A season that promised much ended in disappointment for the Motormen. After topping the Eastern Conference table in 2019, the team dropped to fourth. Then the playoffs offered no redemption, with Avto defeated by Sibir before the pandemic brought an end to all the action. For a team eager to turn itself into a serious contender for top honors, this was a frustrating step back.
For two seasons, Nigel Dawes was the fulcrum of the Avtomobilist offense. The Canadian-born, Kazakh international forward is the most potent import in KHL history and he chipped in 119 points in two regular season in Yekaterinburg, plus six more in post season action. However, ex-Barys man couldn’t agree a contract extension and is off to Ak Bars; at the age of 35 a move to Kazan could represent his best chance of winning some hardware to crown a great KHL career.
There are also big changes among the staff, with head coach Andrei Martemyanov and his team departing after two seasons behind the bench. He paid the price for that first-round exit back in the spring.
The task of replacing Dawes falls to Alexei Makeyev, arriving from Vityaz where he was among the leader scorers with 37 (13+24) points. Fellow forward Stanislav Bocharov, ex-Torpedo, is also Urals bound, while two home-grown talents, Alexander Protopovich and Nikita Setdikov are back at the club after short stints at Dinamo Riga.
On defense it’s a similar story, with solid acquisitions in the shape of Salavat Yulaev’s Zakhar Arzamastsev and much-travelled Canadian Chay Genoway. Alexander Shchemerov, a young defenseman who grew up in the Avto system before going to Finland for two years of ‘finishing school’ with the Lahti Pelicans, is back at his home club. The 23-year-old is looking to break into the KHL on the back of his time in the Liiga.
The arrival of Bill Peters in Yekaterinburg is one of the big stories of the summer. The 55-year-old Canadian brings a wealth of NHL experience from Calgary, Carolina and, as an assistant, Detroit. But he also brings some heavy baggage, leaving the Flames under a cloud last season amid allegations of racial abuse towards one of his players 10 years earlier. The man himself insists that he has learned from that and is looking for a shot at redemption, judged by results on the ice. And he also has happy memories of Russia; in 2016 he was head coach of Team Canada’s World Champions in Moscow. However, Canadian coaches have mixed results in Russia: for every Bob Hartley, there’s a Craig MacTavish, dismissed by Lokomotiv after a handful of games last season. Can Peters successfully overcome the hockey culture shock?
Confirming the return of the ageless Pavel Datsyuk garnered plenty of headlines but, at the age of 42, the Magic Man’s value to his hometown team lies as much in the locker room as on the ice. The man likely to play the biggest role in determining whether Avtomobilist can hit top gear could well be goalie Jakub Kovar. The Czech international has been at the club for years and consistently puts up big numbers. More tellingly, when he’s unavailable, Avto’s results tend to flatline. If the team is to match the beasts of the Eastern Conference, Kovar will play a key role.
The decision to part with Martemyanov made the club’s ambitions clear. Avtomobilist is no longer content to be an also-ran in the Eastern Conference and the management expect to see this team go deep into the playoffs. Recent seasons brought big spending, and it’s time for some significant return on that investment. However, there’s a question mark over how quickly Peters can settle into his new role — a challenge intensified by the disrupted pre-season caused by the pandemic restrictions.