19 August 2022
It was all change at Kunlun Red Star this summer, with a new head coach, fresh imports arriving from North America and a move to the Western Conference. KHL.ru continues its preview of the coming season with a look at how our Chinese franchise is hoping to force its way back into the playoff picture.
The 2021/22 campaign was the weakest in Red Star’s KHL history. However, league action was only part of the story. In addition to playing in the KHL, the club was also responsible for preparing China’s team for the Beijing Olympics. Battling on two fronts prevented the team from reaching its potential in the league and it finished last in the Eastern Conference with just nine victories all season. The highlights were wins over Ak Bars (4-3) and CSKA (2-1).
Goalie: Matt Jurusik (Texas, AHL)
Defense: Kyle Wood (Kladno, CZE), Zac Leslie (Belville, AHL), Vincent LoVerde (Salzburg, AUT), Liam Ross (Sunbury, OHL), Doyle Somerby (Tucson, AHL).
Forwards: Kristian Afansyev (Nove Zamky, SVK, try-out), Jack Rodewald (TPS, FIN), Alexander Kvartalnov (Ak Bars, try-out), Ivan Lisin (Buran, VHL, try-out), Vladimir Mikhasyonok (Zlin, CZE, try-out).
Goalies: Jeremy Smith, Paris O’Brien
Defense: Denis Osipov (try-out), Jason Fram, Jake Chelios
Forwards: Brandon Yip, Cory Kane, Luke Lockhart, Cliff Pu, Ethan Were, Parker Foo.
Goalie: Han Pengfei
Defense: Ryan Sproul, Zhang Pengfei, Chen Zimeng, Ty Schultz, Zach Yuen, Yan Ruinan
Forwards: Mikhail Abramov (Sochi), Tyler Wong, Guo Jianing, Rudi Ying, Alex Riche, Xiang Xudong, Spencer Foo (Vegas, NHL), Zhang Zesen, Zhang Chen, Zhong Wei, Yan Juncheng
Kunlun Red Star began its summer recruitment later than everyone else, but the club’s management has been busy in the transfer market. The Dragons have retained most of their leaders, strengthened the team with a raft of North Americans and also took a look at several young Russians.
The big loss this summer is the departure of Spencer Foo, last season’s top scorer. He’s heading to Vegas. An exodus of Chinese players is more damaging to the team’s image as a flagship for the country’s hockey program than any potential results on the ice.
Greg Ireland takes charge for the coming season. In a career spanning three decades, the 56-year-old Canadian has worked behind the bench in several leagues – the OHL, ECHL, AHL and Swiss and German championships. For the last few years, Ireland has been involved with Italian hockey. He was head coach at Bolzano for three seasons and took charge of Team Italy in World Championship and Olympic qualification play.
When talking about his Italian team, Ireland admitted that it struggled to compete in terms of individual skill. However, he added that “our trump cards are teamwork and effort”. These are qualities we can expect to see him instil in his new charges.
Jeremy Smith is set to be the first-choice goalie. He played 74 games in the last three KHL seasons and is something of a cult hero at the club.
Matt Jurusik will be pushing for the starting role. On the one hand, he’s an unknown quantity in the KHL. On the other, he brings solid experience. He played for Team USA juniors, spent a long time in the NCAA and came to KRS from the AHL. His debut for his new team saw him stop 30 out of 31 shots in a warm-up game against Vityaz. Not a bad start!
Paris O’Brien, 22, completes the group. He made his KHL debut last season against Neftekhimik and also played at the Olympics.
The KRS blue line looks very mobile this season, and capable of contributing on offense. There aren’t many stay-at-home types on the roster, but plenty of two-way options who love to get forward whenever possible.
The longest-serving defenseman at the club is Jake Chelios. The 31-year-old has played 129 games in three seasons in the KHL, regularly scoring 10+ points and posting respectable plus / minus scores on a struggling team. Last season he finished with -7, which was the best at the club.
In the summer, five North American d-men joined the team. Kyle Wood and Vincent LoVerde played in Europe last season, Liam Ross was in the OHL, while Zac Leslie and Doyle Somerby come direct from the AHL. Four of them are noted for the offensive contributions, while Somerby’s 2-meter frame adds to the team’s physical presence.
Interestingly, LoVerde wore the ‘C’ in his first game for Kunlun. The Chinese team has acquired a player with authority, capable of lifting the mood in the locker room. The experienced 33-year-old has captained three of his previous teams and wore the ‘A’ for two more.
The face of Kunlun Red Star, Brandon ‘Captain China’ Yip, recently signed a franchise record four-year deal. Yip is the leading scorer in the club’s history with 112 points in the KHL. Luke Lockhart, almost as long-serving, signed up until 2025. Lockhart has more games than anyone else for Kunlun; his 258 appearances in the KHL have yielded 69 points.
Four more forwards return from last season. They are boosted by a newcomer, Jack Rodewald. In Europe, Rodewald has not always been the most productive but at Ocelari in Czechia and TPS in Finland he has contributed to title-chasing teams. Clearly, that experience will help here.
It’s also likely that at least some of the youngsters on try-out contracts will be rewarded with a deal for the coming season. Ivan Lisin, Alexander Kvartalnov, Vladimir Mikhaceyonok and Kristian Afanasyev are all playing for a chance on team. Should Afanasyev make the cut, he could become the first Mexican-born player to feature in the KHL.
At the time of writing, the youngest player on the roster is 19-year-old Alexander Kvartalnov. He’s on a try-out contract after playing eight games for Ak Bars, where he averaged 3:41 in ice time.
It will be interesting to see how the partnership with Atlant’s junior team develops. The clubs agreed that Atlant’s prospects could play for KRS in pre-season. The first three to feature were Arseny Kritsyn, Danila Sachkov and Andrei Shcherbatov. All three made an impression in a warm-up game against Vityaz, combining for two goals. It’s possible that we’ll see Kunlun give some of these youngsters a chance to play in the KHL.
Freed from the pressure of developing players for the Olympics, Kunlun should be stronger this season. The move to the Western Conference may also play a role. A new coach and some encouraging new signings could, if everything works out, be the catalyst to lift the Dragons out of the doldrums and into a real battle for a playoff place.