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European Report: First steps on pro ice

The KHL season has begun, and Eemeli Räsänen is slowly being eased into the pro game.

Aaron Bell/OHL Images

Summer is over, and the KHL has begun regular season play, although the other European leagues are still in training camp.

The Champions Hockey League plays a host of games during this period, and those have featured Pontus Holmberg, but not Rasmus Sandin, as he was always somewhere else. Sandin is now in Laval for the Leafs Rookie Tournament, and we can assume he’ll be in the Leafs/Marlies training camp after. We’re a few weeks away from knowing where he’ll play the season.

This is the first European Report of 2018-2019:

Yegor Korshkov

RW - 22 years old - shoots left - fourth full KHL season

Before we get into Yegor Korshkov’s play in the opening games of the season, let’s review what his team is doing. Lokomotiv is going heavily for a youth movement, revitalizing their lineup. This is the first full year with their new coach, and he’s made some bold choices. So has management.

They had re-signed Max Talbot last spring, and signed David Desharnais in the summer. Both of those players were released right at the end of training camp and were snapped up by Avangard. Lokomotiv then re-signed Brandon Kozun just as pre-season ended in a surprise move. Kozun is usually a right wing, so this is a bit of a block to Korshkov’s ice time.

Lokomotiv took to the ice in their opening game on September 2, and fortune was not smiling on them. They opened the season against Avangard and, of course, Talbot scored first on a pass from Desharnais. Avangard never stopped, and they won the game 4-0.

That pretty much sums up that game. Korshkov at one point was standing on the bench five guys down from Grigory Denisenko (2018, 15th overall pick, Florida Panthers), and they were vigorously debating something. On the power play Korshkov was having fun passing the puck, cleanly, and then watching the receiver stick handle it for half an hour before he tried to shoot. I’d yell at someone too, but I’m not sure that was Denisenko’s fault.

With that debacle over, Lokomotiv handily won their next two games. In the Tuesday game against Sibir, who are not a good team, Lokomotiv iced a roster full of young players, several making their pro debuts. Denisenko and Korshkov had a 22-year-old centre who played 22 KHL games last year. They were okay, not exciting, and they didn’t get a lot of offensive zone time.

Korshkov had one glorious chance at an open net on the power play and whiffed on the shot. He played very little in the third period after they were up by five goals, and I didn’t see that part, so I’m not sure if there was an injury or if the coach just wanted to see the rookies.

Korshkov did not play at all in the Thursday game, no explanation was ever given.

Lokomotiv play today, so that might tell us if this is just an exercise in rotating in the young guys, or an injury. In the KHL, the first ten games of the year are often treated like training camp games, so anything is possible.

Update: Korshkov is not in the lineup today. The game is against a very weak team, so this might be resting a guy who is banged up in favour of some more rookies, or it might be more serious. He’s still not listed as injured.

Eemeli Räsänen

D - 19 years old - shoots right - first year in the KHL

Roster limits are different in the KHL. Teams can and often do dress an extra player who never plays. In the first two games of Jokerit’s season, Eemeli Räsänen was listed as the seventh defender (with a full complement of forwards) and never played. There was consternation in Leafs Nation over this because people just like to worry.

Jokerit is a team that has a dynamic and fast offence (so very, very fast). They transition rapidly and unexpectedly in the neutral zone, and they like a nice long stretch pass to spring their agile forwards. They buzz the net like hornets and make goalies cry. Sound familiar? They tend to very questionable behaviour in the defensive zone, so it’s both goalies left sobbing. They also have blue jerseys, and if their pants weren’t red, I’d forget who I was watching.

This is an interesting dynamic in which to thrust a young defenceman who has never played a game above the junior level.

In the first two games, which Jokerit won, they never really seemed to have the game in hand. They had a (sorry) 4-1 lead in the opener and ended up winning it 6-3. The second game was a 3-1 win.

Game three came on Friday against Admiral, a team that very nearly went bankrupt and solved the problem by selling off all their good players for cash. They are really, really bad.

Lauri Marjamäki, who used to coach the Finnish junior team before taking over Jokerit knows how to handle big, dumb kids, and he put Räsänen out right away against the bad team, and boom! Jokerit scored.

On his next shift, the entire team made defensive mistakes, and Räsänen, backing up fast, could only make like a really big target ready to drop in front of the puck carrier, who passed the puck to the guy bearing down on the left defender, who did ... nothing. Goal against.

Marjamäki clearly understands, as a wise man once said: shit happens. He just kept rolling the new kid out there. He played 11:45 in the easy, but sloppy win, and he had two shots on goal. I saw him pin a guy very effectively to the boards as well.

He is one of only two right-shooting defenders the team has. The other is an okay top four guy, so he’s not going anywhere, but the obvious opening is the third pair spot. Right now, that spot is filled by none other than Viktor Lööv. And he’s really not very good, but he has years of experience, and he might be a better defensive player than Räsänen.

If Räsänen can’t crack the lineup permanently, there is no VHL team attached to Jokerit to send him to. They have a second division Finnish team they can loan him too, but no junior team. Not that he would benefit any from junior. If he does end up playing some lower-level games to get in some minutes, that’s okay. On the other hand, once he has some confidence and experience, he better be able to pressure Lööv and get at least some of the games, or what’s he in it for?

Jokerit’s next game is a road game in Minsk, followed up by a trip to Russia to play SKA and then Vityaz. My guess is Räsänen might get in that first one, but not the other two.

Pontus Holmberg

LW - 19 years old - shoots left - first SHL season

Pontus Holmberg’s SHL team, Växjö, doesn’t begin their regular season until September 20, but he is playing in Champions Hockey League play with the team. While nominally listed on the top line for those games — teams often play their rookies up the lineup when facing easy competition from low-level leagues — he hasn’t had a lot of minutes or impressed during them.

He’s not a bad player at all, and he clearly has the base set of skills to allow him to play the game at a high level, but there is no sparkle of offensive brilliance there. Swedish teams tend to phone in the first round of CHL action, expecting to win easily, so it’s not the best judge of a player. I’ll spend more time on him deeper into the SHL season.

Semyon Kizimov

RW - 18 years old - shoots left - no pro experience, may play junior another year

Lada Togliatti, the VHL team Semyon Kizimov plays for has opened their season with one game played. He is listed as injured.

Nikolai Chebykin

Winger - 21 years old - shoots left - third VHL season

It seems like the VHL site is not quite ready for the season that has just begun. I can’t tell for sure if Nikolai Chebykin played for Toros Neftekamsk or not in their first game.

Vladislav Kara

Winger/C - 20 years old - shoots left - third pro season, first in the KHL

I admit, I had expected Vladislav Kara to start the season in the VHL as well, but he has not. Ak Bars, the defending KHL champion, have put him in every game they’ve played so far. He is playing on the fourth line and it’s clear there is a battle for depth positions open on the team.

Last year, Kara got the 13th forward, dressed but not played treatment, and he had a very few minutes spread over 11 games in the KHL. In the VHL, for his age, he was very impressive.

Ak Bars opened their season with a loss to SKA, but Kara played almost 14 minutes and had an assist in the game. So far, he’s averaged 12 minutes per game, has a shot rate that is very high for a fourth liner, and he looks fairly capable so far.

He’s a good physical player, who uses his modest size intelligently. He’s after the puck, not the joy of hitting. He’s very, very tenacious on the puck in the offensive zone. Not quite Zach Hyman, but then who is? But he’s more of a digger than a graceful playmaker.

The top points man on his team so far is Anton Lander, a guy who couldn’t bridge the AHL to NHL gap with the Oilers. Compared to him and the other top wingers, there is some sparkle of skill missing. But he looks to have a good depth game.

He was used less when the score was close, of course, but the coach didn’t hesitate to rotate the fourth line out some of the time. Kara seems to have already climbed over one of the other of the four fourth liners dressed each game, a guy who is 23, so that’s excellent. If he succeeds, he’s looking at a season of playing with Rob Klinkhammer, which would allow Kara to be the offensive shine on the fourth line for sure, but also to learn from an NHL veteran.

That’s is for the first week. Next week there will be more KHL action, and maybe some clarity on what is going on in the VHL.