Saturday, September 27, 2008

The KHL gets under way: A Month in Eurasia

With the NHL slowly whirring back into action after a colorful but entirely hockey free Summer it’s easy to forget that across the Atlantic hockey is in competitive full swing. Indeed as the NHL dusts off the cogs and goes through the oft tedious motions of pre season conditioning, the dropping of the puck at HV71’s Kinnarps Arena signaled the beginning of the Swedish Elitserien and the last major European league to get under way.

With numerous big name players opting to return to Europe in the face of the NHL’s renewed contract business model, European hockey is experiencing a new era of competitiveness and media world focus. In response Europe’s major leagues have demonstrated increased presentation efforts and accessibility as it embraces the liability of elite hockey standards and big business finance in what promises to be a highlight season for European hockey fans.

A considerable amount of responsibility for the limelight can be laid squarely at the feet of the upstart KHL. Replacing the old Russian Super League, the Kontinental Hockey League has devoured top clubs from satellite regions of Eurasia into an American formatted, oligarch financed elite league that has helped bolster awareness of European hockey through the acquisition of superstar NHLers such as Jagr, Emery and Radulov. Whilst the players may be veteran, trouble or wantaway in another tongue, the KHL’s ambitions to live up to its NHL rivaling hype has been nothing if not entertaining and the overshadowed element of hockey has been strong and exciting as well.

Now three weeks down the line from the inaugurating faceoff that saw eight of the KHL’s 24 teams get under way, the balance of power is beginning to immerge from the fanfare. Split into four divisions named for the greats of Russian hockey royalty the (Alexander)Kharlamov, (Vsevolod)Bobrov, (Anatoli)Tarasov and (Arkady)Chernyshev, the league has been structured to the NHL model with the top four seeds earning the top four births with the next best twelve, in lieu of conferences, being ranked 5 through 16. Early pace setters have proven to be Atlant Mytischi of the Bobrov Division. Backstopped by troubled ex-NHLer Ray Emery, the former Senator has been outshone in the early part of the season by bit part former Av’s netminder Vitaly Koleshnik. Aided by the goals of 2002 Blue Jackets draftee and 2008 RSL scoring leader Sergei Mozyakin and one year NHL wonder Esa Pirnes as well as the excellent defensive production of Magnus Johansson who played D for both Florida and Chicago last year, Atlant have made a noted improvement from last season’s fourth place in the RSL under their decade old moniker Khimik Moscow Oblast.

Currently proving Atlant’s stiffest competition is fellow Bobrov division side and reigning RSL champions Salavat Yulaev Ufa helped in no small part by leading scorer Alexander Radulov. Despite his tempestuous exit from the NHL and now reported desire to return, Radulov currently lies twelfth in the KHL scoring race having clicked with the leagues third leading goal getter Alexander Perezhogin. Ufa also boast arguably the best goaltending in the leagues early stages with Alexander Yeremenko showing the school of ex-NHL back stoppers such as Moss,  Emery, Chiodo, Dubielewicz and Esche how its done.    

Outside the Bobrov Division, Lokomotiv Yaroslavl, with the aide of Finnish head coach Kari Heikkilä, are leading the best of the rest from the Kharlamov. Demonstrating excellent scoring depth across the top three lines, experienced ex-NHLer Josef Vašiček is currently leading by example whilst former Ottawa draftee Vitaly Anikeyenko boasts one of the leagues top plus/minus ratings.

Fourth placed Mettalurg Novokuznetsk has proven to be the surprise package of the early weeks. Foregoing the big money acquisitions of former NHLers and top European players preferred elsewhere, Novokuznetsk are little altered from the team that finished seventeenth of twenty in the final year of the RSL yet lead out all teams in goals scored in the KHL. Playing out of the same division as Atlant and Salavat, the Bobrov boasts four teams in the early top ten with Spartak Moscow sitting ninth.

In the Tarasov division, Traktor Chelyabinsk has also proved something of a surprise. Poor starts from expected frontrunners Metallurg Magnitogorsk and wealthy CSKA Moscow have let last seasons fourteenth placed finishers Traktor pull out an early divisional lead whilst utilizing the leagues top power play. Coached by former NHL enforcer Andrei Nazarov, Traktor are the third worst team for PIM’s but boast veteran NHLer Andrei Nikolishin amongst their ranks.

You have to look down to sixth to find the leaders of the Chernyshev Division. Perennial nearly men AK Bars Kazan currently lead out in what could be a season long battle with Dinamo Moscow for the divisional seeding. Despite bolstering the team heavily in the last two years, its come down to AK Bars’ longest serving player Danis Zaripov to lead out the team and the KHL in scoring with team mate and long-time Penguin Aleksey Morosov keeping pace for early honors.

Elsewhere around the KHL it has been slow start for Jaromir Jagr’s Avangard Omsk. Having won only two of their first six games, head coach Sergei Gersonsky was relieved of his position. Since Avangard have improved winning two of their next three games and winning their other in overtime, Jagr currently leads team scoring with eight points (five goals and three assists) in nine games.

Marcel Hossa is another noted ex-NHLer now plying his trade in Russia, currently sitting fifth in league scoring, Hossa’s Latvian side Dinamo Riga have made a good start playing some exciting passing hockey and lying second in the Kharlamov division. Riga is currently dominating the other two sides brought from outside Russia with Belarus’s Dynamo Minsk struggling in twenty first and Kazakhstan’s Barys Astrana improving only slightly to sixteenth.

Each team in the KHL will play out a 56 game regular season schedule set to close out on the 26th of February. Keep an eye out for updates on the NHL’s new WHAesque competitor as I provide season long coverage.

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