- © RIA Novosti. Igor Russak
© RIA Novosti. Igor Russak
MOSCOW, September 2 (R-Sport) - The Russia-based KHL, forever trying to break out of the NHL’s shadow, starts its new season with something to brag about after Ilya Kovalchuk, the former New Jersey Devils star, signed with SKA St. Petersburg.
For the Moscow-based, eight-country KHL, Kovalchuk is a godsend, the first major NHL star in his prime to cross the ocean, as next year’s Winter Olympics in Russia loom large. Kovalchuk, coming off a 31 points-in-37 games season in New Jersey, walked away from a Devils contract with 12 years and $77 million remaining, but insists the KHL is strong enough for him.
“I didn’t come here to sit and wait for the Olympics. I’ve got to claw and work to prove everything on the ice,” the 30-year-old said when unveiled as SKA captain last week. “The KHL is developing and growing and at this point I want to be a hockey player in this league.”
Other than Kovalchuk, many of the KHL’s big names tend to be NHL veterans who had been struggling for playing time, like Jonathan Cheechoo, once red-hot for the San Jose Sharks but now in Croatia with expansion team Medvescak Zagreb. There are also the youngsters, like Washington Capitals prospect Evgeny Kuznetsov, and the oddballs, like mercurial CSKA Moscow sniper Alexander Radulov, an NHL pariah since he was all but run out of Nashville for bad behavior.
The defending champion is Dynamo Moscow, which has won the Gagarin Cup for the last two seasons and plays a team game free of any global stars. Dynamo’s biggest threats come from elsewhere in the Western Conference, where CSKA and SKA have been spending big in recent years.
The 2013-14 salary cap is set to $36.9 million, compared with the NHL’s $64.3 million, but digging deeper reveals how the KHL is split between the haves and haven-nots. Last season, just three teams came within 10 percent of the cap, while more than half the league posted wage bills below half the maximum.
Despite the inequality, the KHL is growing fast, chasing a target set by league president Alexander Medvedev of expanding across Europe all the way to Britain. To do that, the KHL must ruffle feathers with the continent’s established national leagues. That’s exactly what it did by poaching Medvescak from the Austrian league, and plans to bring in Helsinki’s Jokerit next year are shaking Scandinavia. Poland and Italy are also in the crosshairs.
In addition, the new season sees an expansion team in Russia’s Far East, Admiral Vladivostok, and there are plans to set up a club in the Olympic host city of Sochi some time in the coming years.
SKA brought in Kovalchuk, but the two-time NHL All-Star is hardly the only gunner in St. Petersburg, which led the league in goals scored last season with 182, 15 more than next-best Metallurg.
Returning Norwegian forward Patrick Thoresen had 21 goals and 30 assists for 51 points to finish fourth in the league and he’ll combine with Calgary Flames flameout Roman Cervenka, who had 61 points in 51 games three seasons ago for Avangard, and up-and-comer Viktor Tikhonov as SKA looks to unseat their nemesis Dynamo, who have knocked them out of the Conference Finals two years running.
Dynamo kept their roster largely intact and, with the addition of the gritty Leo Komarov, remains the favorite to repeat as three-time Gagarin Cup champions in a season that will be shorted two weeks in February for the Sochi Games.
CSKA Moscow made noise this offseason with the addition of former Pittsburgh Penguins forward Morozov, 36, who was recently installed as captain, replacing the enigmatic but talented Alexander Radulov, who had 68 points in 48 games last season while leading the league in assists with 46. The capital-based team also features lights-out Slovak goaltender Rastislav Stana, who won 18 games last season with a 1.76 goals against average.
At CSKA, American head coach John Torchetti, the first North American to helm one of Russia’s most-storied hockey franchises, could be in the hot seat from day one as he tries to steer the club past the semifinals for the first time in their KHL history.
Three years after a plane crash wiped out 44 of its players, coaches and staff, Lokomotiv Yaroslav continues to rebuild and will look to improve on their impressive 34-18 campaign in 2012-13.
Medvescak should serve as an experiment of sorts for the KHL, a nearly cut-and-dried measure of how predominantly Russian squads around the league stack up against a team comprised mostly of North Americans. Twenty-four of Zagreb’s 33 players are from Canada or the United States – led by one-time Maurice Richard Trophy winner Cheechoo, 33 – and the roster as a whole has 2,529 games of NHL experience, by far the most in the KHL.
Elsewhere in the West, hard-battling Severstal Cherepovets surprised many observers last season by reaching the conference semifinals, while Lev Prague and Slovan Bratislava bring big crowds and passionate Central European support.
With major talent in the KHL tending to reside in western Russia and beyond its borders, the Eastern Conference is something of a crapshoot year in and year out, with Ak Bars Kazan, Avangard Omsk, Traktor Chelyabinsk, Metallurg Magnitogorsk and Salavat Yulaev Ufa jockeying for placement in the standings.
In Alexei Morozov, Ak Bars lost their spiritual leader and captain of six seasons – dating back to the Russian Superleague – and his departure has initiated a youth movement in the Tatarstan capital.
Center Vladimir Tkachyov, who played for Russia’s gold medal-winning under-20 team earlier this year, is ready for a full season and centers Alexander Burmistrov, 21, and Tomas Vincour, a 22-year-old Czech, have joined from the Winnipeg Jets and Dallas Stars respectively.
Last season’s losing finalist Traktor, meanwhile, has a steady veteran corps in 35-year-old forward Jan Bulis and Finnish center Petri Kontiola, who combined for 62 points last season, and Canadian goaltender Michael Garnett, a three-time KHL All-Star and the league’s all-time wins leader with 101. Hometown prospect and breakout candidate Valeri Nichushkin was the fifth overall pick by the Dallas Stars back in June and will try to break into the NHL as an 18-year-old.
The storyline in the Urals outpost of Magnitogorsk is Stanley Cup-winning coach Mike Keenan’s first return to the bench since he was fired by the Calgary Flames in 2009. He replaces fellow Canadian Paul Maurice, who returned to North America for family reasons.
Keenan, known as “Iron Mike,” will profit from slick left wing Sergei Mozyakin, who led the league in points last seasons with 76 in 48 games, and rejuvenated goaltender Vasili Koshechkin, 30, who had a 2.13 goals against average last season as Metallurg finished fourth in the conference.
Last season, Metallurg seemed overly dependent on locked-out NHL star Evgeni Malkin and collapsed after he returned to North America, putting pressure on Keenan to create a team game.
Salavat Yulaev, the Gagarin Cup winner of 2011, remains among the best funded in the league. Also out East, Avangard are perennial challengers and the 2012 losing finalists, while few enjoy a trip to Kazakhstan to face Barys Astana, who came within a hair’s breadth of eliminating Traktor in the first round of the playoffs last season.