The European season is getting closer to meaningful games, with the KHL preseason well underway and some SHL preseason games on the go too.
For newcomers who are confused by all of this alphabet soup, you should read this to understand the structure of the leagues and teams talked about most:
If you want more depth on the KHL, which is going to be the focus this year, this post has you covered, although a few details are out of date now:
A large number of last year’s Leafs European players have moved onto the Marlies, making it the most Swedish team in North America, so we have fewer players to follow this year. There are some new faces — one confirmed new draft pick, one trasfer to Europe and a couple of maybes we don’t know for sure yet where they’ll play.
Yegor Korshkov, who just turned 22, is back in Yaroslavl, playing for Lokomotiv in the KHL with his first full season under the new coach. Korshkov has played a few preseason games so far, although he’s obviously in shape and ready, so the team has been worrying about prospects and new players.
Lokomotiv opens the regular season on September 2 at home.
What we want to see from Korshkov this season is that he progresses in his own game, and plays more minutes that the hybrid second/third line time he played last year. Expectations that he’s going to slot into the top line immediately should be tempered. If his shot rate goes up, that’s ideal.
Eemeli Räsänen, who is only 19, is trying to make the roster of Jokerit in Helsinki. While the team is majority Finnish, they are in the KHL, and they’re a good team.
Jokerit opens the regular season at home on September 3.
Job one is for Räsänen to actually make the team, and then he needs to try to get in the lineup often enough to develop his defensive game.
As of now, the Leafs only player in Sweden is 19-year-old Pontus Holmberg. He plays for Växjö, who are expected to be a good team again this year. Växjö also plays in the Champions Hockey League (CHL), which is a tournament that runs through the year featuring non-KHL European teams.
Växjö starts out in the CHL on August 30 against SC Bern, one of the best teams in the competition. The first round is a group format, and the object is to just graduate out of the group, which they should do. They have four games from August 30 - September 8. This is meaningful for us because last year the CHL streamed all games free on Youtube in HD.
However, Holmberg has been named to the Swedish U20 team for a tournament that runs from August 24 -26, so he might miss some of the start of the CHL games. This version of a WJC tuneup tournament is usually the players who weren’t invited to the World Junior Summer Showcase, but who the coaches want to look at for future potential or as injury replacements.
Holmberg’s regular SHL season begins September 20.
At a recent SHL preseason game, HEOTP contributor Patrik Bexell got a chance to interview Holmberg for us. He didn’t want to speak English this time around, so Patrik translated his comments about the upcoming tournament and his season:
“It feels good to be part of the U20 tournament squad for the end of the month. If I am part of that team you know they have their eyes on you and you have a chance to get into the WJC team in december.
“I will have to play better to get into the team no doubt, but I am somewhere in the mix at least (edited)
“Its a goal for me to make the WJC squad at one point but you will have to perform in your club team before you can achieve that goal
“Its extra exiting to play in front of a passionate crowd up in Örnsköldsvik” [where the U20 tournament will be held]
About the draft:
“I had a feeling I might get drafted, but I had no idea that it would be Toronto. Its a great city and just like with Västerås and Växjö there is pressure on the team to do well and the crowd is interested, passionate and knowledgeable
“I am a bit sad that I could not participate in [Leafs development] camp more, I was there and did some things but I was not part of the on ice activities as I had a finger injury
“This season focus will be on SHL; no more camps, the season starts early here”
Holmberg’s coach, Sam Hallam, discussed his strengths and weaknesses as well, and he mentioned that Holmberg is a good all-around player, who skates well and can find the open ice, but he needs to work on his confidence in his abilities, and believe in himself and be more competitive. Hallam expects Holmberg, who played only 2 games in the SHL last year, to be part of the starting 12 forwards for this season.
Tack to Patrik for getting this for us at the recent Växjö preseason game.
Edited to add:
He’s in there somewhere and is listed as the 4LW on the roster at present.
One interesting thing is Växjö’s new 1RW, Austin Ortega, an undrafted American who was good in the NCAA, not good enough for the AHL, but way too good for the ECHL. He may succeed in the SHL just due to a different style of play, but it indicates a couple of other things. One is that the SHL is suffering from a talent drain off the top, and also that the skills gap between even a very good SHL team and the KHL median might be growing.
One of the places Swedish home-grown talent is going is the KHL, not just to the NHL and AHL in increasing numbers. But the movement of North Americans to Europe is also growing. An interesting side effect is that AHL salaries are growing to compete, leaving the $70,000 AHL money an ELC really out of line with the market and an impediment to getting talent. Something we’ll likely write about during the next CBA negotiations.
Semyon Kizimov, who was just drafted and doesn’t turn 19 until next January, plays for Lada Togliatti. At the time of his draft, Lada had not been officially contracted out of the KHL, but now they have been, and they are a VHL team. The KHL has a plan in place to remove unsuccessful teams from the league, and they often become part of the VHL. It’s not formal relegation, but it almost mimics that system.
Even more interesting, Lada have become the VHL affiliate of Lokomotiv. Therefore, if Kizimov can improve enough to get a look from a KHL team, it will likely be Korshkov’s club that does the looking.
The VHL season begins in early September.
Nikolai Chebykin has moved teams again, and he has a chance again to crack a KHL roster with Salavat Yulaev Ufa. He is more likely to play for their VHL team Toros Neftekamsk, however.
He had an excellent year last year in the VHL, which seems to be his level. He might find a spot as a depth player in the KHL, but his real strengths show more on a top line in the VHL. He’s only 21, though, so a breakthrough is not impossible.
Vladislav Kara is back for another season with Ak Bars, and at 20, he’ll likely play again in the VHL, he might see some KHL time. Of these three Russian prospects, he’s the most likely to move up a level, and he looked very good in the VHL at a younger age than Chebykin on a team that was not nearly as good.
There are a few players who might play in Europe, but we don’t know for sure yet. First, and most important is Rasmus Sandin. If he plays for Rögle in the SHL, that ranks him as the top Euro prospect and the one to watch. I’m betting no on that right now, since Rögle made an offer recently to a good veteran defender, which would push Sandin right out of the lineup.
Another possibility is Jesper Lindgren, who while he has an ELC with the Leafs like Sandin, might be loaned over to a Swedish or Finnish club just to deal with the excess of defenders on the Marlies. It seems unlikely, since that ELC was not needed to maintain rights, but the defender overflow on the Marlies has to go somewhere.
Filip Kral is another potential European player. He was on loan last season to a team in the WHL, but he might want to return to the Czech leagues.
Technically, because of draft rights, Vladimir Bobylyov is still on the Leafs radar, but he played in only 32 games last year for three teams and is without a contract at present. I’m ready to class him with Fabrice Herzog as too faint a hope to pay attention to.
Another question mark is Martins Dzierkals who is not yet under contract to the Marlies for this season as far as we know. It seems very unlikely he’s going to be offered an NHL deal by next summer when his rights expire, and he may play for Dinamo Riga in the KHL this season. This is a persistent rumour that has no teeth in it so far.
The European Report will return in regular weekly rotation in early September, and we’ll update you as soon as we know exactly who is playing where.