Monday, 21 August 2017

The Boys Are Back In Town

It's only August. I say that because it feels odd to be writing about serious hockey on August 21, but the KHL kicked off its regular season today and kicked off its tenth anniversary. I was actually surprised that the KHL is only celebrating ten years since it feels like they've been around forever, but ten years ago the KHL started up its operations. While I haven't been keeping a close on the KHL as they prepare for this season and today's game between CSKA and SKA St. Petersburg, there are a few things that people should note about the upcoming tenth-anniversary season.

While we didn't see any major names defect to the KHL for the opportunity to play in the 2018 Winter Olympics, there were a few players who opted for the Russian circuit as opposed to playing in North America under an NHL team. Justin Fontaine, Ryan Garbutt, Dwight King, Quinton Howden, Chris Lee, Andrei Markov, Alexei Marchenko, Mikhail Grigorenko, Ben Scrivens, Marc-Andre Gragnani, Jhonas Enroth, and Stanislav Galiev all opted for KHL contracts rather than trying to fight their way onto an NHL roster. All these men probably would have been good depth signings for a number of NHL teams, but they'll take their efforts over to the KHL with the hopes of making the Olympic rosters of their respective teams.

Markov is an interesting case of the above names, though, as he literally only wanted to play in Montreal. When it was clear that Montreal was moving on from the 38 year-old defender, he didn't hesitate at turning to the KHL when it came to his next contract. Markov signed with Ak Bars Kazan after Danis Zaripov's suspension for performance-enhancing drugs. The move reunites Markov with his former coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov whom he played under with Dynamo Moscow. Markov made it clear that this connection was part of the reason he chose Ak Bars Kazan over other clubs.

"The fact that I played for Zinetula Bilyaletdinov at Dynamo, before I even went to the NHL, played a significant part," Markov told "I know what he expects of his players, and I'm really glad that we'll be working together again. You could say that it's thank to him that I became the player I am."

I suspect that Markov will have a good year with Kazan under Bilyaletdinov as their top defender. Markov has played the most NHL games by any Russian player at 990, and those 990 games have given him experience against the best players in the world. The transition to the larger ice will take some adjustments, but I'm going on record to say that Markov will have a great year statistically in the KHL.

"Iron" Mike Keenan will step back behind a bench after last helping Metallurg Magnitogorsk to a Gagarin Cup parade, only this time he will be running the bench for Kunlun Red Star. The 1984-85 Jack Adams Award winner and 1994 Stanley Cup winner will direct the KHL's youngest team which features a nearly brand new roster from last season where the squad made the playoffs. Keenan, who is in charge of the Chinese national hockey program, will get a first-hand experience with a lot of the players he's hoping will restore glory to the Chinese program as the Red Star roster is loaded with a number of players with Chinese heritage.

"We can call our players talented, but they are not superstars like Mozyakin, Zaripov or Kovar," Keenan said at a press conference over the summer. "Plus, there's a layer of Chinese prospects who will hope to be part of the Beijing Olympics in 2022. It's going to be interesting to see how everything plays out during the season."

There is a new wrinkle to the KHL this season. The KHL will move from a best-of-three shootout format to a best-of-five shootout format. Adding two additional shooters to the mandatory list of shooters will give the KHL teams with a pile of talent a chance to showcase that talent even more. Will this be a burden to the teams with less talent? We'll see how this plays out during the season.

Of players who have yet to sign or retired this summer, Kazakhstani netminder Vitaly Kolesnik hasn't signed with a club as of yet, but the 37 year-old should be a depth signing in the KHL somewhere if he decides he wants to play. The 2006 Olympian and four-time World Championship participant still plays at a high level, but he's being pushed by the youth in the KHL.

Former Maurice Richard Award winner Jonathan Cheechoo is also sitting on the sidelines at the time of writing. He will hold a special place in the KHL as he scored Zagreb Medvescak's first-ever KHL goal before also playing with Dinamo Minsk and Slovan Bratislava. He'll be 38 this season, so finding a roster might be tough for the former San Jose Sharks sniper.

American Brandon Bochenski decided at the conclusion of last season to call it quits. The 35 year-old forward had a number of excellent seasons with Barys Astana, recording 397 points in 399 KHL games. He even claimed Kazakhstani citizenship to represent the team on the international stage after serving for so long in the Kazakhstan capital. His loss is a big loss for the American Olympic squad, and he will be hard to replace for Barys Astana as well.

Aside from the three players suspended for doping this summer, it has been a pretty solid off-season for the KHL as they embark on their tenth anniversary season. Who will win the Gagarin Cup in this anniversary season? We'll know in a few short months!

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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