With Wednesday’s grand closing ceremony on the horizon, KHL.ru pays tribute this week to the finest and most-improved players of the 2016-17 Championship, and in this section we focus on the defensemen who dazzled us during the regular season and the playoffs. Their impressive statistics, medals and trophies have caught the eye of those far and wide, to the extent that all our top five D-men received the call-up for national team duty at the current World Championships.

1. Chris Lee (Metallurg Magnitogorsk)

Regular season: 60 games; 65 (14+51) points; +/- rating: +14

Playoffs: 18 games; 21 (1+20) points; +/- rating: +16

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The 36-year-old Canadian would be fully justified in considering the 2016-17 campaign as his season, as the figures eloquently testify. Chris Lee finished the regular season on 65 (14+51) points – the highest totals in all three categories for any defenseman in the KHL. Moreover, his phenomenal 51 assists made him the top provider of any player in the League, beating even SKA’s formidable trio of Vadim Shipachyov, Nikita Gusev and Ilya Kovalchuk into second, third, and fourth place, respectively.

The Canadian is in fourth place for total ice time, and is one of the top four “Iron Men” of Magnitogorsk, as along with Alexei Bereglazov, Sergei Mozyakin and Oskar Osala he played a part in all 60 regular season games. He struck 4 game-winning goals, surpassed only by Mozyakin (7) and Jan Kovar (6), so that almost a third of his goals brought victory to the team.

No less impressive were his exploits in the playoffs. Lee was the fifth top scorer in the 2017 Gagarin Cup, posting 21 (1+20) points, and once again, he was far and away the most prolific assistant. He merited an efficiency rating of +16, and despite his advancing years he enjoyed more ice time than any other defenseman, averaging 30.6 minutes(!) per match.

The fans agreed, and their votes selected him for the 2017 KHL All-Star Game - the third time he has been chosen to play in the biggest show of the season.

Finally, the icing on the cake: Chris Lee became only the second Canadian (after Joel Kwiatkowski of Severstal) to represent his country at the World Championships while playing in the KHL.

2. Anton Belov (SKA)

Regular season: 56 games; 27 (9+18) points; +/- rating: +34

Playoffs: 18 games; 14 (3+14) points; +/- rating: +4

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This season was by far the finest yet in the career of the 30-year-old Russian international. His points total of 27 (9+18) was the highest in his KHL career, and his efficiency rating of +34 for the regular season was not bettered by any player in the League. Indeed, it is hard to imagine the Petersburg defense without Belov pulling the strings.

The 2017 post-season also turned out to be the best in the defenseman’s career. He scored 14 (3+11) points, averaged over 20 minutes of ice time per game, and blocked more shots (28) than anyone else on the team. SKA fans will long remember the goal he scored on March 29 to seal victory in the fourth game of the series against Lokomotiv, and he scored it in typical Belov fashion, with an unstoppable strike from the blue line.  It gave SKA a 2-1 win on the night, a 4-0 win in the series, and meant the Petersburg Army Men had reached the final of the Gagarin Cup.

It is no surprise that SKA and Russian national team head coach Oleg Znarok puts his faith in Belov, and when injury robbed Sergei Mozyakin of the chance to lead his country in the World Championships in Germany, it was Belov who donned the captain’s patch.

3. Bogdan Kiselevich (CSKA)

Regular season: 45 games; 23 (2+21) points; +/- rating: +7

Playoffs: 10 games; 8 (2+6) points; +/- rating: +2

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Following his move from Severstal to CSKA in 2014, the young defenseman’s star has risen steadily.  Now, at the age of 27, he is a leading light in the Army Men’s rearguard, evidenced by his 23 (2+21) points in the regular season (no other CSKA player claimed more assists than Kiselevich) and his average of over 20 minutes on the ice. A player must perform far above the ordinary to earn that much trust from coach Dmitry Kvartalnov.

He occasionally makes use of his athletic build to dissuade opposition forwards by means of bone-crunching hits, one of which made it into the top-3 list for the first week of the season.

Kiselevich blocked 52 shots during the regular season, and no-one else in the team could match that showing, but he saved his best form for the playoffs. In 10 matches, he scored 8 (2+6) points (equal best with Stephane da Costa), and was the undisputed leader in time on the ice. His finest hour was the opening game of the post-season against Jokerit. He hit the Helsinki men with a double, which included the game-winner.

CSKA’s surprise exit from the playoffs was not the end of Bogdan’s season. He has just put in some worthy performances for Russia in his first World Championships, contributing 2 goals and 2 assists in 9 appearances.

4. Vladislav Gavrikov (Lokomotiv)

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Regular season: 54 games; 7 (3+4) points; +/- rating: +8

Playoffs: 15 games; 5 (1+4) points; +/- rating: +5

Still only 21, Vladislav Gavrikov has nonetheless become indispensable to the Yaroslavl defense, and thanks to his mature and consistent performances has been a key component of the Lokomotiv machine for three seasons. In 2016-17, this graduate of the Yaroslavl hockey academy reached new heights, and only the experienced Staffan Kronwall was given more ice time in the regular season.

He carried his good form into the playoffs and was named as the League’s best defenseman for March. His goal in Game 5 of the series against regular season champion CSKA turned out to be the game-winner, and few will forget his triumphant and highly original goal celebration.

Gavrikov helped to steer Lokomotiv to a bronze medal place in the Gagarin Cup, and was selected for national team duty at the Eurotour and the World Championships in Germany. The youngster repaid the coaches’ faith by scoring in both tournaments.

5. Artyom Zub (SKA)

Regular season: 52 games; 10 (2+8) points; +/- rating: +1

Playoffs: 18 games; 2 (0+2) points; +/- rating: 0

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Using the famous sporting cliché, “meteoric rise,” is fully justified when summing up the story of the season for this 21-year-old from Khabarovsk. In August, he was plying his trade for his home town club, Amur, when he was called up to the national team for the Karjala Cup. Possibly it was during this episode that Zub caught the eye of Russia and SKA boss Oleg Znarok, because on December 5, he enlisted with the Petersburg Army Men, and by February he had become firmly established in the SKA defense. In the playoffs, he took part in all 18 matches and on April 16 in Magnitogorsk his young arms hoisted aloft the Gagarin Cup.

His Team Russia adventures continued, and he was selected for the second stage of the Eurotour and then for the World Championships in Germany.

“Of course, this is all very sudden,” - said Zub, in an interview with KHL.ru before the start of the World Championships. “Moving to SKA in the middle of the season... But the future all depended on me, so I tried hard, worked hard, and gave it everything I’ve got. Of course, this has been the best season of my career. Has it all sunk in? Maybe half of it, to be honest.  I am very happy it has happened.”

Artyom featured in all Russia’s 9 games at the World Championships, and recorded one assist.

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