Sochi, the jewel of Russia’s Riviera, is a great place for a summer holiday. But for Red Star, the coming week on the Black Sea coast is all about hard work. After training camps in Latvia and Liberec, the pace goes up another notch with the first pre-season tournament of the summer.
The Sochi Hockey Open is a prestigious event. This season it includes a dress rehearsal for the Opening Cup clash between Ak Bars and SKA. It also offers an intriguing glimpse of what the next Olympics might look like, on the ice of the 2014 Olympic arena. For Jussi Tapola and his team, it’s a valuable staging post on the way to getting the roster ready for action come the start of December.
Kunlun plays four games in Sochi: Friday night’s opener against the host, a Sunday summit against SKA, a Monday lunchtime meeting with Lokomotiv and, finally, a fascinating battle against Russia’s B team, the so-called Olimpiyskaya Sbornaya. So, what’s to look out for in these games?
Like Red Star, the host team goes into the new season expecting at least a playoff spot. The Leopards, who joined the league in 2014-15, have been consistent performers in the Western Conference but, so far, have failed to go deep into post season. The current roster includes summer signing Yohann Auvitu, a regular for the French national team in recent seasons and a defenseman with NHL experience from New Jersey and Edmonton. He’s also played in Finland, where he became the first Frenchman to win a major individual player award. The other new faces this summer include several KHL forwards with plenty of potential. Sochi swooped for Kirill Belyayev and Stanislav Bocharov, two of the stronger players available after Lada and Ugra dropped out of the league. Alexander Polunin, once a rising star at Lokomotiv, also heads south hoping to revive after his progress stalled a little last season. And there’s a familiar face for Red Star fans – Sean Collins, scoring star of our first ever season, is back for another year in Sochi.
It’s all change in St. Petersburg, where Oleg Znarok has been replaced by Ilya Vorobyov and Ilya Kovalchuk has left for Los Angeles. But Red Star fans are sure to spot one familiar face after Magnus Hellberg moved to SKA to replace Mikko Koskinen. With Igor Shestyorkin on international duty, Hellberg can expect plenty of game time in this tournament. The other big new signing is Nail Yakupov, a fantastically gifted but sometimes frustrating forward arriving from Colorado. And the club’s scouts have picked out Alexei Byvaltsev (ex-Amur) and Alexei Kruchinin (Traktor) as the next potential scoring stars to emerge from the KHL.
Dmitry Kvartalnov is steadily stamping his authority on the Yaroslavl team after taking over from Alexei Kudashov part way through last season. He’s worked on the goalie problem and signed Alexander Salak from Sibir to establish a clear #1 after some uneven work from Alexei Murygin and Alexander Sudnitsin. That wasn’t the only visit to Kvartalnov’s former club. Forward Stepan Sannikov also comes in from Siberia and, by his own admission, is looking to kick start a career that has stalled after the high of an international call-up. Then there’s vastly experienced NHLer David Desharnais, 32. He’s joined from the New York Rangers and will hope to match the success of his new team-mate Max Talbot, back for his third season at Loko after making a similar switch in 2016.
Russia’s ‘B’ team is called the ‘Olympic’ team – and right now it’s looking at nurturing the emerging talents that could drive the Red Machine in defense of its title in Beijing in 2022. Sounds familiar? Yes, Oleg Bartash’s youthful roster (average age 22) is a key part of the supply line, just as Red Star is expected to develop China’s international hockey profile. So this match-up on August 8 could be the earliest of sneak previews for the next Games!
Not that there’s a shortage of familiar names on Bartash’s roster. SKA’s Igor Shestyorkin and Dynamo’s Andrei Mironov have both played at World Championships, Vitaly Kravtsov emerged as the young star of last season’s playoffs. Then there’s a host of young Loko talent to check out as the renowned Yaroslavl school keeps doing its thing. This game wraps up Red Star’s tournament – and it could be the most intriguing of the bunch.