Date: November 13, 2016

Slow starts dangerous for coaches in KHL

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By Mike Weber – One World Sports

Slow starts can be costly in the 60-game KHL schedule. Case in point: Big-name coaches Mike Keenan and Andrei Nazarov have been given the pink slip, along with Dinamo Minsk’s Slovakian bench boss Lubomir Pokovic, after beginning the season with mediocre results.

Metallurg Magnitogorsk shocked the hockey world by firing legendary coach Mike Keenan after losing back-to-back games. Iron Mike has left his name etched in hockey history by becoming the first bench boss to hoist the Stanley Cup and the Gagarin Cup, having won the NHL title with the New York Rangers in 1994 and then guiding Magnitogorsk to the KHL’s top prize 20 years later. 

Despite possessing a handful of KHL superstars, Keenan failed to get the best out of his players this season. Big spending Magnitogorsk owns the most feared line in the league of Sergei Mozyakin, Jan Kovar, and Danis Zaripov, and signed former NHLer Wojtek Wolski in the off-season. Add to the mix Chris Lee, one of the premier defensemen in the league, and former Russian national team member Vasily Koshechkin in net, and you have one of the best teams on paper in the KHL. But the results did not match the spending, and the squad, with largely the same nucleus as the team that won the league championship just two seasons ago, seemed to have tuned Keenan out.

With Magnitogorsk sitting in 5th place in the Eastern Conference, Keenan has been removed from his duties behind the bench. But the club hasn’t completely cut ties with Iron Mike. Keenan has moved upstairs into an advisory role with Metallurg. It doesn’t look like Keenan’s time in Russia will be coming to an end anytime soon either, with rumors circulating that the Canadian-born coach is close to finalizing his Russian citizenship and a possible gig as an assistant coach for the Russian national team could be around the corner. Stepping into Keenan’s shoes at Magnitogorsk is assistant coach Ilya Vorobyov.

Mike Keenan is not the only high-profile coach to have been fired, with former NHL enforcer Andrei Nazarov losing his job as coach of SKA St. Petersburg. The defending KHL champions have made major changes to their roster from last season, and the fiery coach was unable to get the squad to gel. Not even the most pessimistic of predictions would have put the star-studded team from Russia’s second city fighting for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference, but that’s exactly where SKA sits just a few games short of the halfway point in the season. Nazarov’s abrasive style just did not seem to suit the team.

Former NHL star defenseman Sergei Zubov has taken over behind the bench at SKA. The move is likely to see dividends on the blueline and the powerplay, as Zubov established himself as one of the best defensemen in the NHL and one of the best at quarterbacking the powerplay during his storied career. He also brings a winning mentality with him, having won the Stanley Cup in 1994 with the New York Rangers and in 1999 with the Dallas Stars. Meanwhile, Nazarov has returned to a familiar setting, being hired as head coach of Barys Astana, where he coached the team to a 30-win season last year.  Just a little more than a week after being fired by SKA, he got sweet revenge against the St. Petersburg side winning 4-2 in Astana.

Last season with Slovakian head coach Lubomir Pokovic at the helm, Dinamo Minsk were one of the surprise stories in the KHL, surpassing expectations and finishing the regular season as the fifth seed in the Western Conference. This year it has been a different story, with the Belarussian squad sitting in tenth place in the West and just five points ahead of last place Severstal. Assistant coach Andrei Kovalyov has been promoted to interim head coach. Kovalyov is very familiar with the club having spent six seasons with the organization during his playing days. Look for the former high-scoring forward to implement a more open, free-flowing style of play at Dinamo.

Milestone Night

Prolific Metallurg Magnitogorsk scorer Sergei Mozyakin notched his 400th career goal in top flight Russian hockey in a 4-2 victory over Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod. The one-timer top shelf past Ilya Proskuryakov in his 800th game puts him in the record book with Boris Mikhailov and Vyacheslav Starshinov, the only other men to have achieved the feat. The smooth skating sniper sits just 28 back of Mikhailov, with it not out of the question for Mozyakin to reach the mark this season. The 35 year old has shown no signs of slowing, leading the league with 19 tallies in just 27 games this year.

Barys Astana Gets a New Home

One of the biggest changes to the KHL landscape over the years has been the modernization of the arenas. Earlier this year, Dynamo Moscow unveiled the VTB Ice Palace, widely-believed to be one of the finest hockey arenas in Europe, with a capacity to seat 12,100.

Now Barys Astana has followed suit, opening the doors to the state-of-the-art Astana Ice Palace. The spacious arena can accommodate 11,578 spectators and has great sightlines. Located on the west bank of the Kazakh capital, the new venue will help sell the game in the country and could help Kazakhstan host major international hockey tournaments. Barys prevailed 4-2 over SKA St. Petersburg in the arena’s opener.

The KHL ‘s SKA Saint Petersburg Brims with NHL Talent

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By Jacob Messing  – Flo Hockey

Although always in the shade of the NHL, the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) more than offers its own share of talent. Increasingly, high drafts picks and proven NHL players have taken their abilities across the world to compete.

Perhaps the strongest team in terms of luring players, SKA Saint Petersburg ices a wealth of NHL talent each game. With names including Ilya Kovalchuk, Pavel Datsyuk, Slava Voynov, Igor Shestyorkin and the interesting career of Steve Moses, it’s no surprise SKA is leading the KHL with a 15-1-4 record this season.

Ilya Kovalchuk

Age: 33
Position: Left Wing
NHL Career: 816 GP, 417 G, 399 A, 816 Pts.
KHL Career: 205 GP, 85 G, 126 A, 211 Pts.
2016-17 Season: 20 GP, 10 G, 15 A, 25 Pts.

Ilya Kovalchuk scored 29-plus goals in 10 of his 11 NHL seasons and 37-plus in eight of them. He was a dynamic offensive player during his NHL days and the most talented player on the ice more often than not.

Everyone knows the story of his NHL retirement. He left the New Jersey Devils at the age of 30 and walked away from a contract that signed him for another 12 years and was set to pay him another $77 million.

It’s likely the 42 points in 36 games for SKA during the shortened NHL season of 2012-13 that persuaded Kovalchuk to go home following the campaign. Kovalchuk is one point behind the KHL leading scorer this season, Sergei Mozyakin of Metallurg.

Pavel Datsyuk

Age: 38
Position: Center
NHL Career: 953 GP, 314 G, 604 A, 918 Pts.
KHL Career: 40 GP, 15 G, 29 A, 44 Pts.
2016-17 Season: 9 GP, 4 G, 4 A, 8 Pts.

Similar to Kovalchuk, Datsyuk left the Detroit Red Wings with one year and $7.5 million left on his contract to join SKA this season. A two-time Stanley Cup Champion, Datsyuk’s all-around game will be missed by Detroit this season.

Nearly a point-per-game player during his 14-year NHL career, Datsyuk was feared by goalies league-wide and is transitioning his skill to the KHL. His vision and stickhandling were unparalleled, and often made impossible plays look easy.

He had a down year for Detroit during 2015-16, but was skating on a surgically repaired ankle just six months into what was called an 18-month recovery timeline. Datsyuk was worshipped for his dekes and incredible two-way play.

SKA named Datsyuk their captain this season, further showing his talent and leadership that he brings to each game. He will go a long way in SKA, which is looking to regain the Gagarin Cup for the league’s top team, which they last won in 2015.

Slava Voynov

Age: 26
Position: Defense
NHL Career: 190 GP, 18 G, 63 A, 81 Pts.
KHL Career: 42 GP, 6 G, 17 A, 23 Pts.
2016-17 Season: 19 GP, 6 G, 10 A, 19 Pts.

Also a two-time Stanley Cup champion, Slava Voynov was a big part of the in-your-face style the Los Angeles Kings played on their way to winning two Cups in three years (2012 and 2014). 

Voynov is a heavy hitter who instills fear into his opponents when they enter the zone or find themselves in the corner with him.

Voynov played just six games of the 2014-15 season before he was suspended indefinitely during an assault investigation. He pled no contest to a misdemeanor domestic violence charge in September of 2015 and was ousted from the NHL.

He has played a key role for SKA since signing with the team in October of the same year. He currently sits second in the league in defensive scoring.

Steve Moses

Age: 27
Position: Right Wing
NHL Career: n/a
KHL Career: 88 GP, 47 G, 30 A, 77 Pts.
2016-17 Season: 7 GP, 1 G, 3 A, 4 Pts.

At 5-foot-9, Steve Moses went undrafted in the NHL, written off for his lack of size. In 2012, the American-born winger signed with Jokerit of the Finnish Elite League and made an immediate impact.

He used his speed and strong shot to record 22 goals and 38 points in 55 games. Fast-forward to 2014-15, when Jokerit moved to the KHL, Moses took the change well and scored 36 goals and 57 points in 60 games as a KHL rookie, which set the goal-scoring record for a single KHL season.

Following his breakout campaign, Moses signed a one-year, $1 million contract with the Nashville Predators in 2015. Moses was fully expected to translate his game to the NHL, but was sent to the Predators’ AHL-affiliate, the Milwaukee Admirals.

Through 16 games, Moses recorded two goals and seven points and was prematurely cut by the team. Moses returned to the KHL, scoring 10 goals and 16 points in 21 games with SKA in 2015-16.

Igor Shestyorkin

Age: 20
Position: Goaltender
NHL Career: n/a
KHL Career: 37 GP, 20 W, 2.17 GAA, .922 SV%, 7 SO
2016-17 Season: 15 GP, 11 W, 1.61 GAA, .940 SV%, 5 SO

Igor Shestyorkin joined the KHL at just 17 years old. A teenage starting goalie is unheard of for a league with as much high-end talent as the KHL contains. 

Shestyorkin was drafted by the New York Rangers in the fourth round of the 2014 NHL draft and could be the heir to the 34-year-old Henrik Lundqvist in coming years.

While it’s hard to determine a prospect’s NHL potential across leagues, what Shestyorkin has accomplished in his KHL time helps the best players in the world.

 

Russian Gretzky’ Makarov enters hockey shrine

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By Kevin Mcgran – The Toronto Star

Sergei Makarov draws comparisons to The Great One after international career that some call the greatest in hockey history.

Was Sergei Makarov the greatest hockey player ever? We’ll never know, but he certainly was compared — favourably — to the best.

“He was always referred to as the Russian Gretzky,” said Cliff Fletcher, now a senior adviser with the Toronto Maple Leafs but then the GM of the Calgary Flames, who drafted Makarov. “He was the best, most dynamic European hockey player.

“Unfortunately he didn’t come to the NHL until he was approaching the twilight of his career, but it was amazing what he could do with that puck,” added Fletcher. “How he thought the game, how he could pass, just make the best play that could be made. He was like Wayne in a lot of respects in that he saw things before they happened.”

Makarov will get his long-awaited induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame on Monday, along with Eric Lindros, Rogie Vachon and the late Pat Quinn.

Makarov played on one the most dynamic units in history — the KLM Line — with Vladimir Krutov and Igor Larionov. He represented the Soviet Union internationally and played for CSKA Moscow (Red Army), dominant in the Russian league in its day.

“For me, Sergei Makarov is the greatest forward in history,” Russian sportswriter Vladislav Domrachev of Sovetsky Sport told the Star through a translator.

“He was a kind of evil genius. Makarov played without any problems, not injuries, no scandals. He was a bright player — stick-handling, speed, IQ. CSKA coach Viktor Tikhonov used him on the penalty kill, not Larionov. He was the brightest player of the KLM line. Krutov was hard-working. Larionov had a great IQ. But Makarov was the face of the line.”

The line was feared, both in the Soviet league and internationally.

 “The difference for them is, they played together from their young days to the Red Army,” said Fletcher. “They read off each other so well on the ice.”

With Makarov, the Soviet Union won the world championship seven times, Olympic gold twice and the world juniors twice, as well as the Canada Cup in 1981.

He had 710 points in 519 games in the old Soviet Championship League, predecessor of the KHL. He scored at least 25 goals in seven seasons (each less than 50 games). After coming to the NHL at 31, he had 384 points in 424 games with Calgary, San Jose and Dallas.

“He was a good person,” Fletcher said of Makarov. “It was more of a challenge for him than, say, Larionov to come to North America. Not just the lifestyle, but how hockey was played here.”

Makarov hated the dump-and-chase brand, preferring to hold the puck as long as he could. He would get into arguments with coaches about it.

“The way the Red Army system was, especially the KLM Line, it was all about puck control,” said Fletcher. “It was a challenge for him to change, but he was such an immense talent. He adjusted very well and was a real good NHL player even though he was in his early 30s.”

Still, he won the Calder as rookie of the year in 1989-90 with 86 points in 80 games, prompting the NHL to put an age limit on the trophy, now restricted to players 24 and under.

In Makarov’s last year playing in the Soviet Union, CSKA Moscow had one of the greatest collections of talent anywhere — not just in Europe — in part because it was the main feeder team to the Soviet nationals.

Still, the KLM line was in tact, with rising stars Alexander Mogilny, Pavel Bure and Sergei Fedorov on the way, not to mention Valeri Kamensky. The blue line featured Alexei Kasatonov, Viacheslav Fetisov, Vladimir Konstantinov, Vladimir Malakhov and a young Sergei Zubov. They all went on to have long NHL careers, with some of them — Fetisov, Larionov, Bure and Fedorov — making it into the hall of fame ahead of Makarov.

“It took NHL all-stars to compete at the top level with them,” said Fletcher. “They were good.”

Sergei Makarov

Born June 19, 1958

Hometown: Chelyabinsk, Soviet Union

NHL: Calgary, San Jose, Dallas

NHL stats: 424 GP, 134 G, 250 A

Soviet stats: 519 GP, 322 G, 388 A

Olympic golds: 1984, 1988

World championships: 1978, 1979, 1981, 1982, 1983, 1986, 1990

Canada Cup: 1976

Calder Trophy: 1990