The biggest coaching news of the summer came from St. Petersburg, where Oleg Znarok was invited to take over from Sergei Zubov as head coach. The appointment sent shockwaves through Russian hockey, with Znarok continuing his role in charge of the national team and combining those duties with the exacting task of bringing glory to the Neva.
But history shows successful precedents for this: aside from the long-standing tradition of CSKA’s head coach also taking charge of the Soviet national team, more recent times saw Vyacheslav Bykov end Russia’s long wait for a World Championship win while also leading CSKA. Bykov then went on to lift the Gagarin Cup at Salavat Yulaev while still in charge of the national team.
Moreover, Znarok showed signs of turning SKA into a ‘base club’ for the national team at the previous World Championship. Seven players on that roster – Shestyorkin, Voynov, Belov, Chudinov, Shirokov, Dadonov and Shipachyov – were SKA men, while Chicago’s Artemy Panarin was part of the Petersburg team that won the Gagarin Cup. Since taking on his new job, Znarok has added Pavel Datsyuk and Sergei Plotnikov to SKA’s squad while attempting to prise another Russian international, Ivan Telegin, away from CSKA. Throw in Viktor Tikhonov, who missed the Worlds but returned from Arizona over the summer, and Ilya Kovalchuk, seemingly rehabilitated after falling out of favor during last year’s playoffs, and there’s a big overlap between SKA’s players and the likely look of the national team.
However, Znarok faces a unique challenge – September’s World Cup in Toronto. The tournament is largely set up for NHLers and relatively few players will travel from Europe. However, Znarok has listed Vadim Shipachyov and Evgeny Dadonov in his preliminary roster, while Finland could take goaltender Mikko Koskinen. And, of course, Znarok himself will be away from club duties for most of the month, leaving Pyotr Vorobyov in charge. The veteran coach, long associated with Lokomotiv Yaroslavl, is now in charge of SKA-Neva, the VHL team in Petersburg, and has ample experience of the KHL.
The summer transfer activity at SKA reinforces the club’s status as the KHL outfit with the greatest NHL experience. With the likes of Kovalchuk, Stanley Cup winner Voynov and former Edmonton D-man Anton Belov already in place, the organization has added plenty more North American experience. Pavel Datsyuk is the stand-out name thanks to his huge experience in Detroit, but Plotnikov and Tikhonov also got a taste of the NHL at Arizona last season. Former Spartak prospect Alexander Khokhlachyov also returns to Russia after a spell with Providence in the AHL.
Another inbound forward, Nikolai Prokhorkin, is another candidate for international action. Still only 22, Prokhorkin burst onto the scene at CSKA in 2013-14, picking up 37 points in 52 regular season games and grabbing a game-winning hat-trick in a local derby against Dynamo. But his form dipped the following year and he was sent down to Buran Voronezh before leaving the Army Men. Last season at Salavat Yulaev he posted 36 points in 55 games – close to his eye-catching CSKA return. Having previously played for Russia in Euro Hockey Tour action, he will be hoping for a chance to get back into contention for international play.
Meanwhile, tellingly, SKA has not yet recruited any new foreign players. Joakim Lindstrom and Joonas Enlund have both moved on, goalie Koskinen remains along with forwards Jarno Koskiranta and Steve Moses.