The new KHL season starts Tuesday with Gagarin Cup champion Dynamo Moscow playing runner-up Avangard Omsk for the Lokomotiv Cup - the trophy’s name a reminder of the tragic event that defined last season and overshadowed all the on-ice action.
The entire Lokomotiv Yaroslavl roster was among 44 people killed in a plane crash as the team traveled to its first game of last season, and every KHL team wore memorial patches for the remaining matches.
Now a revived Lokomotiv is ready to re-enter the league with a roster blending local youth talent with experienced faces from abroad, including ex-Carolina Hurricanes assistant coach Tom Rowe, and faces its first test away to Sibir Novosibirsk on Wednesday.
The new season also sees the KHL move closer to league president Alexander Medvedev’s dream of a league spanning the whole of Europe and fighting the NHL for global dominance.
The league is still Russia-based but now spans seven countries as the Czech Republic and Ukraine join the KHL’s sphere of influence.
There are two new teams, with the storied Donbass Donetsk in Ukraine and Slovakia’s Slovan Bratislava joining, while Lev has been relocated to the Czech capital Prague from its former home in the Slovakian city of Poprad.
On the ice, much of the attention will be on CSKA Moscow. The 32-time Soviet champion team has won nothing since the Soviet Union collapsed, but spent the summer assembling a fearsome roster in a spending spree fuelled by Russian state oil producer Rosneft.
Three-time KHL MVP Alexander Radulov, formerly of the Nashville Predators, is the most glamorous signing, on a deal reportedly worth more than $9 million a year. Other big-name acquisitions include forward Vladimir Zharkov from the New Jersey Devils and Radulov’s brother Igor, who played 43 games for the Chicago Blackhawks.
Champion team Dynamo spent much of the summer in talks with last season’s playoff star Mikhail Anisin over a permanent move. Anisin racked up 19 points in 21 playoff games for Dynamo last season, but his rights were still held by Vityaz Chekhov. After Dynamo bought the rights, Anisin then refused to train with the team until he received a new contract.
As for Avangard, the Siberian team’s offensive power took a blow when ex-KHL top goalscorer Roman Cervenka left for the NHL’s Calgary Flames, leaving his replacement, Slovakian forward Tomas Zaborsky, with a big gap to fill.
The unknown quantity this season will be the possibility of an NHL lockout, set to be decided September 15, when the current collective contract expires.
The fate of the some of hockey’s biggest stars hangs in the balance, and many could head for the KHL, as was the case with the Russian Super League when the 2004-05 NHL season was cancelled. Metallurg Magnitogorsk have the rights to Evgeni Malkin, while this year’s No. 1 draft pick Nail Yakupov looks set to return to his old team Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk.
Alex Ovechkin’s future is less certain - the new president of his old team Dynamo has signaled that he considers the Washington Capitals star a waste of money, prompting speculation CSKA may snap him up, while Vityaz has also shown interest.