Traktor Chelyabinsk

One of the league’s top teams, Traktor Chelyabinsk, just got better, landing former Nashville Predators forward Andrei Kostitsyn to a “true” contract. Traktor’s most interesting player to follow will be, of course, Evgeni Kuznetsov, who this summer signed a new, 2-year deal with the team that will have him play in Russia until the end of the 2013-14 season. Traktor is a very good KHL team, so it might be interesting for the North American audience to have a look at them while following Kuznetsov and other prospects like Nikita Nesterov (TBL) and Valery Nichushkin (2013-eligible).

Yugra Khanty-Mansiysk

One of the surprises of the last couple of KHL seasons, Yugra will rely once again on their balanced roster and good goaltending. The Siberian team had a hard start to the year so they will have to rebound fast should they want to get a playoff spot.

Chernyshev Division

Amur Khabarovsk

The KHL's most remote team will try to do better than last season, when they managed to get a playoff spot, eventually losing against Eastern Conference champion Avangard Omsk. The team didn’t change much from last year and there are no prospects worthy of special attention.

Avangard Omsk

Last year’s Gagarin Cup finalist looks very good this year too, at least on paper. The crease will again be defended by Finn Karri Ramo, and they replaced Roman Cervenka (who signed with Calgary but will play in the Czech Republic for the lockout) with another Czech forward, Tomas Zaborsky, the top player in the Finnish Elite League last season. So far, Avangard hasn't announced the signing of any NHL players, but most likely they will sign some should the lockout progress.

Barys Astana

The Kazakhstani team changed a lot this summer, hiring former Team Russia head coach Vladimir Krikunov (who will also lead Team Kazakhstan). The team features a number of North American players, like former NHL players Nigel Dawes, Andrew Hutchinson and Brandon Bochenski. They also signed Jon Mirasty from Vityaz Chekhov and the lockout gave them the chance to sign Kazakh forward Nikolai Antropov.

Metallurg Novokuznetsk

The Siberian team had some financial difficulties this summer and as a result they had to get rid of some leading players without getting much back. They did, however, manage to retain their North American players in Chris Simon, Randy Robitaille and Brent Sopel. Metallurg Novokuznetsk has the KHL's youngest roster and surely their most interesting young player in undrafted Anton Slepyshev. They might soon land alumni Dmitry Orlov, although he has been assigned to the AHL at this time.

Salavat Yulaev Ufa

The KHL 2011 Gagarin Cup champion had a rocky season last year and they will most likely want to invert this trend. The team from Ufa, the city which will host the 2013 WJC, signed Nikita Filatov and put him on the first line, hoping to get him producing as he should. The experiment is working so far as Filatov had a good start to the season, but he still needs to show that he can produce for the whole season and not only in games with little meaning.

Sibir Novosibirsk

After losing Tarasenko to SKA, Sibir doesn’t have much to show to NHL prospect followers. Young blue liner Nikita Zaitsev keeps on progressing and is now an alternate captain of the team, but NHL teams decided not to risk a draft pick on him. At this point it’s hard to guess whether Finn Joni Lehtera will cross the pond and report to St. Louis.